Breaking the sound barrier

By Liu Dong Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-23 15:30:04

Patricia Decaro from the US teaches sign language in Shanghai in a workshop organized by the Shanghai Disabled Persons' Federation. Photo: CFP
Patricia Decaro from the US teaches sign language in Shanghai in a workshop organized by the Shanghai Disabled Persons' Federation. Photo: CFP

Like many young men growing up in the 1990s when the Internet became an important part of life in China, Du Chengyan dreamed of becoming a software engineer. He has achieved that goal but it was a much more difficult task for him than for most. The 37-year-old has been deaf since he was an infant. His deafness was caused by a severe reaction to antibiotics prescribed to treat a fever when he was a few months old.

Unlike most software engineers, Du managed to achieve this position only after 10 different jobs in a decade. He is one of some 270,000 deaf people in Shanghai. There are more than 20 million deaf people in China (nearly the population of Australia) and 70 percent of them became deaf after reacting to drugs prescribed in childhood, according to China's Ministry of Health. Because they can't hear their own or others' voices, most also have difficulty speaking articulately.

But Du elected not to be victim of his disability and paid 10,000 yuan ($1,604) to take a software engineering course at Peking University. "Deaf people can do everything except hear," he told the Global Times in an online interview.

A hard road

Getting to be a software engineer was a lot harder than Du had envisaged. He had to change jobs frequently because of discrimination, low pay, miscommunication with colleagues and being overlooked for promotions.

"The biggest challenge is communicating. Software development is team work but I can't communicate with my colleagues easily. And they are reluctant to talk to me in writing or by using sign language. It's very difficult for me to do a good job," Du said. After 10 years' experience he still only earns about 2,000 yuan per month.

His wife, Lu Huiying, is also deaf but they have a cute 5-year-old daughter who is healthy and hearing. Unlike her husband Lu would have liked a career in the arts but after countless knockbacks she accepted the reality and took a job in an electronics factory after being recommended for this by the Shanghai Disabled Persons' Federation, the official government welfare organization for the disabled.

Lu worked nightshifts on a factory production line, handling dangerous chemicals. She left the job after eight years to take care of their child.

"I didn't dare drink even the water there because we weren't allowed time to go to toilet given the quotas we had to meet every month," Lu said.

Lu said that many deaf people like her who were given jobs through the federation found themselves working at the most menial tasks like assembly line workers and restaurant waiters. In these positions deaf employees cannot earn good wages or expect promotion.

Beating the odds

Because of their disability as well most deaf people are not well educated so many feel there is only a choice of staying at home or turning to crime.

But there are those who battle the odds. Some of Du's deaf friends have started their own businesses and now run printing shops, computer repair stores or have their own online Taobao outlets.

"For us there is a bigger chance of succeeding by starting our own businesses even if we cannot succeed as employees," Du said. He pointed to the success story of Mao Lin, a former classmate from a special school they attended.

Mao Lin didn't tell anyone in her class until graduation that she was a descendant of China's former leader Mao Zedong. Mao Lin's mother, Mao Yuanzhi, was Mao Zedong's niece.

Like Du, Mao Lin had lost her hearing because of an adverse reaction to prescribed drugs when she was an infant. "Few people knew her real family background when she studied at the school. She was just like the rest of us," Du said.

After graduating Mao married a deaf man and in 2005 they started their own business on Their online store sells high-end cosmetics and other luxury goods and is a great success. Du said people like this inspire other deaf people starting out in life.

Mastering skills

Hong Ze is another success story. Born in Heilongjiang Province, Hong finished industrial arts study in her hometown and arrived by herself in Shanghai in 1993. After countless setbacks, she eventually found a job in a factory in Pudong as a glass engraver. Because of her deafness she had to spend a great deal more effort and time mastering the skills than her co-workers did.

"Although I was a deaf and I faced more difficulties than most, I never felt depressed but saw it all as a test for me to prove my worth as a person," Hong said.   

After years of working in the factory, Hong has now launched her own design company and her elegant flower vases have won acclaim and prizes throughout the country. Leading Chinese politicians have chosen the vases to present as gifts to leaders from other countries.

Cao Ruiqiang is deaf and he has succeeded in a totally different field and with a different motivation. When Cao proposed to the woman he loved years ago, her parents decided he was not suitable for marriage because he had little money. "They said I had to have 200,000 yuan before I could marry their daughter. I didn't have that money at the time but I told them to give me two years and I would," Cao said.

Cao went to Jiangxi Province to study sculpture. Two years later he had amassed the 200,000 yuan and he married. He and his wife have now opened a studio. Today his Buddha sculptures are immensely popular in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. At the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, Cao's works were showcased in an Expo pavilion throughout the six-month period.

Opportunities lacking

Although some deaf people have achieved success through their own efforts, most ordinary deaf people like Du and Lu in Shanghai are still struggling for better lives and opportunities. "The door is closed for deaf people at most establishments. Employers don't give us even a chance to try," Du said.

According to China's Law on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities introduced in 2008, government departments, enterprises and institutions should employ a proportionate number of disabled people. In Shanghai these employers should aim to employ a ratio of 1.6 percent disabled people in their overall staff.

"But most workplaces don't meet this standard," Du said, adding that many of the deaf people employed in the city didn't actually work at all. The employers paid them the minimum wage but asked them to remain at home. "But what does that mean for us?"

For Du the major problems are the lack of enforcement of the equal opportunity regulations, employers behaving unfairly and that there are few people who can understand or use sign language. Usually, only families with members suffering hearing disabilities master sign language.

A US inspiration

Tang Wenyan is proficient at sign language. She is the only staff member employed by Dr Richard R. Lytle's company in Shanghai who is not deaf or hearing impaired. She graduated as a special education major from East China Normal University and now works as an assistant for Dr Lytle.

Dr Richard R. Lytle is a retired professor of education and an administrator at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. He has hearing difficulties himself. Dr Lytle lists his hobbies as gardening, running and snowboarding and for 40 years he has been a teacher and consultant for disabled people around the world.

Dr Lytle first came to China in 2000 and since then has encouraged and helped hundreds of deaf Chinese to study in the US to gain professional qualifications. This year he moved to Shanghai and in July set up a company that produces high-quality but affordable hearing aids which are all assembled by six deaf workers.

Du's wife Lu Huiying has found a job there and she loves the new work environment. "I enjoy my work and communicate easily with my colleagues. There are no more nightshifts for me," Lu said happily even though the new job means she has to spend an extra two hours a day commuting.

Dr Lyle is an inspiration and bubbles with enthusiasm. "Deaf people can do everything but hear. In the US deaf people can be engineers, doctors, athletes, managers, teachers, even senators. As long as you work hard, you can gain society's acknowledgement and achieve," he said.

Lytle said although there were many successful examples of deaf people succeeding in careers in major companies in the US, people in China had no understanding of this and found it hard to believe. "We need to show them examples that prove deaf people can do the same good job as anyone else. When Chinese people see a deaf person as a senior manger of a well-known company, they might start to change their old notions."

Lytle is now putting into practice his own theories in Shanghai in his company. Du's mother, Shen Ying, told the Global Times that she had never saw her daughter-in-law working so happily and with such a sense of achievement.

"Deafness is an invisible disability which people easily forget. Deaf people don't want our pity but they want us to help them be equal. I believe their dreams will come true someday," Lytle said.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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