We're deaf, not inferior

The hearing-impaired are graduating with degrees and diplomas, but they still face discrimination at work. This undergraduate is trying to change that.

She was just in her second year at university when Ms Ong Jing Yun, along with five friends, came up with the idea of a social enterprise that would hire deaf youths and train them to run their own businesses.

The 24-year-old knows all about having to struggle with prejudice, and about the priceless support from those who see past one's disability. Born deaf, she has fought all her life to prove herself in the mainstream school system.

iDeaf-Connect was registered in October 2010. Ms Ong, who is now in the final year of her degree in information systems management at the Singapore Management University (SMU), said: "We set up this because many deaf people are still discriminated against in Singapore and cannot find (a) job.

"Let's say I have a diploma … but because I'm deaf, they pay me less than someone else even though we have the same paper qualifications. We want to enable the deaf to be employed, and we want to encourage them to become entrepreneurs as well."

While Ms Ong is shining proof of how Singapore's education system today - along with supportive teachers and hearing-aid technology - is enabling hearing-impaired students to fulfil their potential, the hard fact is that, upon graduation, many still find it hard to fit into the workforce.

According to iDeaf-Connect, a 2010 survey of deaf adults here found that 64 per cent were being paid less than their co-workers in the same company and department who did not suffer from a hearing disability. The deaf community's jobless rate was 7 per cent, compared to the national unemployment rate of 2.3 per cent.

That is something the social enterprise hopes to change. Last year, it set up a gift shop, Fish & Loaves at Anglo Chinese School (Barker Road); profits go to paying the 10 part-time deaf employees. It also sources for partners, such as Bakerzin, and holds deaf awareness courses for companies.

Ms Ong was a few months old when her parents noticed she did not respond to their speech. Doctors certified her as deaf. "At first, they were very upset because I was the first child," said Ms Ong, who has three younger siblings with normal hearing.

She began speech therapy when she was two and grew up learning to read lips, instead of relying on sign language (which she only picked up in her teens).

Her dad, a businessman, and mum, a housewife, sent her to Canossian School for the hearing impaired when she was five. But at age eight, she enrolled in a mainstream school at her teachers' urging. "They wanted me to learn to mingle with people with normal hearing. I could talk, so they didn't want me to stop using my voice." 

At St Anthony's Canossian Primary, she was scared to find herself in a class of 30; her previous school had only seven or eight to a class. And she had to endure classmates mocking her about her hearing aid. "They would laugh and whisper in front of you. It is very obvious when people don't like you, you can tell from the way they talk." 

Her only friend was another hearing-impaired girl. "I told my parents, but they said, 'It's okay, it's not your fault being deaf'." 

She was excused from learning Chinese, but it was tough enough trying to keep up in the other subjects - after school ended, as well as on Saturdays, she would attend remedial classes in English and Mathematics. Even during the school holidays, she returned to school thrice a week for lessons. 

On top of that, she had private tuition. "I had to work very hard, revise and revise."

Her diligence paid off as she made it to St Anthony's Canossian Secondary, one of the four mainstream secondary schools that catered to hearing-impaired students. There, she made a firm friend who was fiercely protective of her - like the time an impatient classmate yelled at her to sweep the floor when she was engrossed in homework."My friend scolded, 'How can you shout at her'?" 

Ms Ong's O-Level score qualified her for Ngee Ann Polytechnic. In her previous schools, teachers spoke into a microphone and their words were transmitted to her hearing aid. But at the polytechnic, project meetings and presentations were a whole new challenge. 

"Discussing projects is difficult because everybody is talking. And lip reading is not 100-per-cent accurate: School sounds like shoo, I love you (sounds) like colourful." 

New teams that she had to work with sometimes weren't happy with her presence. Rather than speak more slowly so she could read their lips, "they'd say, 'you don't have to do anything'. Then I would have to tell the teacher."

Ms Ong graduated with a Grade Point Average of 3.42 and was shortlisted for an interview at SMU. Instead of having to face the standard panel of eight interviewers, she asked for, and got, a meeting with just the Dean and a senior professor.

The university has been supportive - for example, it has arranged for a schoolmate to take notes for her. "Sometimes, I bump into my Dean and he is always encouraging me to keep going," she said.
Recently, Ms Ong won the Microsoft Unlimited Potential Scholarship for People With Disabilities to pursue higher education in the field of Information Communication Technologies. This was based on her sterling grades (a term GPA of 3.85) and her work on her social enterprise.

Running iDeaf-Connect, she said, "gives me a lot of joy and good exposure. It's difficult to juggle between school and the social enterprise, but I manage; my team members also assist me." 

She has also been active over the years in church volunteer work abroad, in the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia. 

"There is no point crying over my disability; what I can do is to overcome," she said. "In my life, I have met some good and some bad people … I feel fortunate because my family gives me a lot of support. Many of my deaf friends don't have strong support, and I want to play that role and give back to them." 

Ms Ong, who hopes to work in human resources one day, received her scholarship award at an event organised by the Infocomm Accessibility Centre, Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices and the Enabling Employers Network.