The Singapore School for the Deaf (SSD), which closed at the end of 2017, was a key institution for the deaf community in Singapore since it opened in 1963. We spoke with Barbara d’Cotta, the former Vice Principal of the school, about her decades of experience as a teacher and mentor to children with hearing loss.
Barbara d’Cotta’s belongings in her old office, at the Singapore School for the Deaf at Mountbatten Road, still hadn’t been packed up when we arrived for the interview. Books, papers, pens, and various memorabilia were strewn across her desk. The noticeboard outside the General Office still displayed a poster for the school’s farewell party, held barely a week prior.
It was the end of an era. After more than 50 years, the school closed its doors due to a happy problem – falling student numbers.
“In 2001, hearing tests for newborn babies were introduced in all hospitals,” explained Barbara. “These allowed parents to find out if their child suffered hearing loss from day one, and they could then be counselled about the different options for their child, be it a cochlear implant, auditory brain stem implant, or hearing aids.”
Due to these advancements, many parents now prefer their children to attend mainstream schools in the hope that this will aid their integration into society.
The SSD in 1963, the year of its opening. Today, the site is shared by the Singapore Association for the Deaf, and the Mountbatten Vocational School. Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
To Barbara, who began working at the school in 1979 as a teaching assistant and gradually worked her way up to the post of Vice-Principal in 2012, the closure brought mixed emotions.
“Having taught at the school for nearly 40 years, I do feel sad about the closure,” she said. “The school functioned well and churned out many successful pupils who are doing well in their careers or professions.” As she spoke, she gestured often with her hands, in quick, fluttery motions reminiscent of Sign Language.
To our surprise, given her successful career and obvious passion for her students, Barbara did not set out to become a special educator – she fell into it by chance. “After my ‘A’ levels, I applied for a teaching course at the then-Institute of Education (IE) [now the National Institute of Education (NIE)],” she recalled.
“I was rejected, and when I saw the advertisement for teachers at the School for the Deaf, I applied even though I didn’t know any Sign Language. I thought that if I could get some kind of teaching experience, I would stand a better chance of getting into IE.”
After just a few months at SSD, her plan had turned on its head. Barbara was so intrigued by how language could be communicated visually, and how much potential children with hearing loss have when given the opportunity to learn, that she decided to stay on at the school and abandoned the idea of becoming a ‘mainstream’ teacher.
When she first started teaching at SSD, training opportunities in special education were few and far between. Barbara had to learn Sign Language on the job, and attended courses on pedagogical approaches for students with hearing loss that were conducted on-site at the school.
She also had to acquaint herself with hearing devices and equipment used by the SSD. Back then, students used pocket hearing aids, and each class was also equipped with a special machine called the “auditory trainer” which helped students to pick up and learn speech. Students would wear headphones, and the teacher would speak into a microphone.
When IE introduced a certification in Special Education in 1984, Barbara was among its pioneer batch of students. She subsequently received a scholarship to the Brisbane College of Advanced Education in Queensland, Australia, where she studied for a Diploma in Special Education. Upon her return to Singapore in 1990, she rejoined SSD.
As a Specialised Teacher at Mayflower Primary School, Barbara now works with colleagues, using a ‘co-teaching’ approach, to deliver lessons for students with hearing loss and their hearing peers alike. Photo courtesy of Barbara d’Cotta
Having taught at SSD for so many years, she has many fond memories of her time there. “The most memorable ones were when I had pupils with behavioural challenges. For the most part, I think I was able to help them overcome those challenges and change for the better,” she said.
“I tried to show them their strengths, and get them to make use of those. Just taking the time to find out their problems and showing them I cared often helped.”
Barbara recalled a boy she had taught just a few years back. When she took over his class, his previous teachers told her that the boy would not be able to pass his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and not to “waste time on him.”
Determined to form her own judgment of his abilities, Barbara continued to teach and treat him in the same manner as she did her other students. She soon learned that while he was keen to learn, difficult personal circumstances were making it tough for him to keep up with his classes.
Barbara got him to stay behind after class to go over material he had been struggling with. His confidence grew as he began passing his class tests, and when he felt discouraged, she would remind him of his dream of living independently. With her help, the boy completed his ‘N’ Levels, and is currently enrolled in a vocational course at one of the Institutes of Technical Education (ITE) and on his way to achieving his dream.
The boy still contacts her for advice, and isn’t the only one to do so; Barbara still keeps in touch with many of her former students, and met up with some of them at the SSD’s farewell party in March 2018. Although many of them have found stable employment and have families of their own, others are struggling to find work.
According to Barbara, many employers are unwilling to hire people with hearing loss. “Employers often see them as a liability due to the differences in communication. Most lack knowledge of, or interaction with, people with hearing loss, and this tends to put them [employers] off hiring them.”
In this vein, Barbara believes much more can be done to assist people with hearing loss with better integrating into mainstream society. She recalled how, when she first started teaching at SSD, derogatory terms like “deaf and dumb” were commonly used by both the public and the media to describe people with hearing loss. Although this is far less common now, overcoming prejudice is only part of the battle; Barbara feels that families need to do their part too.
“Unfortunately, not many parents and families see the need to learn Sign Language beyond the basics. As a result, the child is often isolated at home or during outings, since they get left out of conversations and so on,” she explained.
“The lack of Sign Language skills also leads to the child not picking up language at home, and thus their academic potential does not get maximised,” she went on. “It’s not enough to learn Sign Lanugage along with a child – families should take the lead and be out in front.”
Barbara is also a firm believer in early intervention for children with hearing loss – an area in which there is, at present, a gap in Singapore’s education system. Providing dedicated support for children with hearing loss during their pre-school years provides them with the opportunity to pick up Sign Language early, but such an option is not currently available in Singapore.
At the primary school level, however, some progress has been made. In early 2018, Mayflower Primary School became the first mainstream primary school designated to accept students with hearing loss.
Barbara was posted there as one of two designated Specialised Teachers, and now acts as a co-teacher for six Primary One pupils with hearing loss in a class of 29. She helps the six students voice their answers to questions, and works closely with the class’s core Form Teacher to plan and deliver lesssons, finding ways to make them more visually accessible and interactive for all their pupils.
Barbara (left) and her colleague conducting an English lesson for Primary One students at Mayflower Primary School. Photo courtesy of Barbara d’Cotta
Barbara is enthusiastic about early intevention measures, provided that they suit the individual child’s specific needs, as each child is different. “Integrating pupils into mainstream schools from primary school age will most definitely start a ripple effect of public awareness and understanding of people with hearing loss,” she said. “As pupils inevitably learn sign language from their peers with hearing loss, knowledge of it will spread.”
To help students with regular hearing communicate with their hearing-impaired peers, time is set aside twice weekly to teach them how to use Sign Language. According to Barbara, around 25 teachers have also started learning it, and even the school’s canteen vendors and janitors have picked up some basic signs.
She is confident that this approach benefits hearing students as well. “It gives them the opportunity to learn and use Sign Language, and to be aware of and accept friends who might be different from them,” she said. “They get a natural setting to develop traits like empathy and patience as they learn and play together. For me, seeing the students with hearing loss fit in both academically and socially is so fulfulling.”
Barbara, too, will be furthering her education. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in Special Education, Special Needs and Teaching from Flinders University in 2016, and has enrolled for a Master’s degree in Special Education at the NIE, which she hopes to start in August 2018.
“I strongly believe that, as a professional who has chosen this career, it is my responsibility to be proactive, and keep abreast of emerging knowledge in this field for my students’ benefit,” she said.
“Teaching children with hearing loss isn’t easy. You not only need to know how to sign, but how to use that knowledge to explain concepts effectively. As an educator, seeing your students reach their full potential makes all the hard work worth it – it’s my greatest hope to see the students I teach get the recognition they deserve.”
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
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