“What do you mean, you can’t answer phones?”
I get this question a lot in interviews when I’m trying out for a job position. With precision and practiced poise, my reply is always the same.
“I can’t answer phones, but email and messages are no issue for me. My communicative ability is not affected this way.”
This is when potential employers realize that I am technically “disabled.”
My name is Anna. And I have a disability.
I lost most of my hearing after a severe fever when I was three. I’ve been lip reading most of my life. I can lip read in fluent English and Cantonese.
Right now, I love what I do at Spa Monkeys, where I am completing an internship in marketing and communications. It may sound like a strange role to be in, considering my disability is often seen as a communicative one, but I am learning a lot and besides not answering calls (it’s an email world anyhow), I have no problems at work or with my colleagues.
It wasn’t always like this. You see, I have an amazing mother.
I will never forget the day she knelt down in front of a mainstream primary school principal and begged them to accept me, a “disabled” child. She insisted that I would have no problem getting along with the other “able bodied” kids, or keeping up with my studies. Thankfully, they believed her – I graduated into my first choice secondary school with top grades. The grades allowed me to get into the university I wanted and the memory of my mother kneeling has been graced with a better one of her hugging me outside the school gates when my qualifying results were announced.
My dear mum and I at HKU graduation ceremony
I found group chats the hardest – when there’s multiple people all moving their lips at the same time, it’s difficult to keep up with the momentum. What most friends take for granted – the casual back and forth, the ease of lingual rhythm, that was a struggle for me.
For a long time, I stayed out of group socializations – or socializing in general. I was afraid that I would be caught out – just like any other teenager with insecurities, I felt that my communication deficiencies exposed my disability to the public, so for a while I isolated myself. In my own quiet world, silence was my friend, for I understood it and it comforted me. There were no weird looks, no need to try so hard to keep up with rapid lip movements, no stress caused by my fear that other people were bothered by having to repeat their words to me.
But being alone also made me miserable. I knew I was hiding. I knew I was living in fear – fear of uncertainty, of being rejected or worse, being treated like an actual handicap.
There was and still is a longing deep in my heart: I want to strive to be better. I want to be someone that can give warmth, someone just like everyone else – a person who can stand on their own two feet and have something respectable to present.
Shyly and with my mother’s support and unwavering faith in me, I began to join a few extra-curricular activities at my university. My thirst to overcome my weaknesses helped me get stronger and more confident day by day. Soon I was meeting people of all different kinds and I learned a lot about others. Their thoughts, their opinions, life from different perspectives. This helped me figure out myself.
The most memorable event that changed me was my volunteer trip to the Sichuan Earthquake Zone which affected hundreds of people in the region. My mandarin was so poor that I needed to bring my Ping Yin book with me for the month. Differentiation between Mandarin and Cantonese is extremely difficult for me as the lip motions are almost the same and I can’t rely on tonal differences to identify the language or words.
Travelling was another fear of mine: I can’t even hear airline broadcasts or calls – it was a big step for me. I’d never been to China. The whole month was spent interviewing local households, NGO’s and business units, as well as formulating proposals with mandarin speaking teammates to help disaster relief efforts.
From this trip I harvested close friends and a much more mature outlook in life. People were suffering so much – disabled or not.
One of the scenes of Earthquake Zone in Sichuan
There’s a famous saying I like.
“If a man is to die, what is he to live for?”
I want to live for a long life of self-appreciation and to use what I have to serve this society in a positive way. I want to overcome my fears. Facing fear is something we can all do – and it is a great way to defeat them. If we let fear rule us, we will never be able to go anywhere in life.
I know it’s hard, believe me. Fear is everywhere in daily life and it’s not always bad. It can guide us for survival and risk management. But it shouldn’t limit us especially when it comes to hopes and dreams.
I am so grateful to have my family, my friends and colleagues who always give me support and care.
I am so lucky to have met and work with my colleagues or as I prefer to call them, “teammates”. They treat me like friends. I don’t feel any different. I get the same expectations, the same work, the same training approach as others in my position. Of course, they don’t make me answer phones, but most of the team hardly notices.
It’s uncommon in Hong Kong – and especially uncommon to have someone like me in a client-facing role in the communications department.
It’s a challenging kind of work that I’ve not done before. I was so excited the day I was accepted into the company for a PR and Marketing related internship position. It’s an industry based on communication and is highly presentation focused. A person with a disability is often placed in back office functions – away from clients, to avoid stigma or discomfort. The corporate world in Asia is still quite conservative in some aspects when dealing with people with disabilities.
I really appreciate that at least the company I work for recognizes me as a person – not a disability. I hope that other Hong Kong companies will do the same and give others like me an opportunity.
We prepared a surprise baby shower for the founder of Spa Monkeys, Phoebe.
There is a common misunderstanding about disabled people’s competitiveness in society. People may think that they have lower working ability. But the fact is that even if someone has a “disabled” body, it does not mean that he/she is automatically intellectually inferior to able-bodied people.
Very often, the society can only offer low quality job vacancies to this group, like simple document typing or warehouse porter, etc.
I’ve heard of disabled people with the same working ability or even higher educational qualifications who are rejected by companies in favor of the able-bodied. There’s still a lot of stigma attached to being considered “disabled” – especially in a highly competitive environment like Hong Kong. Because of this, disabled people often never have the courage to fight for their dream jobs because they fear or expect rejection.
But there are good, open minded companies out there, just like the one I’m in right now. They treat everyone fairly and in a flexible manner, as long as you have the determination to overcome your difficulties and present good work, like everyone else.
I had to go through speech therapy and hearing training from childhood, to learn how to distinguish sounds with my hearing impairment, but that didn’t stop me from picking up Hawaiian dancing. I can’t hear the music, so I have to time the beats and rhythm by heart and by eyesight, but who says I don’t dance well? No one can tell me apart in a dance performance.
Our lives are short. There is no way to start all over again and we don’t get to choose how we are born. Every decision and action we make leads us to different directions in life. Therefore, I hope everybody can learn to coexist with our fears peacefully and find our purposes in life. Do not let your life be limited by your weaknesses. Everyone can achieve their dreams and is worthy of a fulfilling life.
You just have to be willing to keep pushing forward.
Taking in a Hawaiian charitable performance
Update: Since writing this article, Anna has officially joined the Spa Monkeys team full time, as an Executive Media Assistant. She runs around town alongside Phoebe – testing, reviewing and writing about all kinds of treatments, experiments and products in the big, wild world of spa, beauty and wellness!