TOC Focus Week: Heart of hearing

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

Deborah Choo –

A friar with the Church of the St Mary of the Angels in Singapore, Rowland Yeo answered God’s calling at the age of 21. As a man of the cloth, he was bounded by three evangelical vows: poverty, chastity and obedience.

An extremely intuitive person, Rowland hears – except that he physiologically cannot. He is deaf.

When he was 22, Rowland participated in the Asian Chess Tournament in Hong Kong and was the 10th national player. However, he was told before the competition that because he is deaf, he would be replaced.

Yet as the deaf struggle to find their place in society here, some demoralized after years of facing discrimination, Rowland faces these with a smile.

Rowland is the second of five sons and is the only deaf child in the family. Communication was tough as none of his family members knew sign language. He had to often gesture or write what he wanted to say on a piece of paper. Eventually he learnt to lip read.

Raised in a devout Buddhist family, he met a priest, Father Tom, when he was 20. That marked the beginning of his new life. With the help of the auspices of the House of Studies for Deaf Priests, he was sponsored by Father Coughlin to further his studies in Gallaudet University in Washington DC in 1986

Upon graduation with a B.A. in Philosophy, Rowland then spent two years in Peru, South America, as a lay missionary helping poor and deaf children.

On his return to Singapore thereafter, he applied to three different Orders and prayed for God’s direction; Rowland finally found his calling to be with the Franciscan Friars of the Catholic Church.

In 1997, Rowland began his journey with the Franciscans as a postulant. He was solemnly professed in the Church of St Mary of Angels in September 2003.

The next year, he was appointed to serve in the Columbarium Ministry in the church. His duties included opening and closing the services and helping out in masses, amongst other administrative jobs. His comforting and peaceful presence lends consolation to those who grief for their loved ones’ passing.

As he led me through the church, many stopped to ask him questions or simply nodded in respect. Children called out to greet him even though they knew he was deaf.

Rowland’s strong desire to contribute to society perhaps surpasses many out there. Every year, when it nears the International Day of the Deaf which falls on 25 September, he will plan something for fund raising. This year, he and his small team made a handmade doll which is a replica of Rowland himself and sells it at a nominal price. He hopes to raise funds for a new office as well as for the elderly who live alone in HDB flats.

During his schooling years, Rowland felt that his special school had insufficient teachers who knew sign language. He hopes that the Singapore government would consider setting up a special secondary school for the deaf which requires all students to learn English and sign language. He proposes for this institution to be the school for deaf children seeking secondary education and hopes that the Ministry of Education (MOE) can provide sufficient teachers who are competent in sign language to teach deaf children.

Rowland is now teaching first year friars a sign language course in his church. He created his own material for it, with illustrations for the book hand-drawn by him.

“I like it,” he said when asked about his life as a friar. “St. Francis taught me to be humble, and to love others like you love yourself.”

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