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Collab: Bridging the Gap

Updated: Apr 4

The shoot at NTU on the Sun afternoon of 21st Jan. An interview meeting that took place in preparation for it 11 days prior. It’s been an interesting start to 2024 for me.

Kym contacted me around mid-dec last year asking if I could contribute my story in the form of an Instagram reel for the page, It is part of a communications campaign called This is Your Sign, which aims to bridge the gap between deaf and hearing individuals in Singapore. The project is run by Kym and her peers, a team of undergraduate students at NTU, for their Final Year Project. The process of working with them turned out to be insightful and enjoyable. I am honoured to be a part of this collaboration.

IG reel released on Feb 20 can be found at this link: dear hearing people, meet phoebe!

Voice-over interpreting: Clara Chee

My sincere appreciation goes to Kym, Regine, Yanjun, Lynn, Shaza, and Ryan for a stellar job on the “dear hearing people” series, as well as Clara for her interpreting services. 

As a special note of thanks to the team, I’ve written a letter beginning with “dear hearing people” addressed specifically to them. It’s rather long as it details the learning journey we had together which culminated in the IG reel.

Hope you enjoy reading it nonetheless!

Dear hearing people,

When I first met you, I knew we were worlds apart.

During the initial interview, you asked me questions such as "Do you see yourself as normal or abnormal?" and "How can we help?"

You initially viewed me as someone needing “help”. It was clear that your idea of what is “normal” contrasts with mine.

I viewed your team as people equal to me, from another culture with values that differed from mine.

I bet you never knew you had a hearing identity until you met a deaf person. In your world, to be able to hear is so normal that you simply don’t question that hearing is an identity.

The initial interaction between us left me feeling iffy. Your hearing-centric perspectives were clearly not in alignment with my deaf-centric view.

You understood the word “deaf” from a deficit perspective and that to be hearing is “normal”. To me, the word “deaf” has positive connotations because it reflects my identity, culture and language. It is the very essence of my being.

Your idea of bridging the gap between the hearing and the deaf is to support me to adapt to a hearing world so that I can be “fully included”.  However, learning different sign languages and meeting deaf and hearing signers worldwide has enriched my life in ways that the hearing world cannot. It has enabled me to feel comfortable in my own skin and given me the "tools" to navigate a dominant hearing world confidently.

Instead of expecting me to become more like a hearing person, how about you learn my language and culture? Us deaf people cannot always learn to hear and speak, but hearing people can always learn to sign.

Along the way, I saw that you did make an effort to learn the deaf language and culture through different initiatives in your campaign. But just thinking out loud, will you continue after your FYP is done?

When I asked to talk with you before the shoot to raise some of my concerns, I was happy that you were receptive to having an open conversation. That went a long way as a first step in establishing trust.

Instead of viewing me from the perspective of someone needing your “help”, allow me to reframe it by asking this admittedly pointed and rare but not irrelevant question: “What have you gained from interacting with me?”

During the shoot, you asked me several times to shorten the sentences I signed because the English sentence in the script was shorter. Little did you know that expansion techniques such as reiteration and explaining by examples, or painting the scene is how the visual-spatial modality of sign languages are expressed. English is linear while sign languages are 3D languages. One is not lesser than the other. They are just expressed differently.

When seeking my feedback in the process of editing my video, we went back and forth several times on WhatsApp. I could see gaps that you couldn’t see because I knew my deaf language and you didn’t.

From your perspective, the story you thought you were editing was about balancing your creative direction and the aesthetic appeal of the video in conjunction with spotlighting my signs. For me, the transitions between the PIP and full view felt abrupt. It was as if my signs were cut off at the beginning and at the end. This is akin to how the first and the last words of the interpreter’s voice would be cut off when she voices what I sign in English.

As you can see, I ended up having to make several compromises during the shoot and in the process of giving feedback on the video edits.

Just know that the process of working with a professional deaf filmmaker would have been different. Decisions would be made from a deaf-centric point of view. It would have reduced the emotional labour I had to invest in just to explain to you why this or that doesn’t work.

Ideally, a hearing filmmaker wanting to work on deaf community projects should be fluent in a sign language. This would allow for direct communication between us, possibly without an interpreter. So, dear hearing people, will you consider closing the gap between us even further by continuing to learn to sign or working at improving your signing fluency?

As someone who identifies as bimodal and bicultural, I have the ability to adapt between the hearing and the deaf cultures. I can easily put myself in your shoes and see things from your point of view, and then switch back to my deaf perspective. I was constantly doing this throughout all our interactions.

As time went on, I grew increasingly impressed with your communication and negotiation skills. I even ended up learning a thing or two from you on the art of effective communication.

I could also feel a shift in your perspective and attitude. You started to see me as the expert on deaf issues. You consulted me on how to frame the advertisement for your exhibition. Initially, you said that interpreters were not needed for your roadshow. However, later, you took into account my feedback that "a deaf event should have interpreters as not having one would go against the ethos of the event". I was pleased to see that an interpreter was assigned for Thursday night after all, even though I didn't get to make it.

It was great that you respected my agency as a deaf person to choose which sign language interpreter I wanted to engage for this project.

You are completely unaware of how burned and disempowered I have felt from interacting with some interpreters in Singapore in the last few years. Some of them have trampled on my agency by hijacking the discussion, making decisions for me, and arguing with me. There are other interpreters who have been overly passive and kept completely quiet, when actually knowing how to say something in the proper way and at the right time would have contributed to a more effective communication flow.

There was something different about having Clara as the interpreter for this collaboration She was a delight to work with and is secure in her identity as a hearing interpreter. Clara knew when it was appropriate for her to say something and when it was not in our WhatsApp group. She knew how to give feedback on the video from a hearing signer’s POV and also redirected the conversation to me when it came to making final decisions on the video edits instead of deciding for me. I was impressed with the “communication tools” that she utilised confidently throughout our interactions. It was as if she was the bridge, successfully mediating the communication between you and me.

It is important to allow deaf people to choose interpreters they feel comfortable with because it contributes to the overall flow of the interactions. If the interpreter’s values clash with mine, it has the potential to ruin the experience for all of us. I find that whenever the interpreter’s values are in alignment with mine, he or she is easy to work with.

The positive dynamics among all of us that ensued, surprised me in a big way. It got better and better over time. You and Clara have set the bar high for how hearing people and interpreters should interact with the deaf. It was a breath of fresh air for me.

The final product turned out to be exceptional. I believe it was actually the process of working together on the reel that achieved the goal of your campaign – the building of bridges between you and me, with the interpreter. Congratulations on a successful campaign!

If another opportunity should arise for us to work together in the future, I am pleased to say that I would be willing to collaborate again.

Thank you for coming into my orbit and for the journey we've had together 😊

Phoebe Tay, signing off

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