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TOC Focus Week : A special note

This is an introductory article to our focus week on people (including children) with special needs. In the next one week, we will feature their stories, written by Deborah Choo and Jonathan Koh. Here’s Deborah’s personal reflection on her experience in meeting her interviewees.

Deborah Choo

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart.” ~ Helen Adams Keller

Meeting Susan Elliott [left] changed my life.

No, she did not give me any material benefits – if that’s what you’re wondering. She gave me something more valuable than that, something priceless, something I know I will remember for the rest of my life.

She showed me that nothing is impossible.

The moment Andrew Loh (my TOC editor) called me up, I knew I had to reschedule my other plans so I could meet this phenomenal lady.

Before meeting Susan, I’ve only heard of her in the news - that the Ministry of Education (MOE) had initially rejected her application to participate in the Singapore Teachers’ Conference in September because she is deaf. Of course MOE re-invited her in the end after a public outcry that proved too overwhelming. (See here) Needless to say, I’ve already familiarized myself with every detail about her life I could.

Yet, the moment I saw her from afar, I knew there was a difference in her that sets her apart from others.  Susan walked with purpose, with definite confidence and always had a sincere smile.  When she speaks to you, you listen.

One of the things she said during the interview that stuck with me was: “Singapore needs to see what deaf people can do.” Then I suddenly recalled what Zheng Xi once said, “We will help where we can.” Simple as it is, I remember this because his desire to help was sincere. He probably doesn’t know how much he impacts the people around him, or me for that matter, but he always did. But his is another story to tell perhaps another time.

So I proposed a feature week to Andrew. With Andrew’s continual support, I then linked up with a friend, U-Wen, President of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Federation of Singapore (DHHFS), who connected me with my interviewees.

Their stories is the focus in this special feature on TOC.

Before I met Susan, I was feeling a little intimidated. I have never had to interview someone whom I wasn’t sure of how to communicate with. I never told Susan this. Yet that day, Susan said this to me, “When someone cannot communicate with the other, it’s natural to feel intimidated. But when you begin to understand each other’s needs, the communication barrier vanishes.”

That is true of Singapore society. Part of the reason why the interests of the deaf community is advancing so slowly here as compared to other countries is because the larger population in general either do not understand the needs of the deaf or simply do not take an interest in them.

Before I knew Susan, she was to me a woman who overcame all odds to achieve greatness, one who never allowed her disability to bring her down. She was the 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. She is still all those, but above all she is a treasured friend, just like many of them I came to meet.

Other than those I’ve interviewed, I met this interesting friend. His name is Allan Bernier. Raised in a poor family in Arizona, he has been working since the age of 15. September 11 – the terrorist attacks in the United States - gave him a rude awakening. So he quit his job and began to travel. When I met him, he was on his Asia tour in Singapore. I guess he is now happily touring Manila.  What he has, that’s called courage; courage to leave his job behind, courage to pursue his dream of seeing the world, courage to step out of his comfort zone and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’

Sometimes, the lesser people have, the more they appreciate the little things around them. One thing common amongst all I’ve interviewed is that they remain surprisingly upbeat and optimistic. All of them are true fighters who won’t quit. They choose to focus on what they have rather than what they do not have.

These people choose to truly live.

*Author’s special note:

I would like to thank all of my treasured friends:

Andrew – For being a friend I always know I can count on, and an editor who is always teaching and guiding me. My memories working with you made my experience with TOC one that will always be close to my heart.

Zheng Xi – For being an inspirational leader, a patient teacher and an amazing friend who is one of the people I know who works as hard as he plays, or maybe even more!

Joshua Chiang – For the patience to give me tips on how to improve my writing.

Susan – You’re a truly an inspiration and you’re like a sister to me. You’re always so happy! I love that about you!

U-Wen – Your efficiency always amazes me and it still does. I believe you can bring forward the change you are always hoping for! Keep it up!

Ken – To the awesomely talented artist who always seem to have a taste for adventure, enjoy California!

Hairaini, Geraldine and Bee Hwa – Your smile brightens up my day! I sincerely wish you all the best for the days to come.

Rowland – You’re a person with a special gift. There’s an underlying sense of peace around you. I hope you’ll always be this happy in God’s house.

Allan - To my dear friend Allan, I will always remember our interesting chat about politics and culture around the world. Keep in touch as you throttle around the globe!

Shreejan – My beloved personal friend who absolutely loves driving me insane yet at the same time keeps me sane enough to keep writing, who never fails to continually surprise me and who believed in me before I did in myself. J

*Special thanks to the interpreters present at a few of the interview sessions:

Audrey Tay (Geraldine and Ken’s interview),

Derrick from Church of St Mary of the Angels (Rowland’s interview) and

Bee Hwa’s personal friend and interpreter