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TOC Focus Week: “Singapore needs a Helen Keller”

Deborah Choo

Indonesian born Geraldine Kong lost her hearing to a high fever as a child because the local doctor there had prescribed her the wrong medicine. She also has a brother who became deaf after a high fever.

“When we were young, we would make up our own signs. Communication wasn’t a problem,” Geraldine spoke of her childhood. She moved to Singapore at a young age and has been living here since.

Her first job was a temporary payroll clerk at a bank. “It was very hard to communicate," she says. "The people were all so arrogant. So I did my own work and went home after finishing. I didn’t really talk much to them.”

After her short stint at the bank, she went on to teach dressmaking and tailoring for 15 years. She was also teaching basic office, service and computer applications skills, job social skills and family education.

A former deaf teacher at the Singapore Association of the Deaf (SADeaf) Vocational School for the Handicapped (now known as Mountbatten Vocational School) for close to 30 years, Geraldine says there is one thing lacking in our education system today: Teachers with true passion.

[Picture, right: Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan, Library of Congress]

“Singapore needs a Helen Keller,” Geraldine stressed.

Helen Adams Keller, the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, was a prolific American author, political activist and lecturer. A well traveled and outspoken lady, Keller was a member of the left-wing Socialist Party of America (SPA) and international union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies). Like Geraldine, Keller lost her sense of sight at hearing when she contracted a fever when she was merely 18 months old.

Throughout her life, she dedicated her life improving the lives of the deaf and the blind notably through her 40 years with the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). She also championed causes such as women’s suffrage, workers’ rights and socialism amongst others. Keller’s success was often attributed to her teacher Anne Sullivan, also known thereafter as “The Miracle Worker”.

Geraldine learnt oral and lip reading at Singapore's School for the Deaf. Learning was an uphill task for her as she learned the words without truly understanding the meaning, she recalls.

Like the different dialects we have in our society, sign languages have ‘dialects’ as well.

Geraldine explains the different sign languages in the different age groups here:

Age groupsSign Language UsedDescription of Sign Language
6- 44 years oldSigned Exact English (SEE)
  • SEE differs little from American Sign Language (ASL )and English
  • SEE: majority of signs to indicate the exact word (object, subject and verb) in question are however similar for both SEE and ASL
TODAY WE HAD MUCH RAIN. (correct English grammar)English
Today we had much rain. (there is a sign for each word in the sentence in the correct order)SEE

Translation of above:

Today rain much (reversed word order almost like Latin)ASL
45-60 years oldPidgin Sign(ed) English (PSE)
  • Viewed by sign linguistics experts as a way to "bridge" the gap between native ASL speakers and native English speakers.
  • It contains a mix of ASL rules and English grammar. Though PSE signs used originate from ASL, it deviates more towards a normal English pattern.
  • Some PSE speakers may not even utilize certain elements of the English language such as the words "the” to speed up communication.
45-90 years oldChinese Sign Language (CSL)
  • Developed in the 14th century
  • Although the first deaf school using CSL was created by the American missionary C.R. Mills and his wife in the year 1887, ASL did not influence CSL at all
  • CSL is mostly conveyed through shapes and motions joined with facial expressions.
  • CSL is fundamentally based on a alphabetic spelling system similar to the Chinese language’s hanyu pinyin system
  • CSL includes a system of blinks used to communicate tones, usually expressed as a change in gaze or a slight head turn which may be hard to discern
  • A fundamental difference between ASL and CSL lies in the fact that English and Chinese language are worlds apart to begin with. (Chinese is a tonal language; the same phonetic pronunciation with a different intonation has a different meaning.)

Geraldine once had an argument with a colleague over sentence structures and how certain words and phrases should be signed. “I feel like I’m stuck here,” she says.

“This is not the case in America. There, everyone speaks uniformed ASL; everyone is equal,” Geraldine says of her experience when she was in Washington D.C, USA, last July to visit Gallaudet University. “If I was young now, I would have preferred to move to America. But I’ve lived here my whole life already and so I feel safer here.”

She added, “I was so impressed with Gallaudet. Even the hearing officers can sign with the deaf. In comparison, the SADeaf hearing officers, especially the higher-ups in the association, cannot sign.

This is when interpreters come in. As American deaf teacher, Susan Elliott, said, “Having certified interpreters is so important because they are the mouthpiece for these children, and they serve as language models.”

(To read more about Susan Elliott, click here and here.)

It is often difficult for the deaf to land jobs in Singapore because of discrimination from employers, and they have a generally lower pay either due to discrimination or lack of skills from low education. Only a small percentage of the deaf in Singapore are degree holders. There is no local university specially catered to the deaf and they seldom have the financial backing to afford travelling overseas to further their studies.

Taking all these into account, the deaf can hardly afford the money to pay for interpreters when they require one. Interpreters’ rate are estimated at SGD$10 per hour.

“I just wish the hearing can learn sign language. They will get to know the deaf better, and with that the deaf will also get more exposure and learn through different experiences,” Geraldine says.

Echoing Susan’s call when she was in Singapore this year, Geraldine also urges the government to look into providing Video Relay Systems (VRS) and TV Closed Captions (CC) such as the ones already existing in USA. She also urges the government to consider giving transport subsidies for the Deaf.