Don't shrug off sign language, say groups

SINGAPORE - Is this a sign of the times?

With fewer children suffering from serious hearing loss thanks to early screening and medical advances, and newer methods of coping with the condition - such as speech therapy - gaining popularity in Singapore, the use of sign language has been on the wane here over the years.

But the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf) says sign language still has an important role to play, as not all people afflicted with deafness are suitable for speech therapy.

The Singapore School for the Deaf, run by the association, had some 300 students annually learning sign language in the 1980s and early 1990s but over the last few years, the number has dropped to fewer than 20.

Speech therapy involves teaching deaf children to vocalise through activities such as auditory drills - where they could be asked to spell the sound they hear - and generally requires devices such as hearing aids and cochlear implants.

But not everyone can afford a cochlear implant, which can cost more than $30,000.

Some children with severe to profound hearing loss, or in some cases with no hearing at all, may not be suitable for cochlear implants, said a spokesman for the organisation.

"Medical contra-indications could be another reason, such as a child born without a hearing nerve," she added.

One such child is Amirul Afiq Rozlan, 13, who was born with damaged hearing nerves in one ear, while the other was missing the nerves altogether.

His mother, administrative assistant Zulianah Taub, 50, said doctors told her that the chances of him vocalising were slim.

It is children like him who will benefit from sign language. After six years at the Singapore School for the Deaf, he is now able to communicate proficiently through sign language.

Around five in 1,000 babies - or 0.05 per cent of the population - are born with hearing loss each year.

The Singapore School for the Deaf has only 11 students now, as parents of deaf children who have undergone speech therapy prefer to enrol them in mainstream schools.

The school stopped accepting new students in 2010 and is likely to close in 2016, when its current students graduate.

SADeaf noted that sign language is often perceived as inferior to spoken language or not a real language, which puts some parents off.

Others, the spokesman said, have a misconception that learning sign language would result in their children not picking up speech at all.

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Federation Singapore acknowledged that sign language is becoming a less popular choice, but urged parents to expose their deaf children to both methods: sign and oral.

Its president, Mimi Ng said sign language can act as a back-up for those unable to learn to communicate via oral methods.

The organisation added that sign language should not be seen as inferior.

"It is not a gesture or mime for those who cannot speak or hear, but a human visual language with its own grammar structures," she said.

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