Phoebe Tay: “For the first time in my life, I experienced the Deaf community becoming united at an international level”

Posted on November 6, 2013

Just last week, I was a delegate at the 2nd International World Federation of the Deaf Conference in Sydney, and the experience was nothing short of incredible.

The theme of the conference was equality for Deaf People,  and 644 delegates from 67 countries were present.

For the very first time in my life, I experienced the Deaf Community becoming united at an international level. There, I felt right at home. I learnt so much from the different presentations and from mingling with different people.

It was great to chat with several of the overseas delegates from Korea, Singapore, Kenya, Taiwan and Japan. I also enjoyed catching up with some friends from Brisbane I hadn’t seen in a long while, as well as getting to know some familiar faces and friends from Melbourne better.

I believe I will remember it for the rest of my life.

My journey

Since I learned the notion of ‘Deaf culture’ in my last year of university in Brisbane in 2007, most of my waking moments have been spent trying to find my way in the Australian Deaf community after moving to Melbourne.

Growing up in Singapore, I hadn’t had any contact with people who were culturally Deaf. There were a few deaf Singaporeans in my school but at that time, we perceived ourselves as being ‘hearing impaired’ and were taught that oralism was the way to go.

If you are sharp enough, you will notice that I typed the lowercase ‘d’ for ‘deaf’ in my earlier sentence but capitalised it in the first two sentences. The reason for this is a shift in perception on how I perceived my deafness – as well as other Deaf individuals.

During my formative years, I had perceived deafness to be disabling but after discovering Deaf culture in Brisbane and Melbourne, I am proud to identity myself as Deaf because it reflects my identity, just like I tell people I’m Singaporean when they ask me what country I come from.

The concept of being Deaf was very empowering.

In 2011, I had the opportunity to travel to the Philippines with some friends to be immersed in the Filipino Deaf community for two and a half weeks. I also met some Deaf Koreans and other Asian Deaf people when I visited Seoul during the Deaf Asian Pacific games where Deaf people and officials from over 30 Asia Pacific countries gathered for the sports in 2012.

Those experiences were eye-openers because Korea, the Philippines and Australia have very distinct cultures – differences in beliefs, values and behaviour all set them apart from one another. Apart from these experiences, I did not know the Deaf community in any other context.

The WFD Conference

photo (12)

I attended one presentation after another. There was so much information to take in and process that by the time the closing ceremony rolled around, I felt my brain would explode!

One message appeared to be repeatedly advocated at different intervals throughout the conference: sign language education is a fundamental human right for Deaf people in order to achieve equality in life.

I gleaned something new from every presentation, but the presentation that really had an effect on me was ‘Deaf Equality and the possibilities and the limits of “DEAF DEAF SAME”: Perspectives from Ghana and India’ presented by Deaf anthropologists, Annelies Kusters (Germany) and Michele Friedner (United States).

Ever heard of Martha’s Vineyard an island located off the coast of Massachusetts? It is a place where Deaf utopia existed around the 1600s.

Everyone there at that period in time communicated in sign language – both Deaf and hearing people. One generation after another was born with hearing loss. However, the Deaf population began to shrink as Deaf children were schooled in the mainland and settled there – leading to the inevitable extinction of the Martha’s Vineyard Deaf Community.

There is a Akan village in eastern Ghana, named Adamorobe, which is similar to Martha’s Vineyard in America. However, there is a vast contrast between Martha’s Vineyard and Adamorobe.

Annelies pointed out that Adamorobe has “otherness”. Being an African and a Deaf village, it is a difference that distinguishes them from tourists.

There is a “sameness” when the Deaf Adamorobes and Deaf tourists meet, because they share one thing in common – Deaf identity.

However, there are limits to “DEAF DEAF SAME.”

Deaf people in Adomorobe are not accepting of Western perspectives and attitudes. It surprised me to learn that they feel rather exploited when Deaf and hearing tourists visit and take photographs of them and the village to bring back to show their families and friends in their home countries.

As an avid traveller, I have never given a second thought when taking shots of people and sights of the places I’ve visited.

Adomorobe sign language is also very different to western sign languages and would be difficult to grasp. Deaf people in Adomorobe are also disappointed by empty promises made by foreigners to show them around in their home countries, which never happens.

Tourists to Adamorobe are encouraged to bring donations of clothing, food, book and other simple items and to try and get to know the village rather than exploiting them through photos and the like.

The reason is that the villagers are used to Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) giving them basic supplies and donations of cash because they live in poverty. So, they have developed the expectation that Westerners will provide for their needs because they are used to receiving humanitarian aid.

This was the biggest learning point for me because it hit me there and then, that differing cultural expectations and perspectives are the root causes for most cross-cultural conflicts.

What is perfectly acceptable in one culture may be offensive to another because of differences in worldview – upbringing, values, beliefs and social norms for behaviour.

From this, I learnt that it is important never to assume that I know where a particular individual is coming from because more often than not, they perceive things from a different standpoint.

There are different ways of being Deaf. Every Deaf person has a unique journey and a personal story to share.

Within the international Deaf community there is a diversity of cultures and therefore, it is important to foster an understanding of difference and allow our own assumptions and judgments to be challenged – just like I allowed my understanding of being ‘Deaf’ to be challenged when I moved to Australia.

I’m glad I kept an open mind because it was life-changing for me. Instead of seeing limitations, what I see now are endless possibilities.

As someone aspiring to establish a career in human rights and humanitarian aid in the future, I believe that this learning point is priceless because it will be a skill that I will need to cultivate in order to work in this challenging field.

It was great to see many of the presenters at the conference sharing my passion for human rights for Deaf people around the world.

Another presentation I really enjoyed was ‘Frontrunners- An international Deaf Youth Leadership Training Program’ by Drisana Levitzke-Gray (Australia) and Luba Douziech (Canada).

It was interesting listening to their experiences in raising Deaf awareness and empowering Deaf communities in developing countries. I chatted to a few other individuals about options available in the field.

I also met Philippa Sandholm who said that it was possible for me do an internship with the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) at its headquarters in Finland if I could raise enough funds. Not sure if that will ever happen but its certainly something to consider for the future. Opportunities abound! This just reminds me – I have to register as an individual member with the WFD soon.

To end off, I wish to quote Sherrie Beaver, a fellow delegate at the conference, in her blog post ‘Sherrie: Deaf and loving it‘:

”The concept of “DEAF DEAF SAME” is rather powerful, because we, within the Deaf community, share the same identity. This is why I was and still am amazed at experiencing the Deaf community uniting as a whole on an international level. So many different languages, sign languages, nationalities, cultures, etc – yet we’re all the same and we manage to create new friendships no matter where we are from.“

I know and I agree.

Phoebe would like to express her heartfelt thanks and sincere appreciation to Deaf Services Queensland for selecting her to be one of five grant recipients in Australia for a grant of $1500 to cover conference expenses, flights and accommodation.  She says: “it helped a great deal.”

Phoebe Tay is a Deaf freelance writer from Singapore who currently resides in Melbourne. She was born with profound hearing loss in both ears. Phoebe grew up oral and learnt to sign when she was 19. She is passionate about writing articles on issues around Deafness and human rights. Phoebe also has spent over 5 years as a Teacher of the Deaf. She wants to work in the field of international development and is currently aspiring to use her writing skills to advocate for the rights of Deaf people at an international level.

To read other articles Phoebe has written, feel free to visit her blog at

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