This is our third article in our Focus Week on people who, despite their disabilities and special needs, have overcome obstacles and challenges they faced.
Deborah Choo -
That was what Hairiani Ali said when her friend asked her if she was ever affected by how others see her, or if she ever felt inferior. This is how Hairaini has lived through 40 years of silence.
Some do not remember how or why they are deaf. Others contracted illnesseswhen they are toddlers. For Hairaini, it’s German measles that robbed her of her hearing ability while she was in her mother’s womb.
German measles, otherwise known as rubella, is a respiratory disease caused by a virus. This disease usually starts with a rash and can be spread via contact with an infected person through coughing or sneezing. If a pregnant woman contracted this virus, there are five possible birth defects that may affect the fetus: (1) eafness, (2) cataracts, (3) congenital heart defects, (4) mental retardation and (5) organ damage (specifically the liver and spleen). The fetus has a 20 per cent risk of being born with these defects if the pregnant mother is infected early in her pregnancy.
Imagine a world where you are just beginning to roll on your back and your parents are overjoyed, but you can only see them smile and not hear their hearty laughter. Imagine a time when you noticed the people around you are upset but you are unclear why because you cannot hear. Imagine a state where you want to find someone to talk to when you are down, but no one can understand what you are saying or desperately gesturing about.
That is the world Hairaini was born into.
That is the world of the deaf.
Hairaini is the eldest in the family with two brothers and two sisters. She is the only with hearing disability in her family. Since young, her parents were very protective of her, sometimes overprotective she feels. Hairaini was often called “pekak”, which is an extremely offensive word in Malay. While “pekak” is the official Malay word for “deaf”, it also refers to that person as stupid or an idiot.
Her parents had a hard time accepting that their firstborn is deaf, perhaps more so than Hairaini herself. “All I know is there’s happiness and unhappiness in life,” Hairaini said.
As she correctly pointed out, there are always the ups and the downs in life. Some people like Hairaini meet more obstacles than others, yet with every trial, and every hurtful remark, this fighter emerged stronger.
Her life was not smooth sailing, even as a child. She failed her subjects in primary school and had to be transferred to another one. She revealed that it was a tough time and often a “culture shock” for students who went from a deaf school to mainstream ones as there were no sign teachers at these. “We could not get used to it and as a result we lost motivation studying,” Hairaini said.
Because of problems communicating, Hairaini had few friends.. She normally communicates at home verbally as her parents disapproved of her using sign language. With colleagues, she writes on paper.
Even when she married her Pakistani husband, many questioned his judgment in taking a deaf woman as his spouse. Nonetheless, she is now happily married and inherited a stepson. More recently, she entered into a home stay venture with her husband.
Securing employment has always been a challenge for the deaf. Hairaini had been working in a firm as a Customer Service officer who dealt mainly with emails and faxes. However, since her company decided to restructure the firm, doing away with such officers, she was told to leave. She then sought help from an outplacement consultancy. “The lady [consultant] said she had never heard of a deaf person working in such a post before and was surprised,” Hairaini claimed.
What kept her going all these years is her personal philosophy, which she summed up as: “Show your inner courage. Show your worth.”
Another inspiration was her work. “Many colleagues were shocked or unprepared about how to work with me. It took some time before they trusted me and worked well under different bosses,” she recalled her days when she was working as an Export Documentation Coordinator.
Hairaini also urges the government to look into providing English subtitles for television, more informative signs, and emergency SMS services. “There was one time I was waiting for the MRT to come. There was an announcement but no one told me what was going on. All I could do was to follow the people,” she says.She also pointed out a lack of research on the deaf here in Singapore and sincerely hopes that the relevant associations would do so. As for the deaf community itself, Hairaini believes that there are insufficient leaders within the community and urges more people to be proactive and take on leadership roles to advance the needs of the deaf.