‘I was blacking out, asking for help, people ignored me’: The blind Singaporean fighting ‘prejudice’ against the disabled

‘I was blacking out, asking for help, people ignored me’: The blind Singaporean fighting ‘prejudice’ against the disabled

Jim Bek lost half his sight as a toddler, lost nearly all his sight as an adult, then lost his job and his wife - but rose above it all to become an accomplished counsellor and public speaker. 

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Visually-impaired school counsellor Jim Bek at home with his pet cat Putri (Photo: Justin Ong)

SINGAPORE: You see a man with sunglasses enter the MRT train gripping a white cane. He has a badge that says 'BLIND', pinned to his shirt. He moves towards the reserved seat for the elderly, disabled, pregnant and injured, but a woman beats him to it. 

The train is packed. The man suddenly turns pale and starts swaying unsteadily. He calls out: “I’m going to faint, I need to sit down, does anyone have sugar?”

What would you do?

For most people in the train carriage where the scenario above unfolded for visually-impaired Jim Bek, the answer was to do nothing.

“I'm diabetic and I was going into hypoglycemia - lacking glucose - and blacking out; I was asking for help, and people nearby just ignored me,” said the 53-year-old.

It took a while before a couple and another passenger on the other side of the carriage noticed and rushed over to assist. “They told the lady to let me sit, and tried to get sugar for me," said Mr Bek. "They also wanted to press the alarm to stop the train. But it was peak period. I couldn’t do that to the thousands of people.” 

So at the next stop, he was helped out in a “semi-conscious” state, and station staff took over. This was just one of many “challenging” public encounters for Mr Bek, who has about 10 per cent normal vision and describes what he sees as “a camera that’s out of focus, blur, dim, and with no colour”.  

He’s been knocked over by a dog while taking a walk. Once, his cane flew from his grasp as he was bumped around in a crowded MRT station. But most common of all - wrangling for a reserved seat. 

“I’ve had passengers either say ‘I also pay what’, or just plug in their earphones,” said Mr Bek.

For the Ministry of Education (MOE) counsellor - Singapore’s first and only visually-impaired one - this is no less than “prejudice” against persons with disabilities (PWDs).

“I used to be quite upset and disgruntled each time. It’s sad, what’s happened to our community. We are Asians, we’re supposed to look out for one another, that’s our heritage,” said Mr Bek, who is also a consultant, clinical supervisor and sought-after public speaker. 

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Mr Bek was 18 months old and riding a tricycle when he tumbled down a flight of stairs one-storey high and landed in a coma for three days. Waking up, he’d lost 60 per cent of his vision - but thought the world through his eyes then “was what everybody else saw”.

His condition was only discovered in primary three when a teacher who volunteered with the blind noticed he was struggling and persuaded his parents to have him tested.

He transferred to the now-defunct Singapore School for the Blind, where he studied up to the GCE ‘A’ Levels. Mr Bek then embarked on a successful corporate career in marketing - though it was not always smooth-sailing for someone in his position.

“Local companies found it hard to accept my ‘challenges’, but foreign companies here were a bit more open to see how I’d perform,” he said.

There was the time a colleague took advantage of his visual impairment to “dupe” him into signing a resignation letter embellished with “nasty” words to the boss. Mr Bek recounted: “The boss thought I was ungrateful and was furious. He chased me out of the office and threw my things out to the corridor." 

“He later learned it wasn’t me, but because of my pride at the time, I didn’t want to go back.”

Despite having less than half of his sight in his 20s, he was also an avid runner, swimmer and cyclist who scaled Mount Kinabalu once.

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Mr Bek in his younger, "fitter" days (Photo courtesy of Jim Bek)

Then disaster struck in 1997. With several relatives hospitalised that year, Mr Bek spent a significant amount of time caregiving and wound up exposed to bacteria which caused a severe infection in the orbit of his eye. 

He survived a life-threatening surgery, but it further reduced his vision to 10 per cent - and cost him his job as a result.

“It was quite an eventful year. I also lost my father-in-law, mother-in-law, father, cousin, aunty,” Mr Bek said slowly. “I was trying to console people around me but not really managing myself well.” 

Unable to “function as proficiently” as he needed to, he decided to step out of the corporate world and embrace a second career - in counselling.

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While obtaining a master’s in counselling, Mr Bek also pioneered archery and sailing for the local visually-impaired community in the early 2000s.

He joined MOE in 2007 and was posted to Pasir Ris Primary, where he recalls parents asking “How can you have a blind counsellor counselling my kid?”

“Counselling is about listening, not seeing,” he chuckled, adding that they eventually just needed to get “accustomed” to him.

Now at Greendale Secondary, Mr Bek helps at least four students on a typical day, with issues such as long-term absenteeism, anxiety, anger, grief, loss and more.

The latter topics are close to his heart. In 2015 he was dealt the biggest blow of his life yet when his wife of 27 years passed away - from a rare condition where the body calcifies due to a phosphorus imbalance.

“She was actually diagnosed as critical in 2013, and the doctor said she’d only have up to six months. But she held on for one year and three months - because she was more worried for me than her own condition,” said Mr Bek, who now lives alone with his two cats Putri and Tiara.

“She was my crutch, my soulmate, my everything; and one day she just wasn’t there. But every day I wake up, I’m a day closer to her.”

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Mr Bek with his late wife of 27 years (Photo courtesy of Jim Bek)

He spoke calmly and steadily, but there was no hiding the poignancy in his voice - even as he sought humour amidst melancholy. “It’s tough now, like when I have to change the bedsheets - I have friends coming over and telling me my bed is multi-coloured,” Mr Bek laughed.

“But she was always telling me she’ll be on the other side waiting, so don’t worry, enjoy my life, stay occupied, keep going; keep doing what I like to do best.”

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For now, that passion lies in his counselling work, which he said he was having the “most wonderful time” doing.

But Mr Bek, who was formerly the president of the Singapore Association for Counselling, added: “There are members of society who still feel someone like me is best to be in places like the Disabled People's Association, rather than taking their income or fortune or work or career.”

This is his other preoccupation - to close the perceived distance between PWDs and the public at large.

“It’s also our responsibility to help them appreciate us better,” said Mr Bek, who recently featured in a National Council of Social Service campaign titled See The True Me.

“Are PWDs aware of themselves? Have they accepted their condition?” he mulled.

“For me, this only happened recently: I was staring in the mirror one day - at least at what’s left of what I can see - and I was so angry and frustrated, thinking why can’t people understand I’m blind and need help.”

“At that moment I realised: Why am I not accepting that I’m blind? Why am I always trying to prove to the rest; to show how good I am?”

“We need to have a mindset change,” said Mr Bek. “PWDs must know their strengths rather than lean on their limitations. Going to negativity - what good does it do?”

“You know, Singapore is not that huge, we have a dense population, our literacy level is good, we can communicate,” he reflected. “So it’s really about spending a little more time to just listen and understand what’s going on.”

“There are people who still have fear; who still don’t know what PWDs can or cannot do … It’s my hope that we can all learn to embrace each other, work alongside each other, in a respectful, better way.”

(Photos: Justin Ong)

Source: CNA/jo