Serena Lee, 18, was in high spirits during our Zoom interview, and she had every reason to be.
The Sign For Malaysia (SFM) deaf advocacy project founder received the title of Unicef (United Nations Children’s Fund) Malaysia KitaConnect Champion last October.
During the interview, she spoke enthusiastically about the recognition, which she received for her work in promoting Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM) to Malaysian youth under Unicef’s #LearningAtHome initiative during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was a proud moment for me and I’m very honoured. There are many inequalities the deaf have to grapple with. It is important to raise awareness of the deaf community and the challenges they face in the hope of creating a more inclusive environment, ” said Lee.
Life may seem like all sunshine and rainbows for Lee, but there was a time when she didn’t think she’d be able to have conversations with people. She also never thought she’d learn BIM when she was 15.
In 2017, Lee felt her world crumble when she suddenly experienced partial hearing loss as a result of a viral attack – she lost 30% of her hearing in her left ear.
“I never thought I’d lose a primary sense in my teenage years. I was initially in denial. It was daunting, but at the same time, I was grateful because it made me realise how little I knew about the deaf.
“My curiosity was what pushed me to connect with the deaf community. Then as I learned more, I realised how complicit I was in my ignorance. I was initially daunted by the idea of being partially deaf because of all the misconceptions and negative epithets the hearing community ascribes to the deaf, ” said Lee, who is the younger of two siblings.
However, Lee soon took things in her stride and signed up for BIM at YMCA KL’s Pusat Majudiri ‘Y’, a centre related to the development of the deaf community. There, she began to understand some of the obstacles faced by the deaf, which included lack of employment opportunities and accessibility to healthcare and education.
In 2017, the registered number of persons with disabilities at Malaysia’s Social Welfare Department stood at 453,258. Out of this number, 7% are people with hearing disabilities.
Article 27 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that people with disabilities have the right to work on an equal basis with others.
However, a news report in 2015 revealed that only 3,741 persons with disabilities held jobs in the public sector out of our country’s over one million civil servants.
Breaking down barriers
Born in the United States, Lee moved to Malaysia in 2009 after her father Wing K. Lee landed a job in a telecommunications company in Kuala Lumpur.
The affable teenager completed her secondary education at Garden International School (GIS) in Kuala Lumpur last June. She has since been accepted to California’s Stanford University to pursue a degree in Political Science and Symbolic Systems but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she’s taken a gap year and is now interning at Petaling Jaya-based non-profit organisation All Women’s Action Society (Awam).
Driven by her own experience – notably the challenges posed by the inflexibility of the local sign language system – Lee created SFM in 2018.
“During one of YMCA KL’s fundraising events at GIS, I realised that many children and adults alike refrained from communicating with the deaf – not necessarily because they didn’t want to, but they didn’t know how to. That inspired me to start a platform to create more awareness on BIM.”
SFM’s pilot project – Negaraku in Schools – was launched in GIS in 2018. It helps schools create videos of students signing Negaraku to play at events and assemblies to bridge the gap between the deaf and the hearing community.
“I used to devote my lunchtimes to teaching sign language to GIS students. I broke down the signs into simple actions and made GIFs to help students learn at their own pace.
“As the signed Negaraku video played during my school’s morning assemblies, I felt happy seeing my peers enthusiastically singing and signing Negaraku, ” explained Lee, who has gone on to teach signing Negaraku in a few secondary schools in the Klang Valley.
Lee’s efforts also led her to be named one of the 100 recipients of the 2019 East Asian Regional Council of School’s Global Citizen award. In March last year, she also emerged the monthly winner of the US-based Youth Service America’s Everyday Young Hero Award.
“My experiences have fostered an understanding of deafness from two perspectives. As I empathise with the entrenched stereotyping that the deaf community suffers from, I also understand the root of these misconceptions from the perspective of the hearing. I was once afraid of my deafness, but reaching out to the deaf community and learning about their stories inspired a more empathic view.
“As Sign For Malaysia expands its platform, I hope to use this privilege to shed light on Malaysia’s deaf community, talking more broadly about the injustice they face in our phonocentric world.”
On the website, Lee has posted a signing video on Negaraku, and a series of videos where the deaf community share stories of what deafness means to them. There’s also the Learn BIM platform where people are encouraged to post their favourite signing words and phrases in BIM.
“To this day, Sign For Malaysia remains a curiosity-driven project with a greater desire to do good. The connections I’ve made with the local deaf community, and the gratitude I feel toward them for inspiring me to find confidence in my disability, ensure that I am personally committed to this mission.
“I hope to see sign language no longer an esoteric language reserved for the disabled by making it one that is embraced alongside spoken languages in schools across Malaysia, ” said Lee, who is also handling collaborations between deaf organisations and Awam to offer sex education and empower deaf survivors of sexual violence to understand their rights and seek redress.
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