Breaking the sound barrier
THINGYAN. It’s the festive celebration that is supposed to represent all the stresses and sins of the previous year being washed away with purifying water. For Bo Bo Kyaing, who lost his hearing to an infection resulting from bucket water entering his ears when he was 15, the health warning came too late.
The loss of hearing made school especially difficult. Bo Bo Kyaing said that he would struggle, but fail to understand his teachers, doing particularly badly in science subjects – chemistry and physics. He would copy work from his friend’s notebook and then go back over the material later to try and understand each lesson. There was, of course, no support for his needs at his public high school. It took two years for him to pass the matriculation exam.
Thankfully for Bo Bo Kyaing, his years where he was able to hear have left him the ability to communicate with speech. He whispers, though, because he cannot hear and adjust the tone of his voice. Mostly, he uses sign language. Sign language was not unfamiliar to him – both of his parents lost their hearing in their infancy, and so communicate with signs. While Bo Bo Kyaing is deaf like his parents, his siblings are not afflicted.
“I am very sad,” Bo Bo Kyaing’s mother said of his condition. “No matter whether my husband and I are deaf, I don’t want my child to be.”
Bo Bo Kyaing explained how he was discriminated against by others, told that he was useless to society and a burden to others. There have been very difficult times, he said of the last twenty years. Even his former close friends abandoned him, perhaps not wanting the stigma of his disability to affect their social standing.
Being a Deaf media man To compound the young man’s unhappiness, he found he was not going to be able to attend university to study economics. Going into writing, it quickly became apparent that his disability was making him unhirable. Bo Bo Kyaing would suffer four long, humiliating years of unemployment after university.
Seeing himself on the outside, Bo Bo Kyaing was going to have to go at it alone. One day, he found a Thai news channel that included a hearing impairment aid, someone in a bubble on the screen who would translate the speaking into sign language. This inspired Bo Bo Kyaing to want to do the same in Myanmar. He approached DVB and pitched his idea, and they responded warmly.
Bo Bo Kyaing would become the sign language interpreter for DVB in 2012. This new addition quickly spread to MRTV and MNTV. While this early victory was important, that remains the extent of TV accessibility. The number of professionals in visual media working for deaf inclusion is low compared to Asian averages. Bo Bo Kyaing says he translates between six and eight stories a day, but wants to introduce international news. For that, human resources are lacking. If possible, Bo Bo Kyaing would like to move into video journalism.
Being coupled with an able bride Bo Bo Kyaing is happily married, but the road to union was not an easy one. His wife, Khin Hnin Si, is from Sagaing region, and actually first saw Bo Bo Kyaing on the television. When they met, she was shocked to find he himself was hearing impaired. It did not stop her from wishing to be with him, but Khin Hnin Si’s family were very adverse to her being with a disabled man. They were further disturbed when they found out about his parents. Khin Hnin Si would eventually leave for Yangon to be with Bo Bo Kyaing, and the couple lived with his parents.
They have been married for three years now, and have a healthy young boy. Taking care of a screaming baby in the night presents an interesting challenge, but the couple has worked out a system between themselves to share some of the labour. The families are all there for the baby with “eyes always on him”, as Khin Hnin Si puts it. Even Khin Hnin Si’s family have softened over time, and when Bo Bo Kyaing visits Shwebo in Sagaing, local deaf people come to see him, just to meet the first media person who represents their community.
Bo Bo Kyaing says he fears for his son, who will have deaf family members, and hopes he will not be subjected to the same bullying and isolation. “I have to explain to him not to allow himself to suffer when society makes an impact on him. I hope that times are changing and that there will be more acceptance of disability in the future,” Bo Bo Kyaing says with hope as his son runs and plays around his feet.
Bo Bo Kyaing's family.