Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Proof that disability is no handicap

Lecturer surmounts his blindness to help others support disabled students
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2015

UNLIKE most teachers, Dr Wong Meng Ee cannot make eye contact with his class of 150 students. Nor can he read his PowerPoint slides during presentations.

But the blind assistant professor still manages to command their rapt attention.

With the help of software installed in his laptop that reads out text on the slides, Dr Wong wears an earpiece to tune in to the robotic voice - all while continuing his lectures.

"I don't want to leave my audience hanging, so I try to minimise any time lapses," said the 45-year-old, who teaches special education to undergraduate and postgraduate students at the National Institute of Education (NIE).

"We men are supposed to be bad at multitasking," he quipped.

Behind the jest, however, lies a man his student, Ms Gina Goh, 41, calls a "living and breathing specimen of inclusion".

In the classroom, where he guides trainee teachers on how to engage and support students with disabilities, he uses devices to help him in his work.

Students listen to him because he has proven it is possible for the disabled to excel if they are given the right support and opportunities.

To read a book or journal article, he uses a scanner to zap it into images before using software to convert the images into words, which are then read out to him.

His handicap did not stop him from earning his doctorate in sociology at Cambridge University 13 years ago.

He has also represented Singapore in international swimming competitions, and completed three biathlons and five full marathons with the help of a guide.

Dr Wong has advocated for greater awareness of disability sports and better career prospects for the disabled. He received a President's Social Service Award for his efforts in 2002.

But 30 years ago, there lacked the same understanding about disability that there is today.

Recalling the merciless taunting from classmates in his primary and secondary schools here, he said: "They shoved their fingers in my face and interrogated me on how many fingers they were holding up."

He often felt misunderstood by his teachers. One yelled at him and called him a "stupid boy" after he held a book extremely close to his face because his vision was deteriorating.

At the age of 10, he started losing his sight due to retina pigmentosa, a condition that damages the retina which is responsible for capturing light that enters the eye.

Though his parents made the bold decision to place him in mainstream schools, he had a tough time in class and flunked his subjects.

He then went to a school for the blind in Britain, where he thrived under the attention of accommodating teachers who gave him extra coaching during school holidays.

He was free to be the person he wanted to be despite his handicap. He blossomed into a competitive swimmer because there would be someone positioned at both ends of the pool to tap his head to indicate that he was at the end of the lap.

Dr Wong returned to Singapore with a mission: to make the classroom a better place for students with disabilities.

In 2008, his opportunity came. He quit his executive job at the National Council of Social Service and went to teach at the NIE.

"Teaching these trainee teachers will have a multiplier effect because they will be future teachers responsible for reaching out to students with disabilities," said Dr Wong, who is single.

"Working with them is important because it is a slippery slope that we will go down, should our teachers propagate the mindset that if a disabled student is unable to cope well in school, he is unlikely to succeed in future."

Being able to do such purposeful work gives him the drive to overcome obstacles in his way.

For instance, it takes him at least one week to prepare for a three-hour lesson because of the various text conversions needed. To speed up the process, he has tweaked his screen reader to talk at such a machine gun pace that it is unintelligible to normal people.

His students help by sitting beside him to provide a running commentary whenever videos are featured in class or when there are written assignments.

Inevitably, there are students who misbehave, thinking they can get away with their antics because he cannot see.

He gets around this by developing his other senses.

"I can hear the shuffling when students pass notes to one another in class, or music when they plug in their earphones and tune out during class," he said.

"Being inclusive is more than a label or infrastructure or policies but also the readiness in people to accept us and extend help should we work differently.

"My students are my best assistive devices because they first help me, so that I can then help them."

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