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March 4, 2004

Enabling the deaf

From: The Star - Malaysia - Mar 4, 2004

AS WOMEN everywhere look forward to International Women's Day (IWD) this Monday, disability activists worldwide are hoping that this year's IWD will also throw focus on the world's disabled women who face double discrimination compared to their male counterparts.

For instance, 26-year-old Jessica Mak Wei e-mailed Wheel Power last week to say that as a woman who was born with profound deafness, it's not easy living in a world that caters mostly to hearing persons.

"It's a never-ending challenge for the deaf individual each day, especially among poorer families in rural areas," points out Jessica who is Programme Coordinator of the YMCA Kuala Lumpur's Pusat Majudiri Y.

"The deaf are simply shunned away from society by their hearing parents who often feel their deaf daughters are doomed without abilities and thus stay stuck in the house and considered extremely lucky if some good and caring men out there decide to marry them and have a family," she adds.

According to her, some of these parents also don't think that education is important for their deaf child, especially daughters, and many end up without jobs.

Jessica strongly believes that this is the reason why many deaf women lack knowledge and basic skills, as well as self-confidence – turning such individuals more dependent on handouts than becoming self-reliant. The inability to communicate and converse in sign language only makes the situation for access to information worse for deaf women.

"And how can hearing persons help when they themselves haven't a clue about what sign language is?" asks Jessica who goes on to emphasise the need for greater appreciation and understanding among the community and elsewhere about sign language as the language of communication of the deaf.

Fortunately, not all deaf women are disempowered. According to Jessica, who completed her Form 5 at the Vocational Secondary School for the Deaf in Shah Alam and later graduated with a Diploma in Multimedia and Graphic Design from Lim Kok Wing Institute College of Creative Technology, Petaling Jaya, there are now more active deaf women.

"Gone are the days when there were no local role models among deaf women," says Jessica.

Jessica herself, whom Wheel Power recognises as a shining example of a deaf woman leader, admits that she couldn't have made it in the hearing world were it not for her hearing parents' support for and confidence in their daughter – even though they were sometimes "scared silly" about her safety. (Jessica who incidentally also has a younger brother who is also deaf, is recipient of the Best Woman of Rotary Leadership Youth Award '98 and co-author of the YMCA sign language book titled S.I.G.N.: The Deaf Way in 1998.

Jessica was in Oregon, the United States, last September, for an international leadership course for women that was put together by the excellent disability awareness and rights group, Mobility International USA (Miusa).

(This writer should know because I was at another top- notch leadership event by the same organisation in Eugene, Oregon, more than 10 years ago.)

The experience exposed and taught Jessica, who was the first deaf woman from Asia Pacific to Miusa's leadership event, to a wide variety of issues and concerns that are related to the disabled and deaf women as a whole that included health, disability rights, empowerment, barrier-free environment, to education.

"I was totally inspired," recalls a beaming Jessica. "I just couldn't wait to come home to Malaysia to share my enlightened experiences with deaf women here."

Jessica is already about to put her rich experiences into practice. Her upcoming projects to help deaf women empower themselves with leadership skills will be conducting workshops entitled Empowering Deaf Women.

The workshops, to be held in mid-June and August of this year is a two-part plan and approach in the central and northern regions of Malaysia to assist the process of deaf women's empowerment in those areas.

The aim is to empower deaf women with skills and knowledge so that, in Jessica's words, "deaf women will pride themselves in not only being deaf women but will have a better understanding of the role and significance they can and do play in a mostly hearing society."

The programme, Empowering Deaf Women, has been sponsored by the Duskin AINOWA Foundation of Japan where Jessica was trained in another leadership programme a year before her Oregon experience.

For further information on how to participate in the programme, kindly contact: Pusat Majudiri Y for the Deaf at 03-22741439 ext 109/013-3902300/Fax: 03-22740559/e-mail:

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