Youth camp taught her to be proudly Deaf and aim high

The Straits Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Low Jarn May is a born sto­ry­teller.

It is ev­i­dent in the way she re­lates events and in­ci­dents in her life; she punches the pro­ceed­ings up with dra­matic pauses, facial gym­nas­tics, wild ges­tic­u­la­tions, witty sim­i­les and artful cli­maxes.

And she does it with­out ut­ter­ing a sin­gle word.

The 43-year-old is Deaf. The cap­i­tal l et­ter, she says, de­notes a com­mu­nity proud of their Deaf­ness, and sees it as a dif­fer­ence, not a dis­abil­ity. Al­though it is meant to be po­lit­i­cally cor­rect, the term “hear­ing-im­paired” is now con­sid­ered an out­dated, and even of­fen­sive, col­lec­tive la­bel for peo­ple with hear­ing loss.

Ms Low lost her hear­ing at three, af­ter suf­fer­ing a high fever.

It broke her par­ents’ hearts, but it did not sup­press or ex­tin­guish her go-get­ting, high-achiev­ing spirit.

To­day, the as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of fi­nance in a govern­ment body is prob­a­bly Sin­ga­pore’s only deaf char­tered ac­coun­tant, one who also has a master’s in global fi­nance from the Univer­sity of Manch­ester.

Lively and ar­tic­u­late, she is the el­der of two chil­dren of a TCM prac­ti­tioner and his wife. All was well un­til her ill­ness. Her mother took her to a doc­tor who pre­scribed her a fever syrup.

“The fever con­tin­ued for a week be­fore I got well,” she says through a sign lan­guage in­ter­preter.

Sadly, her hear­ing nerves were dam­aged i n the process. Her mother found out only when she called out to her while cook­ing in the kitchen one day.

“I was in the liv­ing room play­ing with my toys and didn’t re­spond. She came closer and called out louder and I still didn’t re­spond. She went to my left, and right, and shouted and it was the same. It was only when she stood in front of me that I looked up and smiled.”

Her par­ents took her to the now de­funct Toa Payoh Hospi­tal, where a doc­tor con­firmed that she had lost her hear­ing.

“My par­ents couldn’t ac­cept it. They took me to other hos­pi­tals, but at every hospi­tal, the di­ag­no­sis was the same,” says Ms Low, adding that her ma­ter­nal grand­mother told her dev­as­tated par­ents not to cry over spilt milk and fo­cus their en­er­gies on rais­ing her. Her fa­ther took up the gaunt­let. He found out all he could from dif­fer­ent out­fits, in­clud­ing the Sin­ga­pore As­so­ci­a­tion for the Deaf (SADeaf) and was ad­vised to learn sign lan­guage.

He did, and then took it upon him­self to teach his daugh­ter, start­ing with food items.

She re­calls: “You know how chil­dren have short at­ten­tion spans, can’t sit still and love food? I soon worked out that if I fol­lowed what he did, I would get what I wanted.”

Her fa­ther did not stop there with her, but taught his wife and the neigh­bours too.

“He didn’t want me to feel left out when I was play­ing with the neigh­bours’ chil­dren. I grew up happy and didn’t feel dis­crim­i­nated against,” says Ms Low, who grew up in a one-room flat in Lorong 5, Toa Payoh.

Her re­source­ful fa­ther also en­rolled her in a pre-school for deaf chil­dren at St Andrew’s Cathe­dral, run by a group of ex­pa­tri­ate housewives.

“It was Montes­sori mixed with sign lan­guage. I played and learnt a lot,” says Ms Low.

She did well at the School for the Deaf in Mount­bat­ten Road, scor­ing 245 for her Pri­mary School Leav­ing Ex­am­i­na­tion with no tu­ition.

“My par­ents couldn’t af­ford it. But my teach­ers didn’t write me off,” she says sim­ply.

Life took a nasty turn when she was 11. Her fa­ther, who was from Kuala Lumpur, died in a car ac­ci­dent on one of his trips to the Malaysian cap­i­tal.

“One of the big­gest re­grets of my life was that I didn’t get to say good­bye. Many of us take our par­ents for granted,” she says.

Her mother, who had been a home­maker, had to find work as a free­lance tour guide to raise Ms Low and her younger brother.

“My brother and I were latchkey kids. Thank­fully, we had a lot of rel­a­tives who helped. My mother had 10 si­b­lings and many of my un­cles and aunts took turns to drop by.”

The loss of her fa­ther forced her to be­come in­de­pen­dent at a young age. The for­mer stu­dent of Mount Ver­non Sec­ondary worked hard so that she could earn schol­ar­ships to ease her mother’s bur­den.

She did well enough to go to a ju­nior col­lege, but de­cided to take the polytech­nic route in­stead.

Al­though she had se­cured a place to study in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy at Ngee Ann Polytech­nic, that plan got de­railed when her best friend Shalini Gidi­wani per­suaded her to make a life-chang­ing switch to ac­coun­tancy in­stead.

A key turn­ing point in her life oc­curred in 1994, when a staff from SADeaf – where she worked dur­ing her se­mes­ter breaks – en­cour­aged her to at­tend the in­au­gu­ral World Fed­er­a­tion of the Deaf youth camp in Aus­tria.

Ms Low was ea­ger, but there was a stum­bling block – she could not af­ford the $2,000 needed for the trip.

When her polytech­nic coun­sel­lor learnt about it, she not only told her to go, but also found spon­sors for her air ticket and ex­penses. The camp opened Ms Low’s eyes. “I learnt so many things. I learnt about Deaf pride and women em­pow­er­ment. I learnt that the Deaf can do ev­ery­thing ex­cept hear. I met some young peo­ple who were do­ing their masters and PhDs in pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties, not just Gal­laudet,” she says, re­fer­ring to the Wash­ing­ton univer­sity for the deaf and hard of hear­ing.

She also met ac­com­plished deaf pro­fes­sion­als, in­clud­ing so­cial work­ers and doc­tors.

“It was also my first time see­ing gay guys and gals. Guess what, two gay guys saved me from a hot­blooded Ital­ian,” she quips.

Be­sides open­ing her eyes, the camp de­mol­ished the in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex she had some­times felt be­cause she could not hear, and in­stilled in her a deep sense of pride. “I found my iden­tity,” she says. Upon her re­turn to Sin­ga­pore af­ter the camp, she fell ill. Her new con­fi­dence came to the fore and she in­sisted, for the first time, on go­ing to the doc­tor alone. Her wor­ried mother fol­lowed her from a dis­tance.

At the clinic, she hap­pened to see what the doc­tor was scrib­bling into her med­i­cal records.

“My eyes nearly popped when I saw what was writ­ten on a white la­bel: deaf and dumb,” she says.

She in­dig­nantly took the doc­tor to task and even asked him to write a memo to his col­leagues re­mind­ing them to be sen­si­tive to how they re­fer to their pa­tients.

In more ways than one, she says, the camp started her on a won­drous tra­jec­tory, one which took her around the world and led her to meet movers and shak­ers from all com­mu­ni­ties. “If I hadn’t at­tended the camp, I think I might be an ap­a­thetic mem­ber of the Deaf com­mu­nity,” she says.

Egged on by her friend Shalini, she be­came a pas­sion­ate advocate for deaf lan­guage and ed­u­ca­tion rights.

She started out vol­un­teer­ing with SADeaf’s Adult Out­reach pro­gramme, teach­ing il­lit­er­ate deaf adults ba­sic English and other skills. She moved on to tu­tor deaf stu­dents in sub­jects like math­e­mat­ics and prin­ci­ples of ac­counts and also taught sign lan­guage.

Her pas­sion later led her to serve on the SADeaf’s ex­ec­u­tive coun­cil. Among other things, she chaired its lin­guis­tic sub-com­mit­tee and founded Youth­beat, its youth vol­un­teer arm.

Cham­pi­oning causes for her com­mu­nity took her around the world. High­lights in­clude rep­re­sent­ing Sin­ga­pore at the World Fed­er­a­tion of the Deaf (WFD) Asia-Pa­cific meet­ings and WFD Congress in Bris­bane, Aus­tralia, in 1999 and the In­ter­na­tional Fo­rum on Dis­abil­i­ties in Osaka, Ja­pan, in 2002.

In 2015, she found her­self at the UN head­quar­ters in New York for the eighth ses­sion of the Con­fer­ence of the States Par­ties, at­tend­ing the Con­ven­tion on the Rights of Per­sons with Dis­abil­i­ties.

Her ca­reer grew along­side her ad­vo­cacy work.

Be­cause of her bub­bly per­son­al­ity and in­dus­try, her polytech­nic lec­turer and coun­sel­lor helped her to se­cure au­dit­ing jobs af­ter she grad­u­ated in 1996.

She did not rest on her lau­rels and stud­ied part-time for her As­so­ci­a­tion of Char­tered Cer­ti­fied Ac­coun­tants (ACCA) cre­den­tials.

She com­pleted it in 41/ years, with a one-year break when she got preg­nant af­ter mar­ry­ing se­nior drafts­man Fran­cis Tang, who is also Deaf, in 2001.

A 10-day work­ing trip to Shang­hai was the im­pe­tus, she says.

Then work­ing for a lo­cal marine com­pany, she saw how hun­gry Shang­hainese work­ers were.

“Two of my Chi­nese col­leagues went for cour­ses – Ger­man, ACCA – every day. I fore­saw that they could take over my job. That scared me and I worked hard to com­plete my ACCA.”

ACCA Sin­ga­pore’s PR and mar­ket­ing man­ager Regina Yeo says: “Com­plet­ing the course in 41/ years is very, very good. Some have taken 10 years, some even fail the same pa­per 10 times.”

Be­fore join­ing the pub­lic sec­tor two years ago, Ms Low worked in man­age­rial and se­nior po­si­tions at cor­po­ra­tions, in­clud­ing elec­tron­ics gi­ant Gain City, where she headed a team of 20.

“I’ve been lucky be­cause I’ve met the right peo­ple at the right time, peo­ple who see beyond my dis­abil­ity,” she says.

It was not al­ways smooth-sail­ing – there had been in­stances where col­leagues had doubts about her abil­ity be­cause she can­not hear.

“You just have to lead by ex­am­ple. I work, and then I show them how,” she says.

The mother of two daugh­ters, aged 10 and 15, is of­ten asked how she jug­gles moth­er­hood with ca­reer and ad­vo­cacy work.

“It just hap­pened nat­u­rally,” she says. “It’s the same for ev­ery­one, isn’t it? When some­thing needs to be done, you’ll know what to do.”

Ever prac­ti­cal, she has never in­dulged in self-pity and “what if” ex­er­cises.

The ar­dent fan of Bungee Dance – a work­out rou­tine where par­tic­i­pants are hooked to a bungee cord from a har­ness – reck­ons she would still be the same per­son if ill­ness had not robbed her of her hear­ing.

“I think what I am to­day is a com­bi­na­tion of per­se­ver­ance and tol­er­ance, and other fac­tors like val­ues passed down from my fam­ily. I’m also blessed to have met, along the way, won­der­ful peo­ple who had faith and be­lief in me.”

ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

She lost her hear­ing at the age of three af­ter an ill­ness, but that did not stop high-achiev­ing Low Jarn May from do­ing well aca­dem­i­cally and com­plet­ing her ACCA in 41/ years, as well as es­tab­lish­ing her ca­reer as a char­tered ac­coun­tant, along­side cham­pi­oning causes for the deaf com­mu­nity around the world, and start­ing a fam­ily.

PHOTO: COUR­TESY OF LOW JARN MAY

Ms Low at­tend­ing the Con­ven­tion on the Rights of Per­sons with Dis­abil­i­ties at the UN head­quar­ters in New York in 2015.

ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Ms Low re­lax­ing at home with her hus­band Fran­cis Tang and daugh­ters Juliet (left) and Emily, and their fam­ily dog.

PHOTO: COUR­TESY OF LOW JARN MAY

Ms Low (far left) with other par­tic­i­pants at the in­au­gu­ral World Fed­er­a­tion of the Deaf youth camp in Aus­tria in 1994.

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