Alden Boon

From Being Bullied to Becoming a Disability Advocate – Winston Wong’s Life as a Hard-of-hearing Person


As told to Alden Boon

Save for one incident, I remember little of my toddler years. What was supposed to be a fun day out at the beach with my parents was capped by a traumatic experience. I was building sandcastles and digging shapeless holes when suddenly a gust of wind blew my cap away. As a three-year-old, my instinct was to go after it. I gave chase after the wind-borne cap, futile in my effort to recover it. Before I knew it, the sandy shore was no more, and I plunged suddenly into the unplumbed sea. At this point, I of course hadn’t learnt the basics of swimming. Survival instincts kicked in. Thrashing about, I desperately tried to stay afloat. The salty water entering my nostrils burnt them. The pressure in my ears was painful. I was also gulping the water. Very quickly my head was submerged under water. Just as all hope had left me, a pair of hands — belonging to a stranger — gripped my body and scooped me out of the water. What ensued was a blur, though I remember the projectile of water and the ominous sound of ambulance sirens. While traumatic, the incident didn’t exactly haunt me. I bounced back remarkably, I think, and had already forgotten about it in a few days’ time.

Before the age of four, I had exceptional hearing. Whenever my dad returned home from work, I could hear the jingle of the coins in his pocket as he walked down the corridor. I would run out excitedly to greet him. All that changed about a year after my incident. According to my parents, one night, while trailing me, they called out to me repeatedly, each time loudening their voices, but I didn’t respond to them. I wasn’t giving them the cold shoulder: I just didn’t hear their calling. My sudden non-responsiveness to auditory stimuli was a red flag. After several tests, my doctor eventually diagnosed me with bilateral mild sensorineural hearing loss. No one in my family has this condition, not my extended relatives either, so it is not inherited. While there was no damage to my eardrums, there was some damage to the hair cells. That led my parents to posit that the incident at the sea was the cause of my hearing loss.

Despite the sudden onset, from kindergarten all through to Primary Three, things were fine. My hearing was still good enough that I could communicate effectively with people. Things only changed drastically when I turned ten. Now, a common misunderstanding about hearing loss is that the person is unable to discern all sounds completely. That is not accurate. My hearing loss affects my ability to hear high-frequency sounds while others may encounter problems with low-frequency sounds. My world suddenly became devoid of nature’s music, of the chirping of birds and chittering of insects: it’s a true pity. ‘S’ and ‘th’ phonics became muffled. The higher-pitched voices of female teachers were difficult to hear whereas the booming voices of the male teachers were still resonant. My erstwhile teachers had a habit of walking around in the classroom as they delivered their lessons, and I found that sounds became unintelligible whenever they had their backs facing me. I didn’t know at the time that I was already practising lipreading — it was a skill not taught to me but one that I naturally developed. Watching the movements of the lips and then hearing the utterances of the words is how I make conversations coherent. With all these setbacks, my only resort was to get fitted with hearing aids, which are used to help amplify sounds.

Before the age of four, Winston had exceptional hearing.

Now, back in the nineties, hearing aids were bulky, and very conspicuous. It’s a far cry from the slicker iterations we have today, which can maybe pass off as wireless earbuds or headsets. I exaggerate not when I say that everything changed the day I started wearing them in school. My hearing aids stopped everyone in his or her tracks. Children’s mannerisms, as we all know, are not subtle. I was at the receiving end of weird looks, sometimes even blatant staring.

The ostracisation followed swiftly. The same classmates I had had for a year shunned me out of the blue. It was as if all of them held a meeting and came to the consensus that they no longer wanted to talk to me. Then began the taunting. I had — still have — a dark complexion, and my classmates would call me ‘cockroach’ in dialect. I tried my best to ignore the pejorative nickname, but when a teacher needed help with a task, they would hector me: ‘Cockroach, go and do it.’ I had no choice but to acquiesce, and in doing so, I played right into their hands and was acknowledging that I was in fact ‘cockroach’. To them I was ‘cockroach’, and ‘deaf boy’, never ‘Winston’. At first the name-calling was contained in the classroom, but before long it became public. Sometimes they would yell the nicknames in the canteen. In those moments it felt as if the whole world had frozen over: because of my hearing aid, it was obvious to everyone present whom they were yelling at. Imagine having your greatest insecurity, the very thing that you hate most about yourself, laid bare in front of your peers and adults. Were others laughing at me also, whether out loud or in thought? All I could do in those moments was lock my gaze on some faraway corner and pretend the yelling wasn’t happening. All I could do in those moments was to hold my emotions, of shame and of humiliation, in.

From ostracisation and name-calling, things escalated as the year wore on. Being a small-sized kid, and a disabled one at that, I was easy to pick on. From verbal harassment, things turned physical. My bullies would creep up behind me, yank my hearing aids off my ears and toss them around like mere playthings. It was the ‘Monkey’ game, and I was the helpless animal, dashing here and there, flailing my arms. Every futile attempt to get them back increased my desperation. I was shorter in stature, so my bullies towered over me. All about me were finger pointing and sneers (without my hearing aids, I couldn’t hear the derisive laughter). I oscillated between sadness and anger. I was sad because I didn’t know why I was being subjected to such treatment from people my own age. I was angry because the hearing aids cost about a thousand dollars a pair, and should they damage them, my father would have to pay for new ones. It wasn’t fair that he should have to do so.

Read: ‘Let’s Stop Trying to Normalise Autism. Let’s Start Normalising Diversity.’: Dr Dawn-joy Leong

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.