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Deaf children not less deserving, says American teacher

Deborah Choo for The Online Citizen -

“I really think Singapore needs to see what deaf people can do. They’ve got to interact with other people of the world to see what’s possible,” says Susan Elliot, 57, winner of the 2009 Colorado State Teacher of the Year award and one of the top four finalists for the 2009 National Teacher of the Year.

Susan Elliott was here for the Singapore Teachers’ Conference that took place September 6 to 7. Her message: A deaf person can be extraordinary too; a deaf person can be a leader in his field, and can achieve great heights – if given the right opportunities.

And that is essentially what Elliott herself is– extraordinary. She may be deaf, but she has triumphed over adversities armed with only her steely tenacious spirit, her generous nature and an ever-present smile.

Her hearing ability first started to ebb when she was five years old. Her world came crashing down when her deaf friend, a boy by the name of Robert, killed himself at the age of 16. He was her only deaf friend, the only one who understood exactly how she felt – that helplessness in a silent world.

She dropped out of school and shut herself completely away from the world,  directing her anger at Robert for leaving. It was only when a friend reprimanded her that she snapped out of her seclusion. “You’re going to let deafness kill you?! Change it if you’re so mad!” That day marked the turning point in her life.

And so while others celebrated their sweet sixteenth, she celebrated the start of a new beginning. Elliot began to take night classes and completed high school ahead of her peers. She then moved on to do her bachelor’s in audiology, speech therapy and then her masters in deaf education.

Inspired by her father who is also a teacher, she decided to enter the teaching profession. The year she finished her masters in 1977,  the United States of America saw a massive flood of disabled students entering the education system after the 1975 Education of All Handicapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (Public Law 94-142),  was enforced. Despite having countless job offers, she finally decided on one from Denver because the school there was strong in oral language but there were no use of American Sign Language (ASL).

“I wanted to go there and help people understand that sign language is not a bad thing!” said Elliott, adding that her friend Robert would not have felt so alone if  sign language had been recognized then.

Currently teaching English and social studies at Highlands Ranch High School, she strongly believes that “children are the future of the world” and she stressed the need for access to education for children with disabilities.

While she is not new to discrimination, she was “crushed” when the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) retracted its invitation to her to attend the Teachers’ conference after it learnt that she is deaf. (See story here.)

After MOE’s retraction became public, causing an outcry, the MOE apologized and explained that it was a “mistake” which, the ministry said, resulted from a “misunderstanding about the need for interpreters and her professional experience.”

Expressing her thoughts on MOE’s apology to her, Elliott said, “What’s miscommunication in your city is discrimination in mine.” She said that she is shocked that while Singapore is on the global front, discrimination is still prevalent and that the deaf society here is highly oppressed unlike in the States. “In this aspect, Singapore is like still living in the 1970s. It feels like that.”

MOE eventually re-invited her for the conference. The citizens of Colorado were so supportive they even wanted to raise funds to pay for her own interpreter.

Elliot, however, has high praises for both the conference participants and the MOE council involved in the organization of the conference. “I am impressed. They [MOE council] weren’t being patronizing. They were genuinely interested in learning about other countries’ education system. It was an enriching experience overall.”

Speaking of the Singapore culture, Elliott said, “I’ve never seen another culture like Singapore’s in my life. It is so special in every aspect of their life – the way they entertain, they way they prepare food.” She was also particularly impressed by the warmth people have shown her during her stay, and the level of respect students have for teachers in Singapore.

However, she emphasized that there is insufficient recognition and access to education for the deaf children in this part of the world. “MOE has to keep in mind the needs of children with disabilities. They’ve got a brain too and they just need the access to education. They’re not any less deserving than any other children.” She also added that unlike in the States where there are huge investments in all children and many laws to protect them, these are absent here in Singapore.

Elliott added that “the Singapore government needs to understand that only with equal opportunities, equal access to education” and the necessary supporting infrastructure services such as trained interpreters, Video Relay Services and the function CC (closed captions) on TV remotes like they have in the US, would deaf children be able to participate in the competitive working environment.

"For every dollar you invest in a deaf child," says Elliot, "you get $9 back in return in tax pays through a lifetime.”

Communication and forming a strong community for the deaf society are key, says Elliott.  While interest groups wield more power in America than the political parties, it is probably not the case here in Singapore. There are also far fewer interest groups to help the deaf advance their interests. “When you see people who are the same as you, your world suddenly opens up and it does wonders to your self-esteem,” Elliot said. She encourages more of such interest groups to step forth and help the deaf in Singapore.

Comparing America’s and Singapore’s education system, Elliott feels that Singapore is on the right track. While she feels that America is currently too fixated on test scores, she credited the Singapore system for encouraging a holistic education.  She says the focus on keeping students motivated and inculcating in all students the essential skills such as communication as well as character development,  will empower students to think critically; this will not only help students do well in their tests, but also serve them well in the long run.

Elliott teaches both hard-of-hearing students as well as mainstream students. She always uses a bilingual approach in her classes; there is an interpreter present to do ASL while she is speaking and vice versa.

Her message to deaf children in Singapore:Follow your dreams. “There’s nothing happier when you are who you are and you can do what you like.”

Read also: Top teacher shares US best practices in deaf education by New Asia Republic.

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Deborah Choo is a senior writer and staff editor with the United Nations Association of Singapore.

Email: [email protected]

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Headline picture by Deborah. Group picture by Linda Tan.