If you watched the National Day Parade in 2016, you might recognise Neoh Yew Kim. She was famously seen leading a 55,000-strong crowd through song-signing to the lyrics of NDP favorites like Home and Count On Me, Singapore.
Yew Kim, who is a music-lover, acquired hearing loss when she was just three months old. She believes in using music and sign language to bridge the gap between the deaf community and other people.
Read on to find out more about her experiences, how she managed to transition into her workplace, and her wishes for the PWD community.
Note: Responses have been edited for brevity.
You definitely stole everyone’s heart at NDP 2016! How was the experience of leading a huge crowd and being on national TV? We heard that you practiced for 2 months straight!
It was an honour for me to stand on stage and be able to lead a huge crowd. At first, I was very nervous and worried that I would make a mistake on stage in front of over 55,000 people.
I practiced for over two months and it was quite challenging for me to standardise the signs to ensure that the deaf community would be able to understand and that I could follow the pace of each song. At the same time, I was hoping to create awareness of the deaf community and their needs. During my performance, I was initially nervous but eventually managed to concentrate on my part, thanks to my reflector, who is also my friend. She helped to guide me with the pace of the lyrics so that I could follow and enjoy the music.
I was delighted to play my part as a deaf Singaporean and to contribute to the National Day Parade in celebration of Singapore’s birthday. I am grateful to the organisers for giving me this amazing opportunity and to all the people behind the scenes for their help.
Seeing that you enjoy music, how and where did you learn how to song sign?
There was a chain of events that enabled me to learn from people around me along the way.
I used to play percussion as part of my extra-curricular activities in primary school. That’s where I started to enjoy listening to music. A friend took me to a church service with an interpreter where I sang, and song signed at the same time.
I was also involved in setting up a Sign Language Club in a Polytechnic, where we provided sign language lessons to students who were keen to learn. We also gave some song signing performances to capture people’s attention and show how beautiful the sign language is when we song signed. I worked with another friend who oversees a song-signing group called ‘Signifique’ who gave classes and advice on planning lessons and performances to my Club.
How has your transition in to working life been?
It took me some time to make adjustments in my workplace to a point where I can be more productive and inclusive such as by using written modes of communication or face-to-face communication. I found that it is important to be more open with my colleagues, as it helps them to learn how to support me better and vice versa.
As my company is supportive of diversity and inclusion, I managed to arrange for three basic sign communication sessions to be conducted for colleagues through the disability network at my workplace which were well received.
My company also arranged all-inclusive wireless microphone assistance which helped to deliver speech-in-noise and over distance performance. This was used during meetings and workshop sessions that I attended.
Did you face any difficulties at your job because of being deaf? If so, how do you overcome them?
I have to lip-read my colleagues most of the time while listening carefully. When I come across unfamiliar accents, I have to spend time trying to understand and become familiar while getting them to write things down or email. This also makes it difficult to follow fully on telephone calls. Thankfully, my manager and colleagues are understanding and allow me to work through emails, high-definition videoconference or face-to-face meetings so that I can be more productive at work since I need to lip-read.
A former manager also encouraged me to educate my colleagues about the best ways to communicate with members of the deaf community. Some of the tips I shared include:
· Try not to speak too fast so that we can follow
· Face us when speaking so that we know that you are talking to us
· Write down or send an email for further clarity
What are your career goals?
The condition of having hearing loss has always been invisible, and the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing community are often neglected. My goal is to set up a community-based enterprise to help find and provide employment for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. This would combine providing support such as coaching, advice, and education around the tools that can make their life easier in a professional work environment. Through this, I hope to show that people with disabilities can have successful and productive careers and lives and that their disability should not hold them back from achieving their dreams. I would like to help raise awareness of the issues the deaf and hard of hearing community face, highlight their abilities and talents and help them to live more independently with the support available.
What is a misconception about PWDs you would like to change?
I would like to encourage companies to be open to the benefits of hiring PWDs and to enable them to adapt to the work environment before they can demonstrate their skills and talents.
What do you think employers can do for PWDs to help make the workplace more sensitive and inclusive?
I would like to encourage employers to speak to PWDs personally about how they can be more inclusive, offer assistance and empower them to do their job well by making some adjustments in their daily work life. Employers can consider getting resources to help educate their employees so that they can be more sensitive and inclusive towards PWDs.
I also encourage employers to give equal opportunities and have diversity and inclusion initiatives in place where they treat PWDs with fairness and respect.
How do you think PWDs can help themselves at the workplace?
I believe that with their managers’ support, PWDs can be more open in communicating their needs with their colleagues and make adjustments in their daily work life. This will build a better mutual understanding, respect and cooperation which can empower PWDs to be more productive and independent at work.
When they face challenges or difficulties, they should try to think about how to do differently and communicate with their managers.
What else do you think can be done for PWDs? Are there any other resources or information you hope can be provided?
I hope that companies can invest in making their offices more accessible for PWDs in order to make their work life more productive. For instance, installing visual fire drills for deaf or hard of hearing employees, adding ramps and lifts for wheelchair users and, providing vision assistive technology for people with visual impairment.
I also hope they can invest in information accessibility especially for the deaf and hard of hearing such as providing subtitles in, or transcripts for any videos they may have made for announcements, high-definition video conferencing platforms and online business messaging or call platforms.
What advice would you share with other PWDs who are looking for full-time jobs - how can they best prepare themselves?
I would advise them to attend career-related workshops in order to prepare for and build their confidence before interviews. Until they find a full-time job, they could consider a part-time or freelance job, undertaking courses to build their skill sets and knowledge or volunteering to gain more experience.
Finally – what is that one advice you give to your younger self?
I would advise my younger self not to worry too much about the future and my career but to believe in myself. Be a warrior not a worrier. When faced with adversity, try to think about how to do things differently and persevere. Only then will you be able to shine. The most important thing is the communication and mutual trust between you and your manager, so they are able to understand and focus on your ability rather than your disability.