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Thursday, April 17, 2014, 10:16
Breaking the sound barriers
By Hazel Knowles / Focus Hong Kong

Breaking the sound barriers

Deaf and hearing students from Peace Evangelical Centre Kindergarten in Ngau Tau Kok give a bilingual performance at the recent Linking Hands and Hearts Fun Day to raise funds for the Chinese University’s Deaf Education Fund.

Wong Chi-tak remembers vividly how he felt the day doctors told him his baby daughter was profoundly deaf.

He was devastated and overwhelmed with fear as he worried how his daughter would cope as a child, as an adolescent and then as an adult in a world which all too often ignores people with hearing impairments.

“We detected the problem very shortly after birth because Heidi has a twin brother and we were able to compare her development with her twin,” Wong said.

“After imaging we were told she had no cochlear. At that time, we felt very depressed. It felt like the end of the world,” said Wong, a doctor at Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

Heidi is now 13 years old and, far from being pessimistic about her future, her father is filled with hope that she will not only survive in the world but also thrive and succeed.

His dramatic change in feelings has come about because of a ground-breaking program which has allowed Heidi to attend mainstream school, rather than be segregated in a school for the deaf.

Sign of success

The program — the first of its kind in Asia — was launched by the Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies (CSLDS) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2006 and has since earned recognition from the UNESCO International Bureau of Education.

It involves placing sign language and deaf teachers into mainstream classrooms in specific schools so small groups of hearing impaired children can learn alongside hearing children.

At the same time, the hearing children are taught sign language with the aim of creating a bilingual and inclusive learning environment unhindered by communication barriers.

Heidi was in the second intake of hearing impaired children to benefit from the Sign Bilingualism and Co-enrolment in Deaf Education Programme and attended kindergarten before moving to Saint John the Baptist Catholic Primary School in Kowloon Bay.

Her father has no doubts about the benefits the program has brought his daughter who is now a happy student with lots of friends, including those with normal hearing and hearing impaired.

“As a doctor and a parent, I can say that this program is excellent,” said Dr Wong. “Every person involved is so dedicated and it helps all children and not just the hearing impaired.

“The hearing children benefit too. They become aware of the importance of looking after those less fortunate than themselves and they learn sign language which is just like another language, like English or Korean, and that is beneficial to their future.”

Breaking the sound barriers

Heidi Wong, aged 13, communicates with her mother using sign language she has learnt in school.

Funding dilemma

Heidi is now in year six at primary school and hopes later this year to move up to a secondary school to where the program has been recently extended.

However, there are fears that it may all come to an end abruptly and Heidi and her fellow hearing impaired classmates may have to move out of mainstream education.

In July, the original funding provided by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust to set up the program will run out.

According to Professor Gladys Tang Wai-lan, director of CSLDS, about HK$3 million a year is needed to fund the school program and a Saturday reading and baby signing class.

Prof Tang said she had been negotiating with the Education Bureau with the hope of persuading it to adopt the program in Hong Kong schools. However, the bureau wanted to see more results before making any decision.

“If a philanthropist is willing to make a sizeable donation, we can continue to run the program, hopefully for another six years, and that would give us more time to negotiate with the government,” she said.

“Everyone would be devastated if we have to close the program. It would be very tragic for the children and their parents.”

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