Nurul Aqilah Hj Abu Bakar spent most of her school years struggling — she struggled to cope with her studies, struggled to make friends and struggled with low self-esteem.

“When someone has hearing impairment or any other disability, they usually have low self-confidence. That’s what happened to me,” the 18-year-old says.

Aqilah was diagnosed with hearing impairment at birth. Six of her other siblings also have hearing impairments, with five of them wear hearing aids.

In primary school, she didn’t realise that she had a problem until she noticed one day that she couldn’t keep up with her classmates’ conversations.

Hearing aids can cost up to $6,000 or more a pair – a steep price for Nurul Aqilah’s family.

It wasn’t until she was in primary four when she was fitted with her first hearing aid. However, the relief didn’t last long as she soon had to learn to cope without the device again.

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“(After primary six) we had to send the hearing aids to the hospital because they wanted to give me a new one. But it never happened. From Year Seven to Year 11, I didn’t wear hearing aids. I was once again left struggling,” she says.

Hearing aids can cost up to $6,000 or more a pair – a steep price for Nurul Aqilah’s family. She admits that she couldn’t help but cry during the time, secretly hoping for someone to sponsor her hearing aids.

“People spoke loudly to me, to the point that it would hurt my ears or they will only say things once. I can hear but it’s not clear. I was constantly lost during conversations which made me feel sad and down. My grades were also not satisfactory because I couldn’t hear the teachers clearly.”

In order to study for her ‘O’ levels, Nurul Aqilah says that throughout her secondary school years, she relied on her close friends for assistance. Making friends had not been easy, she adds.

“My younger sister is also hearing-impaired. When I say people with disabilities have low self-esteem this is because we can’t find anyone to connect with. For my sister, even though she has friends, she tells me she’s lonely. She wants to have friends that she can connect with.

“When I say people with disabilities have low self-esteem this is because we can’t find anyone to connect with. For my sister, even though she has friends, she tells me she’s lonely. She wants to have friends that she can connect with.”

“I didn’t have a lot of friends… In secondary school friends who understood me (and were accepting of my hearing impairment) helped by banding together as a study group — all five of us.”

And as a result, she was able to excel in her ‘O’ level exams.

After living without a hearing aid for over five years, she was finally sponsored for a pair under the ‘Better Hearing, better Living’ charity project earlier this year. She is now in her first year at Tutong Sixth Form Centre.

For a student with hearing impairment, hearing aids make the difference between participating in class and merely just attending classes.

“Now I can hear the jokes that my friends and teachers make. I can joke with them and I’m no longer embarrassed to ask the teachers if I don’t understand anything in school,” she says.

“I want to be a doctor, but I was afraid that I won’t be accepted because of my disabilities. Now, I really want to achieve that dream.”

Finally on the same playing field as her peers, the young student has regained her confidence and self-esteem.

“My younger sister is also hearing-impaired. When I say people with disabilities have low self-esteem this is because we can’t find anyone to connect with. For my sister, even though she has friends, she tells me she’s lonely. She wants to have friends that she can connect with.

“I want her to be confident… When you are out there, you have to rely on yourself. You have to embrace (your disabilities),” said Nurul Aqilah.

According to Noorafzah Ahmad, the manager of Hear Better Services Company, hearing aids can help hearing-impaired students with their communication skills.

“Anyone with hearing loss, especially children, are challenged with social alienation to some degree. Communication is vital for learning. Hearing aids will help the child learn to hear, speak and socialise in a school or in the family setting,” she says.

A total of 36 students have benefited from community and corporate sponsorships in providing hearing aids to hearing impaired students under the ‘Better Hearing, Better Living’ charity project. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar

With early intervention and the right support at home, school and their hearing centre, Noorafzah says that they would like to see these students develop into productive and self-reliant citizens of Brunei.

The ‘Better Hearing, Better Living’ charity project aims to provide hearing aids to hearing impaired children in the country. Supported by the Special Education Unit under the Ministry of Education, the funds for hearing aids are raised through charity bazaar and corporate sponsorships.

Since it started five years ago, the project has helped 36 students so far. This includes the eight new recipients that were presented with their hearing aids on Septemeber 9.  The acting head of the Special Education Unit, Hj Ali Yusri Hj Ghafor was present at the event to show his support.

Noorafzah says she has noticed a growing public awareness about the challenges faced by the hearing impaired.

“This is achieved… by the joint efforts of different segments of our community. We must continue our efforts to help the hearing impaired community. Whether it is to provide early intervention for the younger children or to support students entering an important phase in their education or career, or to support  individuals who want to be a productive player in our community.”