Earlier this year, DPA Research and Policy Manager, Max Soh interviewed deaf advocate, Jessica Mak. Jessica is a deaf advocate with years of experience advocating for deaf people in Singapore. Currently, she is part of SGSL Now! – a group working to promote and advocate for Singapore Sign Language and for the deaf community.
In the interview, Jessica shares a few examples of the barriers that still exist for deaf people in Singapore, various ways she and other deaf advocates propose to address such barriers, and the importance in making SGSL an official language in Singapore.
Image description for video: The video opens with a slide with a light blue background and white borders, with the DPA logo on top right of the screen, the text “What are the barriers that still exist for deaf people in Singapore?” is aligned to the centre left of the screen, and a line at the bottom of the screen that says: Part of DPA Webinar entitled “Advocating for a barrier-free and inclusive Singapore”. After the intro slide, Singapore Sign Language (SGSL) Interpreter Daniel Yong is on the top left of the screen, SGSL Interpreter Chan Shimei is on the top right of the screen, Max Soh of DPA is on the bottom left of the screen, Jessica Mak is on the bottom right of the screen. The video closes with an outro slide with the DPA logo.
**We had some issues with parts of the recording, but you can read the rest of the interview below:**
Max: The Singapore government met up with members from the CRPD committee last August, and during the two meetings, there was quite a bit of discussion, on the barriers that still exist for deaf individuals in settings such as in healthcare settings, whether that is how deaf individuals still have to mainly pay out of pocket for excess, for accommodation such as, you know, interpreters or speech-to-text technology and how this creates a lot of inequities especially in important settings like healthcare settings. And I was wondering if you could speak a bit on this and what can be done to address such gaps?
Jessica: Yeah of course, sure! Thank you so much for the question. So, I mean yeah, we are grateful for the access, right? You know, we have, you know, SGSL interpretation, and we have captioning for the 2023 Budget recently, you know, National Day rallies, it’s really helpful. But still, we sometimes have to pay out of our own pocket to pay for access services. For example, when we go to the hospitals for medical appointments, the hospitals won’t pay for it, we will have to pay ourselves. Most hospitals actually ask us to bring a family member or friend to come interpret for them. You know, that’s not reasonable, that’s not appropriate.
Family members or friends who don’t learn sign language, they have limited vocabulary, some only, you know, only could use gesturing, and you know, they are not accommodating what I need. Maybe they could interpret for something that is very casual, but what happens if it is something that is dangerous or serious or formal?
For example, I remember in the past there was one case where there was this deaf guy who went to the hospital A&E or emergency department and the deaf person went with young children and they went there and they were waiting and waiting in the waiting room for a long time until they waited for the deaf person to come in, and then the doctor actually waited for the parents to come in to tell them the information. And then, what happens if the deaf person is alone and no one else is coming? Does that mean that they get left out, they don’t get any access to information. Where is my wellbeing? The person needs to know, not the parents, right? You know, you can’t really rely on the parents. As a deaf person I can’t rely on my parents, right? So that’s really uneasy for deaf people.
And, you know, many of us deaf people, don’t understand difficult or complex medical terminology. Sometimes, when they write on pen and paper, the terms are difficult. It’s difficult for us deaf people to understand, since our first language – it wouldn’t be English. So, it’s very important to have this full effective communication for us deaf people. And it’s not easy to get interpreters right now in Singapore also.
According to Singapore Association for the Deaf, there is about, 6000 deaf people in Singapore and in Singapore, we have about 10 interpreters. That means there is 1 interpreter for 600 deaf people. Being an interpreter itself is already not easy. They get, you know, quite low pay. It’s really important for us to get interpreters. And you know, interpreters are there not for me or for deaf people, they are there because many hearing people don’t know sign language. So to close this gap, we propose that the government fund the expenses of interpreter services for healthcare settings, which is required by the CRPD and that’s what Singapore has already ratified. And this is to give full access to information and communication.
And also, one of the solutions that we have seen in other countries like Thailand or Australia that would help increase sign language interpreters, is telecommunication relay services, or video relay services that are for deaf people. For example, this telecommunication relay services will have speech-to-text or interpretation live, on demand, like on video call, and it not only benefits us deaf people, it benefits those with speech impediment or other, you know, communication disabilities. In other countries, like Australia and Thailand, they’ve had things like that and the government has been funding this, fully funding, in fact it’s free for those residents there. And it [such technologies] makes it super easy for us, don’t have to rely on our family members or other people. It gives us deaf people to live our lives independently. And the thing is, whether it is to make a call to the bank, or make appointments, it would let us live independently.
Max: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I love your point about how you said sign language interpreters are for hearing people and not for deaf individuals. It’s such an important perspective to have when it comes to these kinds of conversations. I also like what you said about the difference between English and Singapore sign language. I think there’s still this misconception of, you know, Oh, if you’re fluent in Singapore Sign Language, you’re fluent in English, right? But no, they are two different languages, and often times, SGSL is the first language for deaf people.
There’s been much efforts from deaf advocates here in Singapore to make Singapore Sign Language one of the official languages here in Singapore. Can you tell us about such efforts over the years and why it’s important for Singapore Sign Language to be made into an official language in developing a more inclusive Singapore.
Jessica: So I think this is really important for us deaf people and the community in Singapore. When the government signed and ratified the UNCRPD in November 2012 and July 2013, the Singapore Association for the Deaf, or SA Deaf, started an SGSL Development Project team to help get SGSL recognised as an official language. Because SGSL is our language and part of identity as a deaf person, this makes SGSL equal to other spoken languages like English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. We have our own language. SGSL has its own linguistic structure and legitimacy as other spoken languages. And, you know, we need more work on researching and documenting this language. We need more experts to work on this because there are not many people who are involved in this, who are, you know, experts in such research. So, SGSL needs to be recognised and added to Paragraph 153A of the Singapore Constitution, The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.
Once SGSL gets recognised, it will make a huge impact on not just the deaf community but also the signing community – the family members of deaf people, friends, people who work with deaf people, and so on. It doesn’t only apply to the deaf people themselves. This recognition will definitely help mitigate the discrimination that deaf people face on a daily basis, and create more opportunities. And you know, create more equality, to have more accessible services in the future, more accessibility, you know, more people to learn sign language since it’s recognised.
And in fact, you know, it even goes down to the family, right, where parents are encouraged to learn SGSL to communicate with their deaf children. So, this is very important actually, when deaf people are born and it’s this critical period of language acquisition, right, and it is very important to expose a deaf child to language, right? And when parents learn SGSL, it exposes them, as early as possible, to prevent language deprivation. And then it allows this child to develop as equally as everyone else. This makes society overall more inclusive. In the long run also, we preserve the SGSL heritage culture, handing down from generation to generation, and you know, we hope that SGSL can be introduced as a subject, mother tongue in school where everyone can learn and communicate in different languages – not just Chinese, Malay, Tamil, also SGSL. It’s also a language. Communication, it’s a mode of communication where everyone can be included. With this, deaf people in society won’t feel neglected or isolated, if more people know sign language, yeah it makes us all, you know, feel more included because we all have access to communication.
So, looking at our neighbouring countries, Malaysia and Philippines themselves, actually, have officially recognised Malaysian Sign Language and Filipino Sign Language as an official language in their legal system. I think now it’s time for Singapore to recognise SGSL as an official language. We’ve already signed and ratified the UNCRPD. And the UNCRPD does actually indicate that sign language is a language and should be used as a community tool in disabled people’s lives and in society in general. This, you know, will break down these barriers in society and lead to more inclusivity… everywhere. In social settings, in school, you know, everywhere. This will make lives so much easier if one uses the language. This also reduces the burden on the deaf community and it also reduces the burden on sign language interpreters and you know, such interpretation services can be used for more important settings like meetings and conferences … SGSL is very important. The legal recognition of SGSL will lead to better enjoyment in life and equality in all aspects in life.
Max: Thank you so much, Jessica, really appreciate that and everything you said. It’s about, as mentioned earlier in the beginning, it’s about how society can reduce these barriers.