S'pore Association for the Deaf helps build children's confidence with sign language

International Week of the Deaf is celebrated in the last full week of September.

SINGAPORE - International Week of the Deaf is celebrated in the last full week of September.

For Mrs Noor Aini, 36, whose son Muhammad Zahin Feroz Khan was born with hearing loss in both ears, she has reason to be optimistic about his future.

"We had it very tough during the first four years of his life," says the administrative executive.

While the use of hearing aids and speech therapy enhanced his listening and speech skills, "he used to have a lot of meltdowns due to the frustration of not being able to communicate to a fuller extent", she adds.

"Learning sign language was a game changer," says Mrs Noor Aini, who enrolled Zahin in the Fei Yue Early Intervention Centre For Children when he was four.

A year ago, he joined The Little Hands bilingual-bicultural programme. He is one of 11 children in the communication programme run by the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf) in Mountbatten Road, for children aged 2½ to seven.

The participants, who have varying degrees and types of hearing loss, attend the sessions five days a week, from 9am to 12.30pm.

At the start of the day, they sign the Singapore pledge with their teachers. Those who are verbal are encouraged to speak as well while signing.


Muhammad Zahin Feroz Khan (in blue T-shirt), seven, and his classmates, as well as teachers of the Little Hands Bilingual-Bicultural Programme using Singapore Sign Language to recite the pledge first thing in the morning at 9am. They wear specially designed face masks that allow them to lip-read through a plastic see-through portion at the mouth area. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG


Dyan Safiyyah Mohamad Taufik (right) and Ho Wen Xi (centre), six, during outdoor play. “At the SADeaf, the deaf children have a common language and that gives them a sense of identity. The environment is language rich and that gives them more confidence to express themselves,” said Mr Alvan Yap, the deputy director of SADeaf. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG


Muhammed Thoha Norhaizat (right), six, signs “sorry” with his fist circling his heart, in response to classmate Dyan Safiyyah Mohamad Taufik as she signs, “oh, that hurt” after he accidentally stepped on her sandals during lesson time at the Little Hands Bilingual-Bicultural Programme. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

By 9.30am, Zahin is a "doctor" in an enactment of a scene in a clinic, as he practises communicating with "patients" and "nurses" played by his classmates.

Now seven, Zahin is happy, confident and can switch between sign language and spoken English.

Little Hands strongly advocates teaching sign language to deaf children from a young age.

The "bilingualism" part of the programme refers to the use of both sign language and speech, if the child is able to.


Children signing to their teacher during lesson time at the Little Hands Bilingual-Bicultural Programme, a communication programme run by SADeaf. Little Hands strongly advocates teaching sign language to deaf children from a young age. The “bilingualism” part of the programme refers to the use of both sign language and speech, if the student is able to. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG


Rifa’i Syahputra Sharunnizam (left), seven, and Dyan Safiyyah Mohamad Taufik, six, learning how to spell during a language lesson. Lessons are tweaked for each individual, as many enter at different ages with different levels of speech and abilities to sign. In these instances, the deaf mentor may help the child one on one to get him or her up to speed. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG


Dyan Safiyyah Mohamad Taufik puts the external component of her cochlear implant back after replacing its batteries during lesson time. Cochlear implants are surgically implanted by a surgical specialist, and while they do not restore hearing, they provide the sensation of sound for those who are deaf or have profound hearing loss. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Ms Barbara D'Cotta, training manager and coordinator who established the programme, says: "We want to dispel the notion that voice training is omitted when children learn signing."

She used to teach at Mayflower Primary School, Singapore's designated school for deaf pupils. Specialised teachers from SADeaf co-teach the mainstream curriculum to deaf pupils, alongside hearing ones.

It was there that she noticed a large language gap in children entering primary school.

"They lacked the social and academic language to access the curriculum. This included reading and writing, and also sign language which is used during co-taught classes," she says.

She started Little Hands in 2018, which is completely funded by SADeaf.


From the 1980s to 2008, there was a nursery for deaf children run by SADeaf, where they taught sign language, but it was closed after enrolment dropped. Little Hands is the only programme exclusively for deaf children below the age of seven which offers sign language as part of its curriculum. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Besides learning the Singapore Sign Language (sgSL) used by the deaf community here, art, maths and English (grammar and vocabulary), the children also go through role-playing exercises where they practise interaction in different scenarios.

"This gives them confidence in different social settings where they may or may not be the only one who is deaf," says Ms D'Cotta.

This is the "bicultural" element - exposing the children to both deaf culture and situations where they have to interact with hearing persons.


During a role-playing session where they reenact a scene in a clinic, teacher Tay Lee Ee (right), 54, signs to Dyan Safiyyah Mohamad Taufik (centre), who plays the nurse, to call for the next patient to see the doctor. This gives the children confidence in different social settings where they may or may not be the only one who is deaf. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG


Joel Cai, six, with teacher Phoebe Heng, 42, during an art lesson. Each class has one hearing trained teacher and one teaching assistant who is deaf. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG


Labels are placed all over the classroom to remind children of the names of everyday objects in both English and Singapore Sign Language (SgSL). The SgSL is Singapore’s native sign language and has developed over the last six decades since the setting up of the first school for the deaf in 1954. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SADeaf deputy director Alvan Yap says: "Any language is important from the time they are born, and for many deaf kids, sign language is the most accessible. The most important thing is to make language accessible to children, and to build their cognitive senses."

"The common misconception is that speech is the only form of language, but sign is a visual language which can be the bridge of communication before spoken language is learnt," he adds.

Ms D'Cotta says: "I hope more parents will be aware of the need for their children to use another mode of communication (sign language) which will help them build cognitively and assimilate into mainstream curriculum."