In a time of pandemic, the challenges faced by the visually impaired in Singapore

In a time of pandemic, the challenges faced by the visually impaired in Singapore

They have much to overcome in adjusting to the COVID-19 situation. But their circumstances have also differed in several ways, with some of them facing difficulties and others less so.

The SAVH helped Bernard Chew learn to navigate using a white cane and cues from his surroundings.
Bernard Chew learned to navigate using not only a white cane but also cues from his surroundings. The circuit breaker, however, has changed things for him and other visually impaired Singaporeans.

SINGAPORE: There is one thing Joan Hung has longed to do since Singapore’s “circuit breaker” began: Go for a run. But that is not something she can do with things the way they are.

She would need someone to go with her and run close by her side — less than a metre apart — to guide her. To run outside, the visually impaired 24-year-old would need to disregard safe distancing rules in the process.

There is one place she could run alone, where there are no traffic lights and roads to beware. But the stadiums are all closed.

So this para-athlete who plays goalball, a team sport designed for the visually impaired, makes do with workouts at home. “Everything has stopped suddenly,” she said. “I’m still not fully used to it.”

Joan Hung is a para-athlete who plays goalball, a team sport designed for the visually impaired.
Joan Hung on Zoom.

For the visually impaired, getting used to the COVID-19 situation means having to overcome more than the usual challenges. And some of these issues began even before the circuit breaker.

For example, the safe distancing stickers on the floor used in queues are not something Hung can really see. “You don’t know if you’re (standing) in the right place or not,” she said.

That has been a common experience among those who spoke to CNA Insider. But their circumstances have also differed in several ways, underlining generally how the pandemic has caused difficulties for some and less so for others.

DELIVERY PROBLEMS

One who has had to face the impact of the outbreak largely on his own is Bernard Chew. The 49-year-old has been blind in both eyes since 2017 and lives by himself in Toa Payoh.

Bernard Chew, 49, has been blind in both eyes since 2017 and lives by himself in Toa Payoh.
Bernard Chew on Zoom.

During this circuit breaker, he has been doing the cooking and cleaning at home — “independent living”, said the waiter at NOX – Dine In The Dark.

For convenience, there are times when he orders from GrabFood, now that it has more options. But that is when he occasionally runs into food problems.

“Sometimes when they knock on the door, and by the time I ... open the door, they’ve left the food hanging (on my gate),” he said. “The first time, I didn't realise the food was there.”

Another time, when he opened his gate, the food fell to the floor from the handle and his drink spilled. So he must “fumble a bit” and find his food carefully when the delivery riders take off quickly.

“That’s the difficult part,” he said, although he added that, most of the time, they do wait to pass him the food.

Bernard Chew, who is blind in both eyes, does less ironing now during the circuit breaker.
Chew does less ironing now because there is "no need to go out to work".

But the bigger delivery problem has to do with online groceries, especially after Malaysia imposed its movement control order on its citizens.

Chew, who shops online with RedMart and FairPrice, could not get any available delivery slots then and had to depend on his friends who are sighted to take him grocery shopping.

He was not the only one. Norliana Mohamed Ajam, who is blind in one eye and has partial, blurred vision in the other, had to wait three weeks for her delivery slot.

In the meantime, the 37-year-old had her mother to thank for getting groceries from the supermarket.

Screen shot of RedMart notice saying that delivery slots are limited because of high demand.
Screen shot of RedMart notice.

It was the same with Hung, whose parents have gone grocery shopping when she could not get delivery slots or there were items unavailable, although “it’s a bit harder” for them because both her parents are completely blind.

“It’s also very crowded, and it’s very hard to keep a safe distance when you’re buying stuff,” she said.

So they have had to go when the supermarket is emptier and the staff have time to help — even as late as 11pm.

Sometimes their relatives and friends living nearby lend a hand. “If they’re going to get something, then they’d do a grocery run for us too,” said Hung.

A crowded wet market means it is hard for visually impaired shoppers to keep a safe distance.
Wet markets can get crowded too.

SAFE DISTANCING NOT SO EASY

There are a number of settings where safe distancing has been a challenge for the visually impaired. Lunchtime is one of them.

Wesley Seah, who lost his sight in one eye and has pinhole vision in the other, used to go out and buy food at 11.55am, five minutes before his lunch break, to avoid the crowd even before there was COVID-19.

But because it is “very tough” for him to observe a safe distance from others, he decided to buy lunch at 11.30am and have it in his office on the Ngee Ann Polytechnic campus once the outbreak began in Singapore.

On the train, before the circuit breaker, the 52-year-old often had to say “I’m sorry” as he moved inside, not knowing if anybody was near him.

Commuters wearing face masks on an MRT train in Singapore, March 18, 2020.
Commuters wearing face masks on an MRT train in Singapore, March 18, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Catherine Lai)

Those are words that masseur Tan Chiew Song finds himself having to utter, too, when he happens to go near others while walking. He gets mixed reactions.

“Some are very unfriendly because I don’t look like I’m blind. I also walk very steadily ... because I exercise often," said the 59-year-old. "Those understanding ones will know that white cane means blind."

With safe distancing measures in place, there are also fewer people offering the visually impaired their elbows to guide them. Instead, some members of the public use verbal instructions.

“There was one incident when I went to the coffee shop. The lady told me, ‘Okay, walk three steps ahead of you.’ Normally, she’d hold my hand,” recounted Chew.

He is still thankful for any help he gets. In fact, he counts himself “lucky” that people continue to step forward. And when they do not, he understands why.

Bernard Chew said he "wouldn't get hurt" if people prefer not to guide him during this pandemic.
Chew said he "wouldn't get hurt" if people prefer not to guide him during this pandemic.

“Because of social distancing, I can’t blame them if they aren’t willing to approach,” he said. “Because of this law, who wants to get fined, right?”

There was even a “very funny occasion” when he was in a lift and an old lady pushed him away with a plastic bag covering her hand, “to make sure I'm standing one metre away”.

“I just laughed it off, just took it as a joke,” he said.

NAVIGATING A NEW LANDSCAPE

The circuit breaker has now corralled most people in their homes. But when eateries were open for dine-in, finding seats that were not marked out with stickers proved to be another challenge for the visually impaired.

Finding seats not marked out with stickers proved to be a challenge for the visually impaired.

They had to depend on others to inform them, feel for the stickers with their hands or peer very closely at the seats if they had any vision.

“It was kind of irritating because we spent more time looking for seats,” said Hung, who has glaucoma and aniridia, a rare disorder that affects the iris.

Finding their way around in general has been tougher because of the changes wrought by the COVID-19 situation.

Entrances and exits of places, from supermarkets to shopping centres, have been blocked off or switched as part of crowd management measures, which is no biggie for the sighted but has implications for the visually impaired.

Barriers in places such as shopping centres have been put up as part of COVID-19 measures.
Barriers up before the "circuit breaker".

“So my walking memory is no longer of use because I can’t go by certain routes any more,” explained Hung.

The first time it happened, she was going for a class at *Scape and was taking the usual way from the nearby MRT station towards 313 @ Somerset when she walked into a barricade.

She tried feeling her way around the barricade and found a gap to enter. But it was a designated exit instead. "The people who were stationed there ... were nice enough to help me. So they brought me (through),” she recounted.

Polytechnic student Neo Kah Wee, who estimates that he has 10 to 20 per cent vision, did not get similar help when he tried crossing through 313 @ Somerset to get to *Scape.

Polytechnic student Neo Kah Wee, who estimates that he has 10 to 20 per cent vision, on Zoom.
Neo Kah Wee on Zoom.

There was a queue to enter the shopping centre, so he ended up walking outside.

For some of the visually impaired, even trips within their neighbourhood have been affected, as wearing a mask — cloth masks in particular — has hampered their sense of smell, which helps them to navigate.

“For example, I know there's this Chinese medical shop. Previously without the mask, I could smell ... those medicinal drinks, like chrysanthemum tea,” said Chew, who also works part-time as a sensory panellist to assess fragrances for the company Firmenich.

“Because of the face mask, I actually walked past it ... I had to make a U-turn, and slowly find my way around.”

Bernard Chew relies on his sense of smell to assess fragrances in his job and to navigate his routes
Chew relies on his sense of smell to assess fragrances in his job, and to navigate his routes.

He also relies on his hearing, which is another problem because it has been “too quiet” during the circuit breaker.

“With a lot of shop closures, it's quite difficult to (create a) mind map in my head,” he said. “I tend to slow down because ... I have to make sure that I'm going on the right track.”

It now takes him four minutes, instead of two, to reach Braddell MRT station.

DISPELLING CIRCUIT-BREAKER BLUES

When the circuit breaker was extended to June 1, it came as a blow especially to Tan the masseur, not because of any mobility issues but because he is struggling with boredom.

“(Sighted people) can still watch TV and read the newspapers and books at home,” he said. “I’m usually a very busy working person. So I don’t know how to pass the time with nothing to do.”

Blind masseur Tan Chiew Song, 59,  listening to the radio at home during the "circuit breaker".
Tan Chiew Song listening to the radio at home.

He lost his sight in 1994 to a viral infection to his optic nerves and now sees only a bit of shadow. He went from working in the construction industry to running a small massage salon with one other person.

Business started dropping in March, but the loss of income has not been as hard for him to take as the impact on his daily routine, especially as he is not tech-savvy enough to turn to audiobooks and online entertainment.

Norliana is another who feels restless at home. The part-time guide with the Dialogue in the Dark Singapore stopped going out in March, after tours in the exhibition venue as well as her goalball training were halted.

Her eye medication lowers her immunity level, so her parents are relieved to have her staying at home, especially since she had previously contracted H1N1. But like any person, blind or sighted, she “misses going out with (her) friends”.

Norliana Mohamed Ajam, who's blind in one eye and has partial, blurred vision in the other, on Zoom.
Norliana Mohamed Ajam on Zoom.

For others who can work from home, there has been some sense of normality.

Neo’s internship with Care Community Services Society has continued throughout the circuit breaker, although the 21-year-old laments that by the end of it all, he would have spent only two and a half weeks in the office with his colleagues.

Seah, a service-learning catalyst for Dialogue in the Dark, is another who continues to draw the same salary while working from home, using screen reader software.

Not only that, he is taking a course on increasing personal productivity from online learning platform Udemy and may take another course, on sales negotiation, after that.

Wesley Seah, 52, who lost his sight in one eye and has pinhole vision in the other, on Zoom.
Wesley Seah on Zoom.

“I'm preparing myself for (the) moment when the circuit breaker is over," he said.

As far as the novel coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2) is concerned, he is thinking more of his parents, who are in their 70s, than himself. He calls himself their “hygiene officer” and uses Google Sheets to manually track all their movements.

This time spent together has spawned valuable conversation with them, he added. It is an aspect of the circuit breaker that Chew has come to appreciate too.

“This COVID-19 ... is a lot of inconvenience (and costly) for everybody, but let's look at the other side of the coin: You have more free time with your family members,” said the father of two boys in their 20s.

“At least now my boys have time to call me more often on WhatsApp.”

Bernard Chew, who is blind in both eyes, is pictured here with one of his two sons.
Chew with one of his sons.

Despite the additional challenges, it has also been a character-building opportunity for many, including Hung, a facilitator at social enterprise Athlete Development. She is creating workout videos along with her sister and a friend, and posting them on YouTube.

“We’re doing a video diary of our workouts, basically every day,” she said. “We were kind of bored. I guess it also keeps us motivated ... because we made a commitment to ourselves to do stuff.”

One of para-athlete Joan Hung's exercise videos created during the "circuit breaker" in Singapore.
One of Hung's exercise videos.

Source: CNA/dp

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