Phyu Phyu Win understands adversity. Diagnosed as deaf during her childhood, the 34-year-old teacher encountered a rigid education system negligent toward the hearing impaired, and, later on, discriminatory employers unwilling to invest in her potential.
Now she comprises one of the 39 teaching staff at the Mary Chapman School for the Deaf in Yangon, educating fourth graders on Myanmar language, history and a practical module called ‘For Your Life.’
The century-old school of 357 students has roughly a 50/50 split of boys and girls who often stay until the age of 20. A mix of ethnicities and religions, the children look up to Phyu Phyu Win, who has been teaching there for nine years.
About two thirds of the students live on site, along with many of the teachers. Phyu Phyu Win, who is originally from Kyonpyaw Township in the Ayeyarwady Division, recently sat down with Myanmore and through a sign language translator discussed the challenges she has faced and the change in attitudes toward disabled people in Myanmar. By Pamela Tan and Lorcan Lovett.
What challenges does your job bring?
One of the challenges is teaching things that cannot be described visually or through sign language, such as mental states. I control the children’s behaviors and keep their interest by teaching and showing them how they should behave. Children are different because of the environments they are raised in. For the ones that come from a bad background, I sometimes have to try to change their outlook.
What challenges did you face growing up?
Learning. From kindergarten to third grade, teachers would write on the blackboard for us, so I could simply copy the lessons off. Starting from fourth grade, however, I had to copy from my friends’ notebooks because teachers started lecturing.
How did your hearing impairment affect your efforts to find work?
Around 2003, I started working with the aim to become a full-time employee. Due to my impaired hearing, I had to do the lowest of jobs in the company: a cleaner. I wanted to work with computers and such, but I had to clean instead because I had no choice.
Do your students struggle to find jobs?
The jobs that students take up after they finish this school are usually culinary-related because we have programs for that when they are done with seventh grade. We also have connections with hotels. The challenge they face is that because they depend heavily on sign language to communicate, they are not able to read long sentences in Myanmar characters. They can read short words such as ‘come’ and ‘go,’ but nothing too long. In order to communicate, companies need to know sign language. This is not always the case so it’s extremely hard for them to get jobs. Just a while ago, one of our students was working at this clothing design place. He was the only deaf individual there. As people tend to use facial expressions while speaking, he started thinking that they were gossiping about him. He then stopped working on that particular expensive project out of anger, and came to this school. We had to console him and say they were not gossiping about him—that it was natural for people to use facial expressions while communicating verbally.
Have you had similar experiences?
It is natural to feel like others are gossiping about us all the time because we are deaf. When I was a teenager, I was also the only deaf employee. Just like my student, I also thought people were talking about me, but I chose to neglect them and worked harder instead. It affected me emotionally, of course. I felt terrible.
The government is soon introducing a by-law that will allow the implementation of a 2015 law on disabled rights. Among other things, it will create tax incentives to hire deaf people and introduce quotas for hiring disabled employees in government departments. What do you think of this?
Knowing that the government is enforcing a law that encourages companies to hire more disabled people, I feel extremely happy. We were neglected in the past because such things did not exist. People are becoming more open-minded and it is a great advancement for our society.
How do you think deaf people in Myanmar are treated in general?
I think deaf people have generally been humiliated in the past because people were not open-minded. We were constantly laughed at because they did not understand what it was like to be deaf. There are more opportunities for us now though, but there’s lots of room for improvement. I wish that exams would let deaf students answer in sign language because at the moment they are asked to answer with Myanmar characters and that is quite hard for them, as they were taught with sign language from the start. Sign language is basically a mother language to them. If the government would just understand that, it would be much easier for all deaf students.
How do the experiences of a deaf girl growing up differ from a deaf boy?
Parents tend to have more confidence that their sons would do better out in the real world so they willingly let them go out, hoping that they would do well in the sea of hearing individuals. Some parents of deaf girls lock them up in their houses when they’re done with school because they feel they would be safer in the house than out in the real world. Speaking for our students, the girls here have a safer environment because all of us understand what it’s like to be deaf; we don’t discriminate between girls and boys. In villages, however, they are not as open-minded. These girls are sometimes even the targets of rapists. There are countless rape cases for deaf girls because our disability is used as an advantage for rapists.
Donate to the Mary Chapman School for the Deaf by contacting its principal Daw Nyunt Nyunt Thein on 09 775 005360 or 09 520 1910.