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Cheryl Leong
Simply Her
Tuesday, Sep 9, 2014

SPH Magazines

"How I pushed my deaf sons to excel"

Simply Her | Cheryl Leong | Tuesday, Sep 9, 2014

"I was 24 when I married my husband, Patrick, in 1982. A year later, our first son, Lionel, was born. He was a healthy, adorable baby. But when he was about seven months old, I noticed that he'd quietened down - he had stopped gurgling and preferred to play with toys and puzzles on his own.

I had friends who'd given birth around the same time as me, and their babies - some younger than Lionel - were already babbling their first words. When I tested Lionel's hearing by checking if he'd turn in my direction when I spoke, he always did so. I realised only later that he was using his sharp eyes and observation skills, even as a baby, to 'hear'.

DROPPING A BOMBSHELL

Some months after I began testing Lionel's hearing, a friend visited us with her dog. When the dog gave a sudden, loud bark right in front of Lionel, he wasn't afraid - in fact, he gave no sign that he'd heard it at all. I was sure then that something wasn't right. But as young, first-time parents, the word 'deaf' didn't even occur to me and Patrick.

I took Lionel to a paediatrician and an audiologist, who both told me that perhaps he had a slower developmental rate. But I had niggling doubts - my instincts as a mother told me otherwise. After more tests, Lionel was confirmed deaf at 14 months old. Doctors said it might be hereditary, so Patrick and I went for genetic testing. Our results, however, were normal. The doctors couldn't pinpoint what had caused the condition.

I consider myself a naturally cheerful person, but my child's deafness left me devastated. I fell into depression and couldn't bring myself to go back to work for more than a month - I was a purchasing officer at an aviation company. I read up obsessively about deafness and visited the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf) to experience what it was like being around those who were hearing-impaired. Patrick took the news better than me; he said that if our son was born this way, we had to accept it and focus on providing well for him. He turned his attention to running his construction business, so that we could afford to give Lionel better opportunities in life. But my biggest fear remained: Who would look after our son in our old age? It was a frightening thought.

MOVING ON

After thinking about what I could do to help my son, I decided to pick myself up and heed Patrick's advice. I knew I needed to arm myself with the knowledge of how to raise a hearing-impaired child. So I joined a parents' support group at SADeaf; I also enrolled in a distance-learning course with John Tracy Clinic, an established education centre in Los Angeles which specialises in helping parents to bring up young children with hearing loss. Their support was invaluable - whenever I encountered parenting problems, I'd write to the clinic for advice. That was how I successfully potty-trained Lionel, who was still wearing diapers at the age of five.

I also had the support of my sisters and good friends. They'd come over with their kids and the children would play together. I always told them not to give in to my son, and to treat him like any other child.

SECOND HEARTBREAK

Despite my fears, I wanted a second child - I felt that Lionel needed a sibling to grow up with. After two miscarriages, I fell pregnant with our second son, Joseph, in 1986. When Joseph was born healthy, Patrick and I were relieved. But four months later, I observed the same signs in Joseph that I had with Lionel. Again, my fears were confirmed after putting him through tests: At seven months old, Joseph was confirmed deaf too, and the cause was unknown.

This time, I didn't linger on my sadness for more than a day; instead, I counted my blessings that both my sons had no other disabilities. But some people looked at me differently - they said it was a bad omen to have two deaf children, and told their kids not to play with my sons in case they started speaking like them. From then on, I stopped giving too much importance to others' opinions, so they wouldn't get me down.

GIVING THEM BETTER OPPORTUNITIES

I was determined to give my sons as normal an upbringing as possible, so I enrolled them - Lionel first - for speech therapy training at Dover Court Preparatory School. I also continued my correspondence with John Tracy Clinic, and they taught me how to teach Lionel to speak and lip-read. For example, differentiating between 'pa' and 'ma' sounds is difficult for the hearing-impaired. I had to speak against a piece of paper as I made the sounds, to show Lionel that a 'pa' sound makes the paper move while a 'ma' doesn't.

On his fourth birthday, Lionel finally uttered his first word, 'ba'.

When Lionel was four, we took him and Joseph to Taralye, a centre for deaf children in Melbourne, Australia, where they could have speech therapy and interact with other kids. Each year for five years, the boys spent one week there. Just before giving birth to Joseph, I had been retrenched from my job. So I took the opportunity to home-school my boys to give them a head start before they began formal education. I read to them every night and taught them how to write and count. They're bright boys - before entering Primary 1, they could already recite the 12 times table.

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