“HOW I PUSHED MY DEAF SONS TO EX­CEL ”

Not want­ing her two hear­ing-im­paired sons to be dis­ad­van­taged, Emi­lyn Heng, 56, used tough love and per­se­ver­ance to make sure they ex­celled in their stud­ies. Some peo­ple looked at me dif­fer­ently – they said it was a bad omen to have two deaf chil­dren, an

Simply Her (Singapore) - - Front Page - AS TOLD TO CH­ERYL LEONG

“Iwas 24 when I mar­ried my hus­band, Pa­trick, in 1982. A year later, our first son, Lionel, was born. He was a healthy, adorable baby. But when he was about seven months old, I no­ticed that he’d qui­etened down – he had stopped gur­gling and pre­ferred to play with toys and puz­zles on his own.

I had friends who’d given birth around the same time as me, and their ba­bies – some younger than Lionel – were al­ready bab­bling their first words. When I tested Lionel’s hear­ing by check­ing if he’d turn in my di­rec­tion when I spoke, he al­ways did so. I re­alised only later that he was us­ing his sharp eyes and ob­ser­va­tion skills, even as a baby, to ‘hear’.

DROP­PING A BOMB­SHELL

Some months after I be­gan test­ing Lionel’s hear­ing, a friend vis­ited us with her dog. When the dog gave a sud­den, loud bark right in front of Lionel, he wasn’t afraid – in fact, he gave no sign that he’d heard it at all. I was sure then that some­thing wasn’t right. But as young, first-time par­ents, the word ‘deaf’ didn’t even oc­cur to me and Pa­trick.

I took Lionel to a pae­di­a­tri­cian and an au­di­ol­o­gist, who both told me that per­haps he had a slower de­vel­op­men­tal rate. But I had nig­gling doubts – my instincts as a mother told me oth­er­wise. After more tests, Lionel was con­firmed deaf at 14 months old. Doc­tors said it might be hered­i­tary, so Pa­trick and I went for ge­netic test­ing. Our re­sults, how­ever, were nor­mal. The doc­tors couldn’t pin­point what had caused the con­di­tion.

I con­sider my­self a nat­u­rally cheer­ful per­son, but my child’s deaf­ness left me dev­as­tated. I fell into de­pres­sion and couldn’t bring my­self to go back to work for more than a month – I was a pur­chas­ing of­fi­cer at an avi­a­tion company. I read up ob­ses­sively about deaf­ness and vis­ited the Sin­ga­pore As­so­ci­a­tion for the Deaf (SADeaf) to ex­pe­ri­ence what it was like be­ing around those who were hear­ing-im­paired. Pa­trick took the news bet­ter than me; he said that if our son was born this way, we had to ac­cept it and fo­cus on pro­vid­ing well for him. He turned his at­ten­tion to run­ning his con­struc­tion business, so that we could af­ford to give Lionel bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties in life. But my big­gest fear re­mained: Who would look after our son in our old age? It was a fright­en­ing thought. After think­ing about what I could do to help my son, I de­cided to pick my­self up and heed Pa­trick’s ad­vice. I knew I needed to arm my­self with the knowl­edge of how to raise a hear­ing-im­paired child. So I joined a par­ents’ support group at SADeaf; I also en­rolled in a dis­tance-learn­ing course with John Tracy Clinic, an es­tab­lished ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre in Los An­ge­les which spe­cialises in help­ing par­ents to bring up young chil­dren with hear­ing loss.

Their support was in­valu­able – when­ever I en­coun­tered parenting prob­lems, I’d write to the clinic for ad­vice. That was how I suc­cess­fully potty-trained Lionel, who was still wear­ing di­a­pers at the age of five.

I also had the support of my sis­ters and good friends. They’d come over with their kids and the chil­dren would play to­gether. I al­ways told them not to give in to my son, and to treat him like any other child.

SEC­OND HEART­BREAK

De­spite my fears, I wanted a sec­ond child – I felt that Lionel needed a sib­ling to grow up with. After two mis­car­riages, I fell preg­nant with our sec­ond son, Joseph, in 1986. When Joseph was born healthy, Pa­trick and I were re­lieved. But four months later, I ob­served the same signs in Joseph that I had with Lionel. Again, my fears were con­firmed after putting him through tests: At seven months old, Joseph was con­firmed deaf too, and the cause was un­known.

This time, I didn’t linger on my sad­ness for more than a day; in­stead, I counted my bless­ings that both my sons had no other dis­abil­i­ties. But some peo­ple looked at me dif­fer­ently – they said it was a bad omen to have two deaf chil­dren, and told their kids not to play with my sons in case they started speak­ing like them. From then on, I stopped giv­ing too much im­por­tance to oth­ers’ opin­ions, so they wouldn’t get me down.

GIV­ING THEM BET­TER OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES

I was de­ter­mined to give my sons as nor­mal an up­bring­ing as pos­si­ble, so I en­rolled them – Lionel first – for speech ther­apy train­ing at Dover Court Prepara­tory School. I also con­tin­ued my cor­re­spon­dence with John Tracy Clinic, and they taught me how to teach Lionel to speak and lip-read.

For ex­am­ple, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween “pa” and “ma” sounds is dif­fi­cult for the hear­ing-im­paired. I had to speak against a piece of pa­per as I made the sounds, to show Lionel that a “pa” sound makes the pa­per move while a “ma” doesn’t. On his fourth birth­day, Lionel fi­nally ut­tered his first word, “ba”.

When Lionel was four, we took him and Joseph to Tar­a­lye, a cen­tre for deaf chil­dren in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, where they could have speech ther­apy and in­ter­act with

other kids. Each year for five years, the boys spent one week there.

Just be­fore giv­ing birth to Joseph, I had been re­trenched from my job. So I took the op­por­tu­nity to home­school my boys to give them a head start be­fore they be­gan for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. I read to them ev­ery night and taught them how to write and count. They’re bright boys – be­fore en­ter­ing Pri­mary 1, they could al­ready re­cite the 12 times ta­ble.

GROW­ING UP AND SO­CIAL­IS­ING

Lionel and Joseph each en­tered Pri­mary 1 at the age of five, at the Canos­sian School for hearingim­paired chil­dren. At the end of Pri­mary 3, Lionel passed an ap­ti­tude test with fly­ing colours and was ad­mit­ted into an im­mer­sion pro­gramme at St An­thony’s Pri­mary School, which he even­tu­ally trans­ferred to. Joseph aced the ap­ti­tude test in Pri­mary 1 and joined his brother at St An­thony’s. In spite of the change in en­vi­ron­ment, the boys took to nor­mal school life well. They were nat­u­rally cheer­ful and so­cia­ble; grow­ing up with their cousins and friends as well as their ex­pe­ri­ences in Tar­a­lye helped.

I of­ten re­minded them to work hard, telling them that no­body owed them spe­cial treat­ment just be­cause they were hear­ing-im­paired. I also told them that if they met peo­ple who were cu­ri­ous about their hear­ing aids, they shouldn’t be em­bar­rassed – they should sim­ply ex­plain how they work.

Recog­nis­ing his in­cli­na­tion for lan­guages, I let Joseph learn Man­darin in Pri­mary 1. It’s not an easy lan­guage even for nor­mal stu­dents to tackle be­cause of its tonal na­ture, but by the end of Joseph’s first year, he was scor­ing full marks on his tests.

I did all I could to help them in their stud­ies. Ev­ery night, I went through their home­work with them. Six months be­fore ev­ery new school year, we’d al­ready have cov­ered the first six months of lessons. By June, they would have com­pleted the year’s syl­labus, and we’d be­gin re­vi­sion. I also en­listed the help of my niece, who was three years older than Lionel. I’d fax maths ques­tions to her, and she’d write down each step for me so that I could teach my sons.

FILLING THE “VAC­UUM” IN A SILENT WORLD

I loved my boys, yet I felt there was some­thing miss­ing in my life. See­ing other chil­dren talk­ing freely with their par­ents made me wish that I could have a child with nor­mal hear­ing too. But I was afraid to try for a baby again be­cause I didn’t want to bring another deaf child into the world – even if he or she turned out fine, I didn’t want to risk hav­ing his or her chil­dren be deaf too. I en­quired about over­seas adop­tion, but I wasn’t el­i­gi­ble as I al­ready had biological chil­dren.

When Lionel was seven, I met, by chance, a heav­ily preg­nant woman who wanted to give her child up for adop­tion. It felt like a sign – I took her to a gy­nae­col­o­gist to check on her health and the baby’s, and of­fered to pay for the hos­pi­tal bills. I told her that I wanted to con­sider adopt­ing her baby, and she agreed. After go­ing through the adop­tion process, I took Baby Jan­ice home. Lionel and Joseph took to their new sis­ter im­me­di­ately. The three sib­lings have grown up to be close to one another.

RE­COV­ER­ING SOME HEAR­ING

Three days after com­plet­ing his O lev­els in 1997, Lionel un­der­went surgery to get cochlear im­plants fixed; Joseph had his done a few months later. It was a frus­trat­ing time for the boys, as they had to re­learn how to link the sounds they heard to words and speech. When Lionel went to the wash­room after his im­plants, he rushed out in fright be­cause it was his first time hear­ing the un­fa­mil­iar sound of the toi­let flush­ing.

I kept read­ing and talk­ing to them, and re­as­sured them that it would get bet­ter with prac­tice. Even sounds like rain and the rustling of leaves were scary to them; we also had to get them used to the sound of traf­fic. After six months, they ad­justed to the cochlear im­plants. By then, they had en­tered Na­tional Ju­nior Col­lege.

Lionel did well in school and was among the top scor­ers in his year. He went on to do a dou­ble ma­jor in com­puter sci­ence and eco­nomics at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity in the US, then a master’s de­gree in com­puter sci­ence at Stan­ford Univer­sity, and he will grad­u­ate at the end of this year with a PhD from ETH Zurich.

Joseph did bio­engi­neer­ing at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity and has just ob­tained his Bach­e­lor of Medicine, Bach­e­lor of Surgery from Yale Univer­sity. He’ll set­tle down to a prac­tice in on­col­ogy after he fin­ishes his re­search year.

Peo­ple think it’s im­pos­si­ble for a deaf per­son to learn mu­sic, but Joseph is a self-taught pi­anist. When he was in Sec­ondary 1, he’d stand be­hind Jan­ice dur­ing her pi­ano lessons. I never knew he was pick­ing it up un­til he played one of Beethoven’s pieces when he thought I wasn’t home. So I asked Jan­ice’s teacher to take Joseph on as a stu­dent too, and he fin­ished his Grade 8 ex­am­i­na­tions in the sec­ond year of ju­nior col­lege.

THE NEXT PHASE

Lionel is now mar­ried with two daugh­ters, and he and his wife have another baby on the way. Joseph re­cently got hitched too, and in a few years, it’ll be Jan­ice’s turn.

I’m proud that my sons have over­turned many mis­con­cep­tions about be­ing hear­ing-im­paired. Their achieve­ments have lifted my own life too – I’ve worked as a vol­un­teer speech ther­a­pist for deaf kids. And when­ever par­ents of other deaf chil­dren talk to my sons and see how far they’ve come, they feel re­newed hope that if they per­se­vere, they can make it too. I got more than I ex­pected in life, and I couldn’t ask for more.”

From left: Pa­trick Heng; Wei Ling and Lionel with their daugh­ters, El­lie and Gaby; Joseph and his bride, Vicki; Emi­lyn Heng; and Jan­ice and her fiance, An­drew, at Joseph’s wed­ding in May this year.

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