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Defying deafness

August 28, 2007

A young woman has shown that being hearing impaired is no barrier when it comes to pursuing one’s dreams. 


ENERGETIC and vivacious, Eng Foong Mei certainly does not come across as disabled, not until she begins to sign animatedly and her face lights up with an array of expressions as she conveys her thoughts and feelings.  

Born hearing-impaired, the 21-year-old Mei Mei, as she is affectionately known, has not allowed deafness to stop her from pursuing her dream of studying overseas. 

“Many parents of the deaf do not send their children abroad for studies because they are afraid the deaf won’t be able to cope. I am thankful that my family, mentor and friends were very supportive of my dream to study in Canada,” she says. 

While admitting to a tinge of fear going into a whole new environment, Mei Mei also recalls a clear sense of excitement when she first landed on Canadian soil in August last year. 

“I was thrilled to start my new life in a foreign land, but I was also very grateful that my mother and my mentor, (sign language interpreter) Lucy Lim, came along to help me settle in.” 

Mei Mei stays with a host family in Edmonton, Canada. Both husband and wife are also deaf, and in them, the young Malaysian has found role models – Rob Cundy is a retired school teacher whilst his wife, Linda, is a deaf advocate.  

And, of course, staying with the couple definitely has its perks. 

“When I encounter problems with my college work, I just approach them for help. It is very convenient!” says the former student of SM Sultan Abdul Samad in Petaling Jaya and youngest of three siblings. 

Studying in Canada has been quite a different experience for Mei Mei, who has completed her first year of Disability Studies at the Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton.  

“I really enjoy studying here. It was hard for me in Malaysia, not having interpreters for Forms Four and Five,” she says. 

“At this college, I have two interpreters who accompany me to every class and student activity.”  

She also points out that the focus is different from what it is in Malaysia, where “we study primarily to pass exams.” 

“In Canada, I actually enjoy the whole process of learning. I am able to relate the things I study to what is happening in real life.  

“We have lecturers who are highly experienced in their fields, and we also have practicums where we work with the blind and the physically disabled. This makes the whole learning process fun and interesting,” she adds. 

Disability Studies at the college is a two-year diploma course that focuses on integrating the disabled into the community. Subjects include advocacy and communication, and leadership skills as well as nutrition, health and fitness.  

So far, Mei Mei has completed subjects on the mentally challenged, the physically handicapped and those with learning disabilities.  

She is confident that the knowledge she is getting will enable her to help the disabled community in Malaysia when she returns home. 


Checking out a snow mobile in Salt Lake City, Utah, the United States, is one of the many new things Mei Mei has done since leaving home to study in Canada.

Even before completing the programme, Mei Mei is already quite an advocate for the deaf and an ambassador for Malaysia in her own right.  

She presented a talk on “Deaf Education in Malaysia” at the University of Alberta in February and spoke on “Challenges of the Deaf in Malaysia” at the University of Vancouver earlier this month.  

She also presented the song To Know Malaysia Is To Love Malaysia at the 55th Edmonton Association of the Deaf Banquet last year.  

When she is not busy studying, Mei Mei volunteers with the Alberta School for the Deaf in Edmonton, where she works as a teacher’s aide in elementary classes and helps out in the library.  

But life isn’t all work and no play for this bubbly personality.  

Just like every student who leaves home for the first time, Mei Mei finds delight in the freedom of living away from her family. 

“Everything is so new and interesting for me. I am learning how to cook, how to budget my expenses and how to take public transportation.  

“In Malaysia, our maid does all the cooking and my mother drives me wherever I need to go. Here I have to do everything on my own.” 

However, she adds, learning new things has not been difficult despite her hearing impairment. 

“The easy availability of a wide array of facilities for the disabled in my college and in the whole of Canada gives me a sense of freedom and independence that I did not have in Malaysia.  

“In Canada, I am able to exercise more control over how I study and live my life.” 

One such facility is the Video Relay Service provided by the government. The deaf can request for any service at all via a decoder attached to their television. Ordering a pizza, making a telephone call, and so on can then be done through an interpreter. 

Mei Mei once used it to contact her parents and gave them a real shock because the interpreter that day was a man.  

“He called and said: ‘Hi, Dad! I am Mei Mei.’ My father hung up the phone on the poor interpreter! But this service makes it so convenient for the deaf because we can do everything without depending on hearing people all the time.” 

Adapting to the different seasons in Canada has been another experience. She was exhilarated when she saw her first snowflakes, but her excitement did wane a little when it wouldn’t stop snowing for six months. 

“I do love winter sports though. I went skiing and tobogganing with my host family. Initially I didn’t know how to ski, so I fell and hurt my knees and bum many times. I did much better by the end of winter and now, I can’t wait for the next winter to perfect my skills,” she says with zeal. 

Christmas and Thanksgiving are turning out to be Mei Mei’s favourite times of the year in Canada. She loves the sense of family togetherness during these events, not to mention the food served.  

She recounts with relish her first taste of stuffed turkey, adding that she reciprocated in the exchange of cultures by whipping up some popular Malaysian fare for her host family during Chinese New Year.  

Having spent a year in Edmonton, Mei Mei has this bit of advice for deaf students who wish to pursue their studies abroad: “First, you need to be mature, and then, you need to have a clear sense of direction.  

“You must also have a good foundation in sign language.”  

She urges parents of the deaf to consider sending their children overseas because they will have more options compared with what is on offer in Malaysia.  

“Every college provides interpreters for a nominal fee, so the deaf can choose any course they wish to take. In my college, the disabled take courses in Behavourial Science, Special Education, Psychology, Graphic Design, Computer Studies and Business Studies.  

“Disability is no limitation at all.” 

Most importantly, Mei Mei believes that when deaf students complete their courses, they should return home.  

“It is tempting to stay on in a foreign land because the facilities and working opportunities are better, but Malaysia also needs your expertise and knowledge.  

“If you do not come back, it will be a great loss to the nation.”  


  1. Lisa Marie
    August 28, 2007 at 7:01 am

    that’s neato

    I’d like to go back to a college some day.

  2. Ada
    August 28, 2007 at 7:34 am

    I think you are great!

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