Hearing impaired couple Rachel Lee, 62, and Timothy Low, 65, were over the moon when they discovered they were expecting their first child 31 years ago.
“I didn’t mind if she was born deaf or with normal hearing. I left it in the hands of God. I knew I’d love my child just the same,” says Lee, using sign language during an interview in Kuala Lumpur recently.
Their eldest daughter Cherish Low, and their second child, Stephanie Low, 28, were both born with normal hearing. In the deaf community, the Low sisters are known as children of deaf adults (Coda).
As delighted as she was to become a parent, the deaf mother shares that she used to worry about not being able to hear her babies cry, especially at night.
“I had their cot beside me, and my husband and I would wake up regularly to check on them. We were blessed that both our toddlers slept through the night. They weren’t difficult to look after,” explains Lee.
Lee worked as a clerk at Tenaga Nasional for 40 years. She lost her hearing at age three after developing a high fever. Timothy, a retired businessman, was born with normal hearing but became deaf after an accident when he was a toddler.
The couple met at the YMCA Kuala Lumpur’s Deaf Club in the late 1970s.
Being deaf parents, Lee and her husband could only communicate with their children using Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM).
“Before tucking them to sleep each night, we’d teach them simple sign language symbols like ‘I love you’, ‘thank you’ and ‘good night’. Cherish would always step in to teach her younger sister too,” Lee recalls.
In the mornings, when Lee and Timothy were at work, Lee’s sister looked after her girls and taught them to speak other languages like English, Bahasa Malaysia and Cantonese.
“As children, they’d write words on paper to communicate with us. Nowadays, it’s much easier because we can email each other or send WhatsApp messages,” says Lee.
Lee recalls how her daughters were very protective of their parents, always being the ‘ears’ for her and her husband.
“My girls are extremely sensitive to sound. They’d listen out to the postman, the fax machine and they’d ensure the house alarm was on each night. I think my girls had to grow up quickly. They felt a sense of responsibility knowing that their parents are deaf.”
Never an issue
Lee has never allowed her disability be a hindrance in raising two beautiful women. She’s grateful she’s had a supportive family too.
“They are obedient and we managed to raise them as best as we could. We are so proud that Cherish is working as an executive at a Japanese trading company, and Stephanie is a beautician. They are both emphatic and sensitive to their parents’ needs.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Valerie Jacques said there is a tendency for Coda to communicate more with their parents than children of hearing parents.
This is because deaf parents tend to look at their children’s faces when they sign or express themselves, she explains.
“Parents of typical children on the other hand may speak to their children without looking at their faces. The form of eye contact, facial expression and recognition stimulates parts of the brain that encourage maturity and clear communication.
“However, if the Coda is not encouraged to value this development, they can reject it if they want to fit into the hearing world. This can be a challenge in the relationship between parents and child. The Coda might want to act more like their models in the hearing world and be less compliant to the family expectations,” Jacques says.
Deaf mother Adeline Goh Ai Ling, 40, from Puchong is glad that she introduced BIM to her children - Mary Anne Chai Xing Zhi, 11, and Isaac Chai Jun Xi, six - when they were infants. Her husband, Melvin Chai Yee Foong, 40, has a hearing impairment too.
“Mary Anne was taught BIM when she was about four months old. Isaac was nine months old when he learned simple words like ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘milk’ and ‘eat’. Over time, they have been able to communicate in BIM with my husband and me. Occasionally, my children help to interpret for us too,” says Goh, a kindergarten teacher.
Mary Anne and Isaac are being raised by Goh’s mother, who isn’t deaf, in Klang, Selangor.
By educating them about the deaf community, Goh notices her children are more receptive to people with disabilities. They are both proud of being Codas.
“My children do not judge my husband and me for being deaf. They love and respect us despite our disability. They think we have a special ability. I see my children on weekends, and they enjoy playing games and cooking with us.
“Even though my husband and I are deaf, my children have no problems communicating with us in BIM,” says Goh, who also teaches deaf children at the Malaysian Federation of the Deaf in Kuala Lumpur.
Jacques encourages deaf parents to educate their children to embrace and appreciate the diversity in their family. In addition, she says, Codas should be proud of their parents with special needs.
“They should be proud of having deaf parents who are capable of loving them and providing for them while meeting the challenges in the hearing world. It is important to teach Codas to have good eye contact, pay attention to expressions, be open to hugs, touch and other forms of communication. These are all ways of expressing love, acceptance and also pride,” says Jacques.