He lost his sight at 47 - a fragrance company helped give him his life back

He lost his sight at 47 - a fragrance company helped give him his life back

Former teacher Bernard Chew fell into despair when he went blind practically overnight. Then a company called Firmenich – and a woman who believed in opportunity – came along offering a job, with a few helpful tweaks.

Overnight, Bernard Chew discovered what it was like to be blind. Then 47, he'd been a drama teacher, triathlete, national dragon boater - then his retinas came detached, and his world went completely dark.  Struggling at first with suicidal depression, he fought to get back on his feet again. But what jobs could a blind person do? At the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped, he discovered that the options were limited - to telemarketing and massage therapy - until one day, a company called Firmenich approached with an unexpected job opportunity. Read the full story here.

SINGAPORE: Bernard Chew still remembers when his world went dark.

It was August 3, 2017, and the then-47 year-old had returned home from his job teaching speech and drama to preschool children. It had been a long day at work, and he was tired.

He noticed that his surroundings seemed a bit blurry, but he wrote it off as simply a sign of exhaustion. It was August, which was a busy time of the year with rehearsals for preschool graduation concerts starting to intensify. 

He had his dinner and went to sleep, grateful to call it a day. But the next morning when he woke up and tried to look at his phone, he realised that his vision was still blurry. 

On his way to the bathroom to wash up, he collided with the wall. And as he found himself fumbling to find his toothbrush and toothpaste, he knew something was wrong. 

It would just be a quick check-up at the hospital, he told himself, and he would be ready to teach his scheduled class that same afternoon. But the doctors dashed his hopes: Both his retinas were detached, causing his optic nerves to be damaged.

An emergency operation did not help.

He was blind.

DARK DEPRESSION

It was a double whammy for Bernard. He was still in the process of picking up the pieces from the breakdown of his marriage two years before, and was living alone in a rented room, away from his two sons, one in his twenties and the other still a teenager.

He loved his job, which he had been doing for more than 12 years. In his free time, he enjoyed running marathons, bowling and swimming. 

He could no longer do all this, he realised, and things that he once did unthinkingly – instinctively, in fact – were things he could no longer do without assistance.

“How could I lead a normal life when I can’t use my phone, use a computer, and even walk around without bumping into things?” he said.

MSF Firmenich Bernard emotional
Waking up in sudden and permanent darkness just about devastated Bernard.

For the five days he was warded in hospital following the operation, questions ran through his mind. 

Was it something he had done, some symptom he had overlooked over the years? Yes, he had been diagnosed with glaucoma in 2009, but he had faithfully gone for checkups every six months, and the condition was under control with medication.

Doctors told him that early symptoms included floaters and black spots. But prior to that fateful day, he had showed no symptoms.

Every time he opened his eyes, the blackness surrounding him drove him to despair.

I told the doctor, let me just jump down and kill myself.

“They had to tie me down to the bed and give me anti-depression pills," he said.

GETTING BACK ON HIS FEET

It was the constant reminders from those around him – particularly his two sisters and children – that he had the support of those dear to him, which changed Bernard’s mindset.

“I had a good talk with my boys, and they told me ... ‘Dad, what about us? Isn’t it very selfish if you end your life?’” he said. “That got me thinking. Am I going to be selfish when there are people who still love me?”

“I decided that I didn’t want to be a disappointment to my boys and family members, and that’s when I made up my mind.”

He moved in with his second sister, Teresa, and her family, and with their help, he began to adjust to life. 

It was Teresa, he said, who despite her busy schedule, made an appointment with the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH), and drove him there to meet a social worker.

He was surprised to find out about the extent of help available for people with visual impairment to live their lives as independently as possible; and that there were people who were born blind walking around freely in the association without a cane.

With technology such as the voice-over function in mobile phones, he could also use his phone again. 

“That really got my attention,” he said. “I said quick, quick - what’s next for me? I wanted to get back on my feet fast.”

MSF Firmenich bernard at playground

A REALITY CHECK

Filled with fresh enthusiasm and determined to regain his independence as soon as possible, Bernard completed as many training courses as he could: He learnt Braille, how to move around by himself with a mobility cane, and how to use a computer with a screen reader.

Barely a week after he was discharged from the hospital, he was spending almost eight hours a day at the association, determined to soak up as much new information as he could. 

In fact, he completed mobility training – which involves aspects like using the white mobility cane, moving around the house safely, and taking public transport – in just three days, well in advance of the three to six weeks a typical adult would need to complete the training.

MSF Firmenich Bernard and cane
At the SAVH, Bernard learnt how to navigate using a white cane and audio cues from his surroundings. 

With each course he took, he gained confidence. Impatient to start earning an income again, he asked his social worker about employment opportunities for the visually impaired. But that was when reality struck.

“I found out there were generally two types of jobs a blind person could do: Telemarketing, or massage,” he said ruefully.

He was crushed. For someone who had once served in the police force and even rowed at a national level, it was demoralising to think of his now limited job options.

“I think we can do so much more than that."

MSF Firmenich police and army medals
Bernard's medals from his uniformed service days are some of the few mementos he still keeps around his spartan flat.

But that was reality, and Bernard signed up for a massage course, which after subsidies, would cost him about S$1,200. 

He was willing to try, but he soon learnt that the course would take more than two months, during which he would not receive an income. His name was the second on the list, and they needed six participants to start a course, which meant an even longer delay before he could start work.

“I tried to explore the idea, but inside me…” he said, trailing off. “I thought, oh well. I can’t go back to teaching drama.”

But one day, his social worker at the association approached him. A company named Firmenich was looking for professional sensory panellists to assess fragrances.

At that point in time, he knew nothing about the company besides what a cursory Google search turned up. But it was something different, so why not?

There were rounds of selection tests he had to go for, where he was required to smell and describe different fragrances. He knew that there were many others who had applied, and only a few could get through.

MSF Firmenich  smelling bottle

When he received a phone call telling him he had been selected for the position, he remembered tears coming to his eyes.

“After losing my sight and going through all the training… I felt my confidence come back to me,” he said.

Just a few short weeks ago, he had considered ending his life. But on that day, he felt alive.

WHY NOT IN SINGAPORE?

The wheels for this life-changing opportunity were set in motion even before Bernard lost his sight.

It started in late 2015, when Seah Siau Choon, a senior regional sensory manager at Firmenich Asia’s perfumery department, heard about an initiative her Mexico-based colleague had worked on. Visually impaired folks were employed as sensory panellists in the flavours department in Mexico.

They helped to taste and analyse the various flavour characteristics in food products. It was working well, and the team did not need to make many changes to their workplace to accommodate them.

The thought excited her. 

MSF Firmenich Siau choon
Seah Siau Choon.

At that time, the company was on the lookout in Singapore for an external panel of people to smell and profile the different fragrances, considering aspects like how a fragrance lingers on different surfaces and conditions. All this information would help the company’s fragrance development team improve their technologies.

So why couldn’t visually impaired people become part of that panel?

“I always thought that as long as those with disabilities can rationalise, think logically, to understand basic fundamentals ... they can still work,” she said. 

It’s really just about whether you want to receive them, and open up the opportunity for them.

PREPARING THE WAY

On her own, Siau Choon decided to approach the SAVH in 2016 to gauge their interest. Worried about being turned down by the association, she thought it best to get their buy-in before bringing up the idea to her bosses.

“The SAVH was surprised,” she recalled. “Firmenich was the first corporate company that approached them about employment, and the job was also something very different - usually it would be in the hotel line or call centres.”

Besides, she added, Firmenich would provide the training for them to become professional sensory panellists, and the association felt that this would be a good chance to develop their skills.

MSF Firmenich Asia office
Firmenich is the world's largest privately-owned fragrance and flavour company.

Her boss, Firmenich Asia general manager and vice president of perfumery Lourds Rajan Arul,  admitted to having several doubts when he first found out about the idea, largely because, he said, there was no structure in place to accommodate people with visual impairment. 

But the company was due to move to a new site – and he took the opportunity to make sure the new facility would be disabled-friendly.

“We had them in mind right from the very beginning,” he said, explaining that the office building they chose – Ascent at the Singapore Science Park – has ramps and wide lift lobbies to help those with disabilities get around. 

As for the Firmenich offices, there was a special washroom, flat floors without steps or kerbs, and sliding doors, which were chosen over normal doors to make it more user-friendly for his new employees.

“I wouldn’t say it was difficult to accommodate their needs, but with proper training and dedication, we can give them the opportunity to be an instrumental part of our organisation,” he added.

MSF Firmenich office corridors
Firmenich's new office in Singapore.

Beyond that, it was also important to Siau Choon that the visually impaired job applicants be comfortable and at ease. 

Before the interview sessions, she looked up ways to communicate with them and tried to put herself in their shoes – such as by blindfolding herself and assessing different fragrances.

She also attended a two-day workshop by SG Enable on job accommodation. “It was eye opening because you get to see other what organisations have done,” she said.

A SURPRISING FIRST MEETING

Bernard still remembers the woman who surprised him at his job interview. 

After a bus journey from SAVH with other visually impaired applicants, he was ushered into a room to wait for the Firmenich staff to begin the interview and selection process.

He heard the faint sound of footsteps approaching, which was normal. Part of his mobility training involved using sounds of the surroundings, such as escalators and air-conditioning vents, to navigate. He could guess that someone was about to enter the room.

Then, he heard a woman’s voice: “Hello, I’m Siau Choon, and I’m coming into the room.”

MSF Firmenich Bernard and siau choon
Siau Choon and Bernard at work.

He was surprised. For people like him who are totally unable to see, every little detail – such as who is entering the room – is important in helping them build mental pictures of their surroundings. But while most people are willing to help, they may not know how to do it.

When he received her name card, he got another surprise: There were Braille markings on it.

“To me, that was like super thumbs up from me!” he quipped. “This woman knows her stuff.”

Bernard was amazed at how comfortable Siau Choon made him feel. From the way she announced her presence every time she entered or left a room, to the instinctive way in which she offered her elbow to sight-guide him, he knew he was in good hands.

She did an awesome job. It gave me the assurance that this would be a good place to work.

Twenty-six visually impaired candidates applied for the job. But only six made it through. A roughly similar number of sighted people also applied, with similar results.

As Siau Choon explained, the job was not for everyone.

“We’re hiring them as a descriptive panel, so when they’re asked to smell something, they have to be able to describe or verbalise the fragrance – not just that the smell is pleasant or not,” she said. “They also need to be able to smell and identify different intensities of the same fragrance.”

WATCH: What hope smells like, to a blind man (8:33)


SMALL CHANGES THAT GO A LONG WAY

On the Tuesday morning that CNA Insider observed them at work, the Firmenich board room was filled with the chatter of people as the panellists waited for the day’s session to start.

Bernard’s white mobility cane was folded and placed carefully at the side of the room. Apart from the sunglasses some of them were wearing, it was hard to tell the difference between the sighted and visually impaired panellists as they laughed and joked with each other.

All 11 panellists - six with visual impairment and another five sighted - had gone through rigorous training by the company, where they learnt how to smell and identify more than 150 raw materials used in fragrances.

MSF Firmenich VI panellists
The visually impaired and sighted panellists work side by side.

The door swung open, and Thibault Nouffert, a sensory scientist, entered the room, followed closely by Siau Choon and two assistants in lab coats. “Good morning!” he said loudly and cheerfully, and the panellists responded enthusiastically.

The day’s task involved them smelling the fragrances in different bottles wrapped in aluminium foil, before rating the intensity of the various notes in the fragrance using an iPad.

As Siau Choon and Thibault moved around the board room guiding the panellists, little changes began to stand out: Each bottle had Braille markings pasted on the side to help visually impaired people identify which sample they were profiling.

MSF Firmenich braille dots on bottles
Bottle marked with numerical zero in braille.

A brown board with long cut-outs and stick-on googly eyes was on the large table near Bernard. 

It looked almost comical, but it was there for practical reasons: Each board fits snugly on top of an iPad, working as a touch-template to help panellists like Bernard rank the intensity of each fragrance with minimal assistance.

The idea, it seemed, came from a credit card-sized template that Bernard had with windows to help him indicate where to sign documents. Bernard explained that initially, the panellists were given paper and pencils to write down their rankings, but being blind, he was unable to do so.

“I showed it to Siau Choon, and she took it upon herself to expand the idea, creating the board with four cut-outs,” he said. 

MSF Firmenich how it used to be done
The cut-outs helped the partially sighted panellists to write notes. But their writing was often illegible and needed a trainer's assistance to read back.

“We still wrote manually then and used a lot of paper," he added. "But then Thibault came along and improved it even more by adding the iPad.” 

The iPad allowed them to enter their observations more easily, instead of having to painstakingly write out their observations in often-illegible handwriting and depend on the trainers for help. 

These might seem minor adjustments – but they went a long way in helping the visually impaired panellists do their job independently.

For this, Firmenich Asia won the Innovation Award at the 5th Enabling Employers Awards in July, which recognises those that have showed commitment towards hiring and integrating persons with disabilities in the workforce.

MSF Firmenich ipad
The tactile cut-out, coupled with the iPad, allows the panellists to more easily record their observations of smell notes in a fragrance.

Thibault, who joined the Singapore team in March 2018 and had previously worked with visually impaired people in London, said the goal was to help such panellists become as independent as their sighted counterparts.

"The sense of independence is really important to them. Perhaps explain a bit or guide them at the start, but manage them as you would manage any other panellist," he said.

Indeed, when sighted panellist Elson Tan first walked into the board room, he remembered being surprised that some of his new colleagues were visually impaired.

“I can’t deny that there was a bit of a stereotype – I thought they would struggle to lead a normal life,” he said. “But when I saw them, I realised they’re quite independent and able to manage really well on their own.”

MSF Firmenich Bernard at work
Fellow sighted panellists also learnt a thing or two about the visually impaired and what they were capable of.

Nonetheless, he learnt how to make them more comfortable by watching Siau Choon and Thibault.

“I realised that Siau Choon and Thibault tended to verbalise their actions around them,” he said. “It wasn’t instinctive or natural for me at first, but I picked it up as I worked here.”

DASHING STEREOTYPES

Siau Choon is a natural with them, the panellists agree. But it was not always the case: Prior to meeting the panellists and doing her research, she admits, she had several misconceptions about people with visual impairment.

For one, she had thought that having lost their sight, they would have a heightened sense of smell. But when she started to work with them, she realised that this was not always the case.

“It was good news to us, though,” she said. “In sensory work, we want things that are consistent and objective.”

MSF Firmenich diffusion booths
The panellists also test the fragrances on their own skin, because the smells can differ on different surfaces.

What she did notice was that the visually impaired panellists tended to have very good memories. During their training, for instance, she realised that although everyone received a booklet of training materials, blind panellists like Bernard had to rely on their memory to retain the information.

“That’s when I realised, it’s their strength,” she said.

Another thing she has learnt – there are different levels of visual impairment. One of the panellists, Iskandar Ibrahim, who is more commonly known to friends as Shawn,  can identify. 

A former makeup artist diagnosed with low vision in 2013, Shawn requires special red-lensed glasses to see in bright light. He cannot make out details such as a person’s facial features, and needs words to be in large font so he doesn’t strain his eyes.

There are so many different kinds of blind. We don’t all carry white canes.

“There are people who can’t see at night, and there are people like me, scared of the light like a vampire,” he joked, laughing loudly. 

“I just want people to know that people like me – half-blind, half-sighted – we exist.”

MSF Firmenich Shawn bernard
Shawn (left) had to give up his job with a cosmetics company when his sight worsened.

COMING FULL CIRCLE  

Indeed, having people like Bernard and Shawn walking around in the vicinity of the office has had an added benefit: It has increased others’ awareness that visually impaired people can lead independent lives.

As he navigates his way around the crowded roads and MRT station, Bernard says, passers-by do tend to offer their help. 

“When they ask me what I’m doing here, I tell them that I work with Firmenich, and what I do,” he said. 

They often say, wow, I didn’t know you guys can do this!

MSF Firmenich sight guide

In his quest to return to as independent a life as possible, Bernard has achieved much: Apart from getting the part-time position at Firmenich, he also scored a full-time job as a waiter at NOX – Dine In The Dark, which he does in tandem with his job at Firmenich.

In 2018, he decided it was time to move out on his own, and with his sister’s help, bought a flat in Toa Payoh. He lives by himself, with an important bonus – there’s now room for his two sons to stay over when they like.

His flat is clean and neat, with few knick-knacks or mementoes. All he has are a few medals – things which he says bring back good memories from his time in the army, police force, and at dragon boating.

He enjoys cooking, which he is able to do on his own, and he is an expert at ironing his clothes.

MSF Firmenich dragon boat team
The SAVH dragon boat team.
​​​​​​​

He has even started rowing competitively again, and has competed in dragon boat races with an SAVH team made up partially of visually impaired people.

“What was constantly on my mind was that I wanted my family members and my two boys to be proud of me,” he said. “For my boys to say, ‘Dad, thumbs up’.”

“I want for them to see a transformation, from being helpless and blind, to someone who can do things by himself, and who is independent.”

Almost exactly two years ago, when his world went dark, he had never imagined that it would one day regain the richness and texture of a life lived with purpose and meaning, relationships and family.

But today, it is his reality once more.

MSF Firmenich medal

This story by CNA Insider was done in partnership with the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which has set up two workgroups with the private, public and people sectors to look at employability and independent living of persons with special needs. 

Employers keen on inclusive hiring, or jobseekers with disabilities, can approach SG Enable for more information at employment.sgenable.sg/

Source: cna/yv

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