Agnes (front, centre) with her team of RC Deaf Missions team, most of whom are Deaf. All photos courtesy of Agnes Peter.

Hearing aides: Agnes Peter (front, centre) and her team of RC Deaf Missions team, most of whom are deaf. All photos courtesy of Agnes Peter.

To Agnes Peter, the deaf community is her family. For more than three decades, the dedicated advocate has remained steadfast in her work with the deaf.

A respected voice for the deaf in Malaysia, Agnes empowers deaf communities with useful skills and stable employment through RC Deaf Missions (RCDM), a non-governmental organisation she co-founded with her brother in 2006.

“When I look at the deaf, I see Jesus in them.”

“When I look at the deaf, I see Jesus in them. That has always been my perspective and that’s what makes the work meaningful, because I know I am doing it unto Him,” she said.

Her face beams with pride when she shares the stories of change that she has witnessed over the years. However, while celebrating these wins, Agnes also acknowledges that the deaf community faces mounting challenges in order to be heard and understood.

A simple “yes”: Agnes’ journey of service began when she stepped forward as a youth to serve in her church’s ministry to the disabled.

A different world

Agnes’ journey of service began many years ago when, as a youth, she said a simple “yes” to serving in her church’s ministry to the disabled.

“Agnes, you’d better get involved in church,” Agnes recounts her mother, a devout Catholic, telling her after the older woman found her lying in bed doing nothing.

Obediently, Agnes joined the youth ministry of St Francis Xavier Church (SFX) in Petaling Jaya. She also spent one year assisting a nun, the late Sister Joan Philips of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary order, who provided tuition to underprivileged children.

That year was life-changing, as it opened Agnes’ eyes to the needs around her.

Seen and heard: A light-hearted moment shared with deaf friends was pure joy to a young Agnes, who became fluent in sign language.

In 1990, she was invited to join a ministry to the physically disabled at the church. SFX, which had a heart to help communities with various physical disabilities, wanted to start sign language classes.

Agnes was part of the committee in charge of setting up the classes with the late Mr Tan Yap, who first introduced sign language to Malaysia in 1964. Intrigued, she decided to sign up for the classes herself.

“If there are thousands in the country, how come I don’t see any?”

“Mr Tan shared that there are thousands of deaf people in the country. I asked him, ‘If there are thousands in the country, how come I don’t see any?’

“It is because it is an invisible disability,” Agnes said of that moment of awakening.

All of a sudden, the young woman became aware of a hidden community living around her. She began volunteering to serve the deaf community and, as the days rolled by, a desire swelled within her to become an advocate for them.

“I could not help but take the side of the deaf. At times the actions of the hearing community angered me,” Agnes said, recalling her young and zealous days.

With more experience, her advocacy efforts matured and she learned to apply different approaches to help abled people better understand the deaf.

As she journeyed more with the deaf, she also became more cognizant of their struggles. For example, many faced poverty due to the lack of stable employment.

Becoming a solution

Filled with empathy for the deaf community, Agnes started RCDM with her brother, Mario. The decision was fuelled by a longing to provide a sustainable source of livelihood for the deaf.

While Malaysia’s Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 protects those with disabilities, compliance by businesses and society is often poor, resulting in the discrimination and exploitation of the deaf, said Agnes.

Team spirit: RCDM’s staff members are trained in practical skills such as administration and even baking.

A lack of awareness among hearing Malaysians also means that the deaf are often sidelined and bullied, she added. Many struggle to engage in public services, such as opening a bank account, seeking medical or legal advice, or applying for a job.

“I felt that if I am going to make a difference, then I’d have to become an employer myself.”

Her heart was especially burdened for those who are poor and left on their own, as family members do not have the resources to support their growth. Many end up illiterate, which robs them of opportunities to work and earn an income in adulthood.

“I felt that if I am going to make a difference, then I’d have to become an employer myself,” Agnes said.

RCDM’s first project was a Deaf Art Exposé, where deaf individuals with artistic abilities were given the opportunity to display and sell their artwork.

Discovering a growing interest in the hearing community for sign language classes, they also opened the first Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia, or Malaysian Sign Language, course to the public in 2008.

These courses are taught by deaf instructors and continue to run today. At least 2,000 students have attended RCDM’s classes.

A God-given family: Agnes celebrating her birthday with RCDM’s sign language instructors and staff members, all of whom are deaf.

At present, RCDM’s efforts revolve around communication, employment, advocacy and education. The team conducts sharing events, partners with corporations and universities in education talks, sets up booths selling handicrafts and baked goods made by the deaf, and raises awareness on social media.

The NGO also currently has six deaf individuals on staff.

Bridging the gap

Each RCDM initiative actively seeks to bridge the deaf and hearing worlds.

Creativity unlimited: RCDM trains deaf youth in various skills, including jewellery-making.

“There are many poor deaf individuals whose family members don’t know sign language, and so communication is limited to typing or writing – if they are literate, though many aren’t – and maybe self-created basic signs used at home,” Agnes explained.

She shared a conversation she had with Brannon, a deaf young man who came to RCDM with his parents. In the course of Agnes’ conversation with him, he signed, “I want to communicate with my mother.” His mother did not know sign language.

“When I conveyed this to his mother, she burst out crying. It finally hit her that her son wants to be more engaged,” Agnes said.

Milestones: Agnes (front row, fourth from left) and participants of a sign language workshop organised by Golden Screen Cinemas, sign “I love you” in Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia, or Malaysian Sign Language.

Another story is that of a 20-year-old deaf woman, Thiva (not her real name), whom Agnes visited. Her father is a lorry driver while her mother is a homemaker and the main caregiver of the couple’s six children.

“As I signed with Thiva, she shared with me that she wants to work in a bank. Her parents had no idea; it was entirely new information to them,” she said.

Signs and wonders: Agnes briefs her deaf staff on an upcoming event.

Having recognised the need for basic interpretation, Agnes started the Signing Angels Fraternity.

It is made up of past and present RCDM students who have made a serious commitment to support the underprivileged deaf community by being minor interpreters and assisting them in services like banking and doctors’ visits.

Making a difference

Agnes’ motivation for the work that she does comes from her personal relationship with God.

She looks to Jesus, who showed compassion to and connected with the isolated and alienated. “The lepers, for example, had to isolate themselves because there was no cure. Can you imagine how lonely their life was? And Jesus touched these people. He did not only heal, He loved,” she said.

Earning a living: Deaf seamstresses (backrow, second to fourth from left) surrounded by members of Quota Club International KL who visited the RCDM premises and purchased T-shirts and tote bags sewn by the ladies.

As with any meaningful work, sacrifice, patience and grit are required to survive the long haul. For years, Agnes’ home was the RCDM office, where meetings were held amid boxes of goods waiting to be packed or sold.

“My plan is to just keep passing it on, to inspire others, as long as God gives me strength.”

She also has to juggle her work at RCDM and a full-time job as an executive assistant with a management consulting company. “It’s my rice bowl,” she said.

Nevertheless, she makes these sacrifices willingly so she can be God’s hands and feet serving the deaf community.

“When Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him three times, that love is a deep love. One day, it will take you where you do not want to go. It’s a sacrifice, it’s a choice. I have made that choice,” she said.

Just as she has done faithfully for 17 years, Agnes will continue to partner, serve and advocate for the deaf, especially those who are underprivileged. Her desire is to make a difference for as long as she lives.

“I think it’s hard to plan the future. God gives us many surprises, so my plan is to just keep passing it on, to inspire others, as long as God gives me strength.”

Learn more about RC Deaf Missions (RCDM) here


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About the author

Hailey Chung

Hailey loves being a listener and rarely finds any subject or person boring. She delights in helping others articulate their reflections and convictions, and hopes for a more connected world immersed in deep fellowship.