I picked up James Chua Tuan Sek after his work one Friday evening and we drove to the nearest Starbucks outlet.
To my surprise, he can talk. I first thought, from what I was informed, that he could only listen to what I say - until I learned that the 33-year-old Chua could speak, and learnt to read lips from the age of four years.
His mother was infected with Rubella during her pregnancy, leading to the son being born with his hearing impaired.
Chua’s average hearing frequencies were tested to be at 500Hz, 1,000Hz and 2,000Hz at 90dB, which is considered profoundly deaf. A normal hearing ranges from zero to 20dB in all frequencies.
Gently, he explained his background as I was driving.
Rubella is a contagious, generally mild viral infection that imposes a high risk on a newborn if the mother is infected during her pregnancy. However, these days the disease is preventable with vaccination.
Born in Kelantan, Chua moved to and studied in Singapore from his early childhood. He did his Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications in a local college and finished his Master’s degree in Public Policy after that.
After we got to the Starbucks outlet and ordered our drinks, he took out a pen and piles of blank papers. From then on our communication took place through writing.
There is a book on Malaysian Sign Language or Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM), the sign language that is commonly used by the local hearing-disabled in public in the country, he said, which is published by Universiti Malaya.
Chua is currently a freelance teacher and editor with a local institution.
As a communications graduate, he is often questioned about his choice of the communications course, especially so when educational institutions in Malaysia lack sign language interpreters for hearing-impaired students.
“It is never easy when you have to go through a lot of communications-related assignments,” he said.
“I went out meeting people, conducted interviews face-to-face and read their lips. I did send them transcripts of what I prepared for verification after that, to ensure the stories are correct,” Chua said.
Misconceptions about the hearing-disabled
With no sign language interpreter provided in his first university, he could only depend on the notes he had jotted down.
“My classmates helped me in understanding the syllabus, they guided me patiently. But it was really tough to do all this,” Chua said.
“I had to work extra hard. It is not only because the hearing-impaired can’t hear well, but there are some misconceptions among the public that hearing-disabled people can’t do anything.”
The same goes for his other hearing-disabled friend, Kimberly Ngo Sau Kum, a mother of two, who is married to a person who is also hearing-disabled, whom he got to know during a birthday party among the hearing-disabled.
Ngo was an IT student back then, who took a long time to catch up on the talks given by her lecturers. Thus, she ended up emailing them after class or paid visits to them in their offices to get a clearer picture on the lectures.
There were times when the lecturers would show their impatience, but she just had to get on with her learning.
“Even these days it’s hard for me to find an interpreter who can fully convey my message, especially those with deep meanings. Hearing-impaired persons range differently, according to their educational backgrounds, hence it is not easy to get one who can interpret for all,” Ngo explained.
She got married to her husband in 2005. The couple met during a bowling event.
Initially, both were too shy to get to know each other better, and only had some eye contacts, with shy smiles, during a supper. Later, the young man asked her out and the couple then dated for three years before tying the knot.
Ngo gave birth to a son and a daughter, who are turning eight years old and five years old respectively this year. Both the children have good hearing and are also able to communicate with their parents in sign language.
32,157 persons with impaired hearing
According to the Malaysian Federation of the Deaf, there are currently 32,157 persons with impaired hearing in Malaysia, but less than 100 certified sign language interpreters in the country.
Chua also spoke of an incident when he fell down, backwards, at his home and hit his head. His roommate rushed him to the hospital.
He could not move his body and was barely able to speak when he arrived at the hospital. The doctors and nurses tried to speak to him, but he was too weak for them to hear or to understand him.
And no sign language interpreter was able to be found till more than an hour later, when his hand could move.
It has never been easy for a qualified hearing-impaired person in Malaysia to get a professional job, as most are offered low paid jobs, at salaries of between RM1,200 and RM1,500 a month.
“A hearing-disabled person’s salary usually is 30 to 40 percent lower than the market rate,” Chua said.
The biggest issues for the hearing-impaired in Malaysia, Chua said, are the education system and work opportunities - which are a chicken and egg situation.
“If your education level is not high, you cannot get a certificate. Without a certificate, you can’t get higher pay or upgrade to a better job position,” he added.
“Then you get stuck at a low income level, which won’t help your life.”
Hence, it is also unbearable for the hearing-disabled to pay for an interpreter in every aspect of their life.
The Malaysian Federation of the Deaf had a plan to launch an online service called Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) and Video Relay Services (VRS) some five years ago to overcome the massive shortage of sign language interpreters in the country.
“The project kept on pending because of the lack of budget. After consulting some professionals from Sweden, we realised the project will need a strong broadband service in order to proceed - which our country does not have,” said Wan Zuraidah Abu, a senior sign language interpreter with the federation, who has been in the line for more than 20 years.
If a server outside of Malaysia is used for the service, a yearly subscription fee of 50 euro (RM238) would be charged. The federation is still trying to find an alternative to cut costs, so that the hearing-disabled would able to access the service without obstacles.
“I have for years been anticipating that the project will kick off, and we are all keen for it to be launched,” Wan Zuraidah said.
“We were thinking to raise the resources within the country, and we are also collaborating with Telekom Malaysia.”
Looking at the input and research to be done by Telekom Malaysia, VRI and VRS will still be armchair strategies for now.
Without a further implementation of the VRI and VRS, the hearing-disabled community in Malaysia will continue to face struggles in communication in their daily lives.
CHRIS LAU is a former intern with Malaysiakini.