Reaching out through the deafening silence

His story is one that’s fraught with challenges every step of the way but with devoted parents and sheer perseverance, he is all set to face the world.

THERE were signs right from the beginning.

From failing to respond whenever his name was called out to instances when he didn’t bat an eyelid to the roaring sounds of thunder and shattered glassware, Gunaseelan Palaneeveloo and Sheila Gunaseelan knew something wasn’t quite right with their toddler.

Just three days after their son Thireswar Sharma turned one in August 1994, they were told that he was deaf. Sheila and Guna-seelan were devastated. They struggled to digest the news as no paediatrician had detected their son’s inability to hear during his previous check-ups.

“It was only upon our request that a child specialist in Klang carried out a procedure and discovered that he was deaf,” said Gunaseelan.

Although heartbroken, both parents were determined to focus on their son.

Soon after, Sheila, an ambitious young executive at a financial institution, decided to give up her job.

“I couldn’t concentrate at work as all I wanted to do was to be with Thireswar.”

Limkokwing University of Creative Technology founder and president Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing says the varsity goes out of its way to assist their special needs students.
Reaching out to students with disabilities msut come from the heart, says Lim.

Both parents weren’t keen to send their only child to a special school as they wanted him to learn how to speak like a “normal person”.

“In cases like Thireswar’s, hospitals will provide referral letters for parents to enrol their children in special schools.

“We were directed by an audiologist who said that our son can be taught to speak like an abled person,” added Gunaseelan, 53.

Sheila, 51, pointed out that they were against the idea of admitting Thireswar into a special needs school as they believed sign language or signing could be picked up at any stage of his life.

“Our idea was for him to talk first, and to learn signing later.

“We were also advised by our speech therapist that learning how to sign could wait,” she said.

However, enrolling him in a regular school was a difficult task as schools were not keen to admit a special needs child.

However, the determined parents fought their way in.

The prejudices they faced were not just from society but relatives too.

Gunaseelan said that after a while, some of the challenges they faced became a norm.

Sheila and Gunaseelan (right) are proud parents of their only child Thireswar, and see him as a gift to them.
Sheila and Gunaseelan (right) are proud parents of their only child Thireswar, and see him as a gift to them."

“Some parents did not allow their children to befriend Thireswar because of the way he talked.

“They were afraid their children would end up mumbling like him.”

It was disheartening but they perservered. He added that despite encountering some insensitive parents, there were other parents, schoolmates and teachers who were understanding and helpful.

“They would take the trouble to write down the homework that needed to be completed on his notebook. That helped as we could keep track of Thireswar’s progress.

“We would also prepare him for other school assisgnments and projects,” added Sheila.

“Financially, it was difficult. I resigned for I was determined to look into the needs and well-being of my son.”

Sheila’s focus to rehabilitate her son was evident as she and her husband made the decision of not wanting more children.

“My primary objective as a parent was to take care of Thireswar,” she reiterated.

Gunaseelan, a bank manager, also ventured into other part-time jobs to support the family.

Early intervention

Sheila braced for the challenges that came and did her own research in seeking ideas, new techniques and tips on teaching her son to speak.

However, having to educate people on her son’s condition and changing society’s perception on deaf people, was an even bigger challenge.

“It was frustrating. There were people who communicated by using their hands, but I wanted them to talk to him.”

It seemed like a futile exercise but there were positive signs when Thireswar began to utter some words when he was about seven years old.

“We were told by speech therapists that for children with impaired hearing, they must be rehabilitated between the ages of one and five.

“The earlier hearing loss is detected in infants, the better the outcome for language and speech development. Doing so later would be much more difficult.

“However, finding a suitable speech therapist wasn’t easy and speech experts advised us to just teach our son how to sign,” added Sheila.

After many months of searching, they found a therapist who was committed to teaching their son to speak like an abled person.

“Although Thireswar was slow, the therapist was patient and helped him overcome his fears. She would teach our son only if we (both parents), were present at each session,” Sheila added.

Support also came in the form of the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles, California in the United States.

Recommended by their audiologist, the clinic provided audiology diagnostics, education, resources, and supported families with infants or young children with hearing loss.

“We took correspondence courses with them at no charge and it worked like a miracle for us!

“They taught us skills on parenting children with special needs like our son, and sent us questionnaires so that they could keep up with Thireswar’s progress,” said Gunaseelan.

Sheila began labelling every item in their house – pointers she picked up from her son’s therapist and the clinic, to help her son understand and speak.

Thanks to their efforts and dedication, Thireswar is now a Graphic Design graduate from Limkokwing University of Creative Technology.

The 23-year-old wears a perpetual smile on his face and speaks with confidence. He is just as proficient in sign language.

“I must thank my mum and dad. They pushed me knowing my deafness had nothing to do with my other abilities. But the learning never stops ... I must achieve more,” he added.

“I love photography and graphic design. I go about doing the little things I enjoy. What people say about my disability does not bother me,” said the bespectacled youngster.

To earn extra pocket money, Thireswar does freelance photography.

“From a young age, we have said that if he wants something, he has to earn it himself.

“There is no easy way out and no special privileges. He must learn to be independent,” Sheila added.

His passion for drawing and graphic design began in his teens. Realising their son’s interest, both parents encouraged him to pursue a degree in graphic design, after his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) exams in 2011.

“We researched and came across Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, which provided and continues to support students with hearing impairment.”

Thireswar received a scholarship to pursue his diploma and degree at the varsity.

“As an undergaduate, he was constantly guided and given support by his peers and lecturers, including the varsity’s senior management.

“If there were concerns, we would write to the university’s founder and president Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing who was always quick to respond,” Gunaseelan added. The varsity’s English language lecturer and translator Yogeswari Chaujer, had also been a source of inspiration to Thireswar, he said.

A Limkokwing University of Creative Technology lecturer for the past 14 years, Yogeswari suffers from hearing impairment herself.

“This is a university that has given people like me a chance,” she said, adding that 150 hearing impaired students had graduated from the university in the last 22 years.

Yogeswari said many lecturers at the university have had basic training in sign language and that helped them communicate and deal with their hearing impaired students better.

She added that writing was an important component and lecturers often insisted that their students write because it was an effective way of communicating their thoughts especially when they join the workforce.

Students Eng Chui Ling, 19, and Foo Lun Leong, 24, who are both hearing impaired, received scholarships and are thankful to Lim and the varsity for taking in students like them.

Lim said: “When a special needs student requires help, it will be given. We go out of our way to ensure they do well.”

Lim said the varsity’s campus in Botswana, Africa, is looked upon by other universities in the region as a model university when it comes to empowering students with disabilities.

Parts of the varsity’s buildings were also reconstructed to allow easy access for the disabled.

Lim added that apart from providing such facilities, reaching out to students with special needs must come “from the heart”.

Despite the challenges faced in raising Thireswar, his parents are appreciative of the support that are in place for disabled people.

“There are many NGOs in the country that are raising awareness and shedding light on the issues faced by people with special needs. The government has also spent a lot in providing for the disabled,” Gunaseelan said.

The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 and the Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025 are clear about the needs of students with disabilities.

Both documents mention the importance of education being “holistic, accessible and inclusive”.

Sheila reiterated that there was no gain without pain.

Quitting her job over two decades ago was a painful decision, but she is beaming with pride as she looks at her graduate son now.

“It is well worth the sacrifice. My husband and I tell Thireswar that he is a gift to us.

“I may not have the money but I feel like a ‘millionaire’ each day.”

Gunaseelan advised parents with disabled children to never lose hope.

“There is light at the end of every tunnel and we need to look for it and move on from there,”

With a bright future ahead of him, Thireswar plans to pursue his postgraduate studies in interior design in the United Kingdom.