THE Sarawak Society for the Deaf (SSD) was established in the 1980s and its membership now stands at over 300 people, comprising schoolchildren, young and working adults.
They usually gather for certain occasions at the organisation’s premises at Lot 1862, Lorong Laksamana 8, off Jalan Laksamana Cheng Ho in Kuching.
New Sarawak Tribune met SSD chairman Albert Wong Tuong Chui to find out more about the organisation, its goals, and the issues faced by the deaf community and his hopes for the future.
The Sarawak Society for the Deaf
The organisation not only helps connect the deaf with people with normal hearing but it also plays a role in assisting the deaf with their daily lives.
“We also promote equal access and opportunities to all areas of life within the community for the deaf with trust, respect, integrity and transparency.
“Apart from that, we at SSD have goals to create awareness especially and particularly for the public, normal hearing people, about the deaf and the culture that we live in,” he said.
Wong mentioned that there are many programmes for the deaf, especially in education. For example, the Early Intervention Programme for young deaf children.
“Besides that, we also help them to enhance their talent and enable them to progress with confidence towards achieving their full potential.
“We also provide support to assist the deaf and their family in learning new skills, increase their self-development and be self-reliant in life,” he added.
The society itself is a welfare platform for the deaf and their family through trainings, employment and entrepreneurship programmes.
At the same time, Wong said it was also a platform to spread awareness among the public about the deaf and their culture as well as communicating through the use of the Malaysian Sign Language or Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM).
From the perspective of the Deaf
It is important to remember that each deaf person has different capabilities of doing what they can with their hearing aid.
For a deaf person, it takes a lot of training to speak with people. That is where BIM comes in.
The Persons with Disabilities Act, 2008 (Akta OKU 2008) states that BIM is the official language for the deaf community in Malaysia.
Each country has its own sign language along with their own grammar, which is why it is important to use correct terms, for example, BIM when we talk about it. Also, it is important to raise correct awareness in mainstream society.
“Of course, it is a bit challenging to get used to the term BIM, after the wake of the importance of using correct terms in 2019, which is why it takes time to learn to get accustomed.
“As it is our language, we also need to come out to promote the correct term for the sake of the deaf community’s future.
“Every day there are always new sords or gestures. The term “sord” has been introduced to the deaf community to combat the confusion between “sign” and “sign language” as well as to strengthen deaf people’s understanding about BIM.
“They need to practice to sign the sords so that it will be rooted into BIM. It will help hearing people to acquire BIM in a proper manner,” said Wong.
“Surely, communicating with hearing can be difficult because not everyone knows how to sign and they do not understand, which we know that.”
He also emphasised that deaf people can read Malay or English at a certain level.
Some of them are older and they did not receive proper education in earlier years. So it is challenging for them.
Besides that, Wong also noted that BIM has its own grammar and structure, which is different from Malay, English and other spoken languages.
Hence, many people often misunderstand that BIM is a broken language as they expect that the deaf community will communicate in BIM according to Malay or English grammar.
Like sign languages in all countries, BIM is a true language and not a mirror language of Malay or English.
Many sign linguistic studies suggested to have their national sign language like BIM, particularly for Malaysian education, used in special needs school particularly by deaf students so that they can be well-educated in classes.
Wong, who is also a teacher at a special needs school in Kuching, expressed a bit of frustration as his students are often incapable of switching as well as telling differences between BIM and Manual Coded Malay (KTBM).
“KTBM is meant to help deaf students understand writing Malay in schools, not for them to use KTBM as main communication on a daily basis.
“However, KTBM has been misused in teaching other school subjects, which only further impede deaf students’ learning and understanding.
“To clarify, both KTBM and BIM share sords, however, in different structures. BIM is a visual language, which will be clearer than the use of KTBM when information is being conveyed from one person to another.
“Being said that, BIM has higher capacities and effectiveness, rather than KTBM, in sharing information.”
Unlike KTBM, BIM involves the use of body and gestures to describe things that the deaf are trying to say. For example, how do we sign ‘to use’ or describe a hand sanitiser? The sord will be clearly showing that it is a hand sanitiser.
Lorraine Mitchell Jores, SSD communication officer who interpreted for the interview, pointed at a hand sanitiser bottle, does a pouring action on her palm and scrubbing action with her hands, to sign, “use hand sanitiser” or to describe a hand sanitiser.
“Again, for deaf children, it is hard for them to adapt to foreign sign languages or coded spoken language (for example, KTBM), when no deaf adults understand them.
“That is why we want to focus on creating an awareness for the public about BIM. It is important to enable the deaf children to communicate with deaf adults without struggling.
“It will also help deaf children to acquire and become fluent in BIM. Otherwise, we will only create a huge gap in communication between deaf children and deaf adults.
“In addition, we also want the government to emphasise the compulsory use of BIM in schools as it is much easier for students to understand, and most deaf community use BIM in daily conversation,” Wong added.
Creating public awareness to change perception
Through many interactions with the deaf community, one might be surprised by their culture, their ways of life and that they are capable of doing extraordinary things.
Such examples like playing musical instruments, performing cultural dances, thriving in businesses, being a teacher like Wong himself, and many others.
Take German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven, who experienced hearing loss and became deaf, he was still able to compose music and his music is still played by musicians today.
“Countries like the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea have created public awareness about the deaf and their national sign language, and their people know it and accepted this.
“For Sarawak, we try our very best to come up with public awareness programmes. We want the public to know about us, our community and our culture.
“It would be great if the government can help us with this so that we can make an impact and are able to reach out to people.”
SSD has BIM courses for normal hearing people to learn BIM. Wong said, through this, they could experience the deaf culture through personal interactions.
He also said that they needed Sarawakian BIM interpreters or volunteers so that when there are events or programmes involving the deaf, they can help interpret for deaf participants.
“We need about 50 interpreters, making it easier for us to reach out to them and assist us to interpret.
“We usually call interpreters from the Peninsular, but if they are from Sarawak, it’s better because they are close. The more interpreters, the better it is for us,” said Wong.
He expressed hope that the goal to create public awareness about the deaf community and BIM could enlighten normal hearing people.
In addition, he also hoped that SSD would continue to become an organisation that connects the deaf community and normal hearing people, and do everything for the betterment of the deaf community.