Whenever Stephanie Low, 28, communicates with her parents in public, she’s bound to receive stares from people.
Her parents, Rachel Lee, 62, and Timothy Low, 65, are both deaf. Sign language, or Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM), is the only way the beautician communicates with them.
“In the past, I used to feel very uncomfortable because people would look at us strangely. But over the years, I’ve grown used to the stares. To me, BIM is the only way I can ‘speak’ to my parents and to the deaf community.
“I use BIM to communicate with the deaf, just like how people use spoken languages to speak with one another,” says Stephanie during a Zoom interview from Kepong, Kuala Lumpur recently.
Stephanie and her sister, marketing executive Cherish Low, 31, are called children of deaf adults (Coda). These are individuals who are raised by one or more deaf parents or guardians.
The siblings, who both can hear normally, are among a handful of children who’ve grown up with parents with special needs.
Unlike most, Stephanie and her sister were exposed to two different social and linguistic systems: One with her deaf parents and the deaf community, and the other with the people with normal hearing.
“My parents may be deaf, but they have brought us up to the best of their ability. The only difference in our family is that we communicate using BIM instead of English, Cantonese, or Bahasa Malaysia. Besides this, I think we are like any other family,” she shares.
The UN General Assembly has proclaimed Sept 23 as the International Day of Sign Languages to raise awareness of the importance of sign language to the human rights of people who are deaf.
According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are more than 70 million deaf people worldwide. Collectively, they use more than 300 different sign languages.
There are over 40,000 hearing-impaired people in Malaysia as of 2021, according to Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin. Research suggests that 90% of people with audiological deafness have children with normal hearing.
For the Low siblings, there’s nothing “abnormal” about growing up in a home with deaf parents.
“Growing up, my parents were extremely strict with us. When we were naughty, Mummy would chase us with the rotan. Cherish and I would hide under the table. Even though our parents are deaf, they always knew when we were up to mischief,” says Stephanie.
The sisters also appreciated how their parents tried their best to ensure they never missed out on anything as children.
“Dad sold artwork to make ends meet. He worked very hard to put food on the table. Knowing they’d have some barriers in teaching us, our parents sent us for many tuition lessons. They made many sacrifices, and we love them very much,” says Stephanie, with a warm smile.
Cherish studied public relations at Tunku Abdul Rahman University College in Kuala Lumpur, while Stephanie completed her Form Five. The girls now both have steady jobs and are doing well in their respective careers.
“I think our parents did a good job raising us. They brought us up to the best they could. Knowing our parents are differently abled, my sister and I had to be responsible from a young age. We always put their needs before ours.
“They taught us the meaning of selflessness and unconditional love and we don’t mind going the extra mile for our parents with special needs,” says Stephanie.
Talk with your hands
Stephanie never knew her parents were disabled until she was in Year One. She only realised that something “wasn’t right” when she noticed her classmates communicating with their parents in English or Mandarin.
“I could only communicate with my parents using BIM. Only then did it dawn on me that my parents had special needs,” she recalls.
Stephanie and Cherish were cared for by their aunt when their parents worked. So, the siblings picked up English, Bahasa Malaysia, and Cantonese while spending time in their aunt’s home.
Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Valerie Jacques believes that like the Low siblings, most Codas only realise there is something different in their family dynamics when they leave the safety of their home and are exposed to other families.
“Prior to leaving home, Codas are born into a family that communicates through facial expressions, signs, and sensations such as vibrations, touch, or sounds. This is the language of communication between parents and their hearing child,” says Jacques.
However, Jacques adds that if a child spends time with a hearing person, then that child also learns to engage with sounds that form words.
“The brain develops pathways for learning, and children pick up these different ‘languages’ to communicate with different people. As a result, children can learn, model, and organise their thoughts and experiences.
“Codas have more developed minds, similar to children who are exposed to dual languages within the family,” she explains
However, the sisters share that they did encounter some challenges while they were at primary school – they were constantly teased for having parents with disabilities.
“I used to feel so enraged, and I cried so much. But Cherish was braver and bolder. She’d always confront these naughty students and put them in their place. So, over time, I learned to deal with the situation too and I began to stand up for my parents.
“I think the issue is the lack of awareness about the deaf community. Over time, instead of shying away, I began to open up to my schoolmates about having parents with special needs.
“My parents are a gift from God and I’m not ashamed of them. And, I have the skill of communicating with the deaf in BIM,” says Stephanie.
Jacques explains that bullying and marginalisation starts when children act, speak, or sign differently from the norm.
“We live in a society where children who communicate differently are made fun of as if something is wrong with them. Many people – whether adults, teachers or children – create margins because they are uncomfortable with differences.
“Instead of being in awe of people who are different, Codas are made to feel embarrassed for their ability to communicate in BIM with their parents.
“It is not Codas and their parents who need to learn to cope. We need to educate the hearing community on the importance of giving positive affirmation to Codas. We need to encourage and praise Codas for their abilities rather than make them uncomfortable with disabilities,” says Jacques.
Stephanie wishes Malaysians can be more receptive and find out about about hearing loss and deaf culture.
“Don’t look at the deaf community with pity. Approach them in a friendly way. Never view them as dumb people because they aren’t mute. Most importantly, show them the respect they deserve,” she says.