Missing the Smile Behind the Masks

Missing the Smile Behind the Masks


Mask wearing and safe distancing is the new norm against COVID-19. Deaf Individuals who depend on lip-reading are presented with an additional challenge in their daily lives. Our current media and information channels are also unable to effectively provide first-hand information to the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community. Tan Wei Ling, born deaf, has the support of her family and colleagues. She appreciates the warm smile not hidden by the masks.

I asked on an online chat, “Hello! Do you prefer typing or speaking?”

Tan Wei Ling smiled and waved from the screen. She replied in Sign Language, “Either is fine!”

Tan Wei Ling, 30 years old, is born deaf. She wears hearing aids to enable her to hear sounds. Wei Ling cheerfully narrated, “In the beginning, my parents thought that I was stubborn and disobedient. But even after my mother found that I had hearing loss, when I was two, she still thought I was a stubborn daughter.”

Hearing loss did not prevent Wei Ling from leading an active life. She enjoys interacting with people from all walks of life and is determined to constantly challenge herself. Once during an overseas community involvement programme in Sri Lanka, she performed song-signing on stage. She said, “Being born deaf is not a label that I am ‘unable to do anything’. Just like the waves of an ocean, there are ups and downs in our lives that help us to grow. I may be Deaf but I am not disabled; as long as I am willing, I can still contribute to society.”

Tan Wei Ling works as a Lifeskills Coach. During the Circuit Breaker, she continued teaching her trainees with intellectual disability using online video conferencing software. However, online learning is different from classroom learning. It was difficult to supervise the trainees’ work or progress and she could only do so when they return to the centre. “During this period, work meetings have transited online. When the network is unstable, speech becomes unclear. But if o­ther party could speak slower, I can lip-read to better figure what they are saying.

𝐔𝐧𝐚𝐛𝐥𝐞 𝐭𝐨 𝐥𝐢𝐩-𝐫𝐞𝐚𝐝 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 𝐦𝐚𝐬𝐤𝐬

Though the hearing aid helps to pick up sounds, Wei Ling communicates with others through observing their mouth movement and facial expression, a practice she adopted from young. As masks are now mandatory, she is unable to read lips which have led to communication breakdowns. Nowadays, she would type down her food order and show it to the stall owner when ordering food. As she is not well-versed in Chinese, she would point on the menu or pictures when ordering from a Chinese-speaking stall owner. She lamented, “Sometimes stall owners don’t understand my order. But not waste the time of stall owner’s time, I would just agree to whatever they say. Once, I ordered Beehoon only to find out that it was Meepok when I reached home.”

Wei Ling believes that most stall owners are patient towards the deaf. However, there are exceptions. She recalls a negative experience where her friend was refused a coffee order when the order was placed using sign language. Her friend insisted on the order until the stall owner relented. If not for his or her persistence, he or she would not have been able to get the coffee. “Individuals with visual impairment and hearing loss do receive differential treatments.”

When asked if she had been mocked by a passer-by, Tan Wei Ling replied, “I don’t know, because I can’t hear them. Even when my friends inform me of the ugly comments made, I wouldn’t take them to heart. After all, I won’t meet the person again, why bother?”

There were times where Wei Ling felt lost while growing up. During her secondary school days, she felt inferior and disgruntled. When she advanced from Canossian School to St Anthony’s Canossian Secondary School, her class size increased from 10 to 40 students. There were more students and the pace of learning increased. The pressure to adapt to the new environment caused Wei Ling to compare herself with her hearing peers. She felt unfair that she was deaf.

She recalled, “I once blamed my mother for giving birth to me. Back then, I only knew English there while my mother only knew Chinese. The language barrier was a cause of frequent conflict and friction. Sometimes, we would end up ignoring each other for a few weeks”.

Wei Ling later picked up Chinese, while her mother started learning English. They started to understand each other better and embarked on a journey of lifelong learning.

Family is an important support pillar for Wei Ling. A memorable incident was when her brother spoke at his wedding last year. “When I was a kid, I prayed to God to let me take my sister’s place. That I would be deaf instead of her. Now, I realise that God is fair. My sister lost her hearing but she has a heart bigger than others. Wei Ling, your brother will forever love you and protect you.”

Tan Wei Ling said, “My brother backs me up and constantly encourages me. Now remembering his words I still feel touched.” Wei Ling’s brother had his own place after his marriage and would visit her family every Sunday. During the circuit breaker, family members from different households were restricted from visiting each other. Something was missing without the brother’s presence. On the other hand, working from home had allowed her to spend more time with her parents, “Before, I rarely have the opportunity to spend time with my parents like this.”

𝐃𝐞𝐚𝐟 𝐢𝐧𝐝𝐢𝐯𝐢𝐝𝐮𝐚𝐥𝐬 𝐥𝐚𝐜𝐤 𝐚𝐜𝐜𝐞𝐬𝐬 𝐭𝐨 𝐂𝐎𝐕𝐈𝐃-𝟏𝟗 𝐮𝐩𝐝𝐚𝐭𝐞𝐬

Wei Ling is an avid traveller who enjoys savouring local delicacies and sights. Her plans to travel to Dubai and Japan this year was cancelled due to the pandemic. She said, “Initially I was disappointed, but come to think of it, I see this as an opportunity to save for future travels when the pandemic has passed!” Since the COVID-19 situation, Tan Wei Ling gets first-hand updates from reading news articles and watching sign language videos posted on “Equal Dreams” Facebook page. Like many other deaf individuals, they agree that live broadcast of the government budget and updates by the Multi-Ministry Taskforce on COVID-19 are good, but this information remains inaccessible to the deaf.

She said, “Relevant agencies can consider including sign language interpretation or notetaking in order to increase the accessibility of these broadcasts. This will allow Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing individuals to be timely informed of the latest updates.

When the circuit breaker measures are lifted, Wei Ling will to her workplace. Mask wearing is necessary and her thoughtful colleagues are exploring to wear transparent masks to enable her to lip-read.

Wei Ling said, “What is miss most, is the uncovered smiles. I hope everyone can unite to overcome the challenge, and the world needs no longer be consumed by this pandemic.”

Translated by SADeaf Staff Joan Peh & Teo Zhi Xiong

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Zhi Xiong Teo administrator