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TOC Focus Week: Chords of a silent melody

This is our fourth article in our Focus Week on people who, despite their disabilities and special needs, have overcome obstacles and challenges they faced.

Deborah Choo -

Lighting flashed like an angry beast across the rumbling sky. The wind blew and thunder roared. While everyone was scampering to rush home and babies wailed from fear of the unknown monstrous sounds they heard, only one little girl remained emotionless.

She was oblivious to the sounds of the thunder, to the crack of the lightning. That was when her mother realized that her little daughter, Ng Bee Hwa, is deaf.

Growing up in a silent world where one cannot hear the invigorating beat of music and mindless, girlish gossips is tough on Bee Hwa. She was born with a hearing impairment. Instead of fixating on what she cannot do, she focuses on what she can.  “I can feel the vibration of loud sounds, see the flash lights shine. I depend on my eyes to help alert me to my surroundings,” the 46- year old says.

Determined to make a difference, she joined the Wataboshi Movement, an international festival that aims to provide a platform for musically talented disabled people to showcase their talent. Now, you must be thinking: deaf and music? Yes, you heard me. The deaf are playing music; the melodies lie in their heart.

In 1991, Bee Hwa and her deaf friend Judy Ho wrote their own song, “Sign it Beautiful”, for a National Concert for the disabled contest. With the help of singer Serene Tan, the song emerged the winner at the inaugural Asia Wataboshi Music Festival held in August that year.

By 1993, at only 29, she became the Vice Chairman of the 2nd Wataboshi Movement. Through her involvement with this project, she also learnt how to play the Japanese drum.

She went on to head the Asian Deaf Association of Singapore (ADAS), an organization founded in 1998 which aims to serve the needs of deaf and hard of hearing community. She served as the president of ADAS for two years. ADAS is now renamed as the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Federation of Singapore (DHHFS).

Bee Hwa met her husband in 2004. He was her colleague then. He is hearing, and so are his three kids. But Bee Hwa said that her stepchildren are very accepting of her and she is teaching them sign language.

Meek and quiet she may look, but when asked about certain issues such as the local deaf community and the discrimination, education, the relevant associations’ efforts in advancing the interests of the deaf, she has plenty to say.

Her goal was and still is to “work hard to build a better understanding of the deaf culture and the sign language so as to educate and make the public aware of what it is like being deaf.” In comparison to Malaysia’s deaf community which now, in her opinion, has much improved accessibilities and rights in their country, she feels that the Singapore government is doing little to help the deaf here. She said it all boiled down to a lack of understanding of the needs of the deaf.

In addition, Bee Hwa emphasizes the need for qualified, professional interpreters, closed captions (CC) on TV programs, emergency alert SMS systems and affordable visual telecommunications in Singapore as seen in the U.S. This is a point made by several of the deaf people we spoke to.

Like many deaf people I came across, she also spoke harshly of the current EXCO committee of the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf) – they are all hearing. Insisting that all top management should be deaf, she said, “Hearing people do not understand exactly what the deaf need or feel.”

Bee Hwa feels that there is too much concentration on education of the deaf here rather than focusing on individual needs. She proposed that “it would be nice for them [hearing people] to give us support and advise us because they are our ears, but not to dominate us.”

She hopes that the local deaf community can work more closely with the World Federation of the Deaf to provide technical, educational and social expertise.

Bee Hwa feels that the common perception that others have of the deaf – that they are incapable of performing other tasks besides hearing – is hurtful and misleading.

“They [employers] do not give us the chance to prove to them that we can do everything except hearing. If they want us to work for them, we can provide what is needed. We can be effective workers for companies too. Don’t focus on my hearing disability. Look instead at my hands, my eyes, my legs,” this ex-YMCA teacher urged.

“People sometimes don’t know they are discriminating through their actions,” she said, adding that discrimination has to be eradicated through a greater understanding of mutual needs and must be taught slowly.

Expressing her desire to continue to learn music, interact with the community and hopefully impact society, this petite lady with a warrior-like spirit has this to say to the deaf in Singapore: “Be empowered and work with people who want to help us.”