Sound of silence

August 8, 2010

In agony, he limped out to the roadside. The road was filled with cars and motorists. The equatorial sun was boring down on him; its glare blinding. He saw a hint of yellow and took the chance by waving at it. As it draws closer, he sighed of relief. He got into the cab and hurriedly gestured to the driver to go.

The driver turned around and asked, “Where are you going?”.

The man, face wrinkled in pain, silently mouthed the word ‘hospital’ But it was lost on the driver.

“Where do you want to go?”, asked the driver, starting to get a bit confused.

The man, huddled in the back seat with his arms over his belly, groaned and pointed to his abdomen and gestured frantically.

“What? Sorry?”.

Rummaging through his bag, the man’s trembling hands managed to gather his notepad and scribbled the word ‘hospital’. He showed it to the driver.

The driver was illiterate.

The pain took over, and the man crumpled into a foetal position, sweating profusely. The driver picked up that he better send this man to the nearest hospital.

*     *     *

In the emergency room, a young doctor approaches the man. “What seems to be the problem?”.

The man looked up and pointed to his stomach, mouthing the word “pain”. His face was flushed.

The doctor rolled up his sleeves, “Pain? How long has it been? How bad is the pain?”.

The man shook his head sadly amidst his aches. The doctor’s words fell on deaf ears.

The man was my instructor. He is stone deaf.

Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to pursue a course in sign language. The above story was related by my instructor on some of his difficulties he had to encounter due to him being hearing impaired. We have all imagined how challenging everyday life can be when one of our 5 senses are lost, except that there is no absolute way to fully appreciate the weight of its implications unless we are them.

We can only imagine.

My instructor is one of the most optimistic person I have ever came across. He wasn’t born deaf, but lost his hearing due to a childhood infection at the age of 6 months. He described it as having ‘stones for ears’ where no sound passes through at all.

Some may think, deafness can’t be that bad. After all, you just can’t hear.

One just can’t hear, true. But this is something that is easily taken for granted.

People who are deaf from a very young age tend to become secondary mutes, as they are unable to speak due to the inability to hear how a word is vocalised in the first place. Some can be trained via a complex learning program where they mimic lip and tongue movements in an effort to vocalise some words – but often these are not easily accessible as locally qualified trainers are very few. These affects their educational opportunities immensely.

From a medical point of view, the hearing impaired are being indirectly marginalised due to the breakdown in communication. Not many medical personnel are equipped with the background to converse in sign language. Most of the time, a deaf interpreter would be called in and at times they may not be readily available during a crucial situation.

I have encountered a deaf patient whom was newly diagnosed with cancer. I remembered sitting with him for more than an hour writing back and forth on his huge notepad (which he keeps by his bedside to communicate with nursing staff) explaining the diagnosis and the plans for further investigation. Although necessary with the lengthy amount of time spent writing, I find that he is at a disadvantage as certain procedures and plans for him are being delayed due to the patient not being fully informed/discussed with (as many of the staff would rely on the hospital’s deaf interpreter).

The interpreter is only available via bookings and appointments and this is imposes some limitations to the patient’s accessibility to healthcare, as team would have to wait for the interpreter to be present to hold a discussion with the patient on his disease. These may take a couple of days.

*     *     *

“Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content” – Helen Keller (1880-1968) American author, activist, lecturer, and the first deaf-blind person to earned a Bachelor of Arts degree.

*     *     *

I had the opportunity to do some volunteer work for a deaf charity recently and had an eye opening experience on how the deaf are perceived. We set up a booth where we were selling the charity’s merchandise to raise some money and I was paired with a deaf colleague as the in-between person to the patrons.

When I approached the passerby’s, a lot of them assumed I was one of the hearing impaired and hurriedly gestured “no” or smiled uncomfortably while walking away. It wasn’t until I said hello that they raised their brow in surprise. Those whom are more open to being approached are usually those whom have worked with the deaf before. Majority of the rest were observed to be appearing slightly at loss or flustered when approached by the deaf, as they wondered perplexedly on how communication would be taking place.

I am very glad that I took part in that project, as it helped to raise awareness of the deaf community. Working with them has been enjoyable and it grounded me on the fact that underneath it all they’re just like you and me (I know a deaf comedian). Once you overcome the communication aspect, their whole world opens up to you.

*     *     *

My instructor has shared with us his experience on visiting a special home which houses the blind-deaf. His heart went out to them as he saw how they managed their day to day activities.

Every room has an object tied and hung on the doorknob. For example, the kitchen would have a spoon tied to the door while the toilet door would have a toothbrush attached to it. The residents make their way around the place by running their hands along the walls and identify each room by feeling and recognising the distinguishing objects.

They communicate via sign language as well but to for them to ‘listen to you speak’, one must first take their hands and place it on yours before one starts signing. It is then they would slowly feel the movements of the gestures to recognise each sign in order to understand what you are telling them.

The visit left a huge impression on my instructor. It was a humbling experience. What seems to be the simple things in life are the things that we take for granted; once they leave us only do we realise how much they made up our world.

Eye on the world

Beyond the sound of silence there is a world which many of us are blind to.

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