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June 6, 2005

Getting the message across

From: Malaysia Star - Petaling Jaya,Malaysia - Jun 6, 2005


IF you take a walk through the Batu Feringghi night flea market, you'll come across a stall selling small batik art pieces. It's just one of the many stalls selling quaint, pretty, pirated or just amusing items to the hordes of tourists who find it a haven, except for one point.

On closer look, you'll find a little handwritten sign placed upon the art pieces. It reads: Hearing impaired.

Though such scenes are common enough in developed countries where the disabled are treated as normal people with the right to a dignified life, they are somewhat more rare in Malaysia where people are uneasy and do not know how to respond to those with any form of disability.

Federation School for the Deaf (FSD) trustee and former principal Datuk Saleena Yahaya Isa laments that the deaf are lumped together with all the other disabilities.

"When I first took over the helm at FSD, the students were sitting there weaving baskets! Within a week, I had those things burnt.

"Their only handicap is hearing loss and lack of language, which makes it hard for them to communicate," said Saleena, 73, proud of the two deaf art sellers at Batu Feringghi who had been her students.

She said the problem was further compounded because preschool education for deaf children in the country is still backward.

"Can you imagine entering primary school at age seven with no language at all?" she asked.

Citing good vocational training as an important factor for producing students with marketable value, Saleena said it was not just about opening doors for the deaf to find employment, but rather preparing them with proper skills.

"I do not believe in begging for jobs and it cut deep into me when a minister appealed to people to give jobs to the disabled.

"People currently see employing the deaf as a charitable act," she said with some distaste. "But give the deaf a chance to prove they are not only employable but skilled for employment. Why must they end up sweeping the floor?"

She told of former students who held positions with high pay. "One student started out as a draftsman at Penang Development Corporation (PDC) and he is now an officer earning RM4,500 a month. There are others who are chefs in hotels in Batu Feringghi. They are both wanted and welcomed.

"Vocational training for the deaf is now outdated. We must understand the demands of the modern world because the deaf do not need lifelong charity."

Saleena told of how the Total Communication (TC) method came to be used in Malaysia with the support of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was the Education Minister then.

"Initially, we were not allowed to use hand signals because that was how we were trained by the British," she said.

'Oralism', the only method then in use, involved only speech and lip-reading. Professor Frances Parsons brought the TC method to Malaysia in 1976 and spent two months at FSD, now known as the School for Special Education, teaching the system to teachers there.

Dr Mahathir approved the usage of the new methodology for all schools in 1978 after Parsons visited him to explain what it was about.

TC involves four components – speech, lip-reading, hand signs and finger spelling. But Saleena argues that the method, used to help children learn proper sentence construction, is now diluted.

"I'd like to remind those who have undertaken to promote hand signs to keep to the principles of TC. Though deaf students can't hear the exact words, it is helpful for them to hear the sound and connect that with the shape of the mouth and the word meant.

"The Education Department should only select teachers who are interested in teaching the disabled because the success of the children depends on them."

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