SINGAPORE: This is going to be really awkward.
Or at least that’s what I thought picking up former President of the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped Tan Guan Heng would feel like.
Mr Tan is blind, and needed help with transportation to Mediacorp's studios for a recording of The Pulse podcast.
While I was excited to meet Mr Tan, seeing this as an opportunity to know more about the 2010 President’s Social Service Award recipient, I was slightly worried and couldn’t help but think: What if I say something that may sound rude or inconsiderate?
Would asking him about his disability be intrusive?
However, when I picked up Mr Tan that Wednesday, our conversation was far from awkward.
WE’RE MORE THE SAME THAN DIFFERENT
In striped shirt and blue pants, and a cane in his hand, Mr Tan was already waiting for me.
As soon as I greeted him, he turned towards my direction and gave a smile.
He then almost immediately handed over a book that he was holding onto. It was a copy of his latest work, Pioneering Disabled And The Able, and it was a gift for me, he said. This somehow became our ice breaker.
On the journey to the studio, we talked about the other books that he had written – four in total and a fifth, he said, is on its way. We also talked about recent news, programmes that he listened to, and even our families.
Mr Tan was open to answering all my questions – I was most curious about his daily activities, through which I found out he’s very much like every other men his vintage. Apart from working on his new book, he tunes in to some TV, exercises, listens to music, takes naps, and goes for walks.
The more I spoke to Mr Tan, the sillier the thoughts I had prior to meeting him seemed, and the more I started to realise how much we had in common and how our similarities outstripped our differences.
BLIND AND INDEPENDENT
Like many others, I had some misconceptions about the blind: That they can’t live or work independently, or enjoy the small things like TV shows because of their disability.
A 2014 study from self-help group the Hong Kong Blind Union that looked into general public perceptions of the visually handicapped in Hong Kong found that many still hold stereotypical concepts towards the visually handicapped. This included the idea that they need to rely on others for all daily activities like eating and using the washroom, and that they lock themselves at home and stay idle.
While vision loss can lead to some limitations, the blind are just as capable of doing many things the average person does, and live full and independent lives.
Mr Tan, for example, is more than just walking proof of this - he’s a champion in the community.
Despite losing his sight in his late 20s, Mr Tan went on to publish several books. He became the first blind person to be a member of Singapore Association of the Blind executive committee, and later president of the association, now known as the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped. Mr Tan also started a low-vision clinic and library for the blind.
The late Theresa Chan who, despite losing her hearing and sight in her early teens to meningitis, showed that one’s limitation shouldn’t stop them from living a purposeful life.
Ms Chan learnt to fingerspell, read Braille, speak and pronounce English words - by feeling and touching the speaker’s lips and throat. She took up many sports during her time in the US where she studied, and travelled extensively to countries including England, Germany and India.
In the 1970s she became a craft teacher at the Singapore School for the Blind where she taught until 1990. Ms Chan story inspired Eric Khoo’s 2005 film, Be With Me, which she also starred in.
There are scores of leaders who don’t let their visual handicap curb their dreams.
Famed activist and Youtuber Molly Burke has been showing others for years that the blind have more similarities with the average person than differences.
Molly, who completely lost her eyesight at 14 to a rare eye disease, upload and share videos of her doing a myriad things such as make-up, swimming (with a mermaid tail), and skydiving, to her over-a-million subscribers on Youtube. Her recent vlog shows her trying her hand at babysitting with guidance from the baby’s mother.
Molly is also a Paralympic torch bearer, a Miss Teen Canada International winner and a face of Dove’s 2017 ad campaign.
LEARNING FROM PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES
The blind and other persons with disabilities (PWDs) are often seen as less than capable. Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-large wrote in Pioneering Disabled And The Able, that “many Singaporeans mistakenly think that the disabled are not as intelligent, not as well educated and not as capable as able people”.
But these myths and misconception many of us have of PWDs can be debunked if we make an effort to interact more with them.
On that same episode of The Pulse that Mr Tan was on, Marissa Lee Medjeral-Mills, executive director at the Disabled People’s Association highlighted how we need to break out of our narrow mindsets when it comes to persons living with disability.
She said she sees PWDs as “problem solvers (and) innovators,” who “have to get around a world that is not designed for them”, and that we can all learn a lot from them.
She added that others should be interested to learn from them “to see what (they) don’t know as a person who hasn’t live those experiences".
I may have met Mr Tan for only a short while, but I’ve learnt a lot about how important it is that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and form our impressions about what it means to be someone living with a disability.
After the podcast was recorded, I dropped Mr Tan off at his place.
Before we parted, Mr Tan thanked me for giving him a “break” from his daily routine to chat on The Pulse.
But really, it’s me that should be thankful.