Thursday, 2 July 2015

Pioneering Disabled And The Able: Tan Guan Heng

The audacity of aspiration - and hope
Book profiles people with disabilities living extraordinary lives, and their supporters
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2015

Many Singaporeans know of the achievements of neuroscientist and paraplegic athlete William Tan and four-time Paralympic equestrian medallist Laurentia Tan.

But not many know of the late Nancy Chia. Born with one leg shorter than the other, she became the country's only disabled female driving instructor - and helped other people with disabilities to drive so that they could regain their freedom and independence.

Nor do many know of Ms Theresa Chan, who is deaf and blind but went to the United States in 1960 to learn how to read, write and speak English so that she could come back to teach others at the Singapore School for the Blind.

Singapore is not short of inspiring examples of people with disabilities living extraordinary lives, and some of their stories are captured in a new book written by Mr Tan Guan Heng, vice-president of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH). Pioneering Disabled And The Able will be launched by Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob on July 21.

The 119-page book is a collection of profiles documenting the experiences of people with disabilities who beat the odds to excel in various fields, including sports and the sciences. There are also profiles of non-disabled people who rallied behind the community. One of them is Ms June Tham, who spent more than 30 years serving children with special needs and helped to form, in 1992, the Rainbow Centre, a pioneer in the running of special education schools.

"The many anecdotes in the book candidly reveal how the disabled triumph over adversity, invariably through blood, sweat and tears," said Mr Tan, 78, who is blind.

"But that is not enough and it is through the support and understanding of the community that they are able to realise their aspirations," added Mr Tan, who has published three other books.

His own story is a pretty unusual one. He had an eye haemorrhage while studying at the then University of Malaya. A surgeon re-attached his retina and restored his sight.

While in hospital, he fell for a nurse who cared for him. They dated for three years before his eyesight deteriorated and he became completely blind at age 29.

She persuaded him to seek specialist treatment in the US but doctors there said there was no cure. Instead, they put him through a rehabilitation programme to learn how to adjust to being blind.

He returned to Singapore to find that his girlfriend had become engaged to a rich doctor. Deeply disappointed, he remains a bachelor today. The experience inspired his semi-autographical book, My Love Is Blind, published 20 years ago.

Playwright Stella Kon, known for her classic play Emily Of Emerald Hill, plans to stage it as a musical next year if they can raise the $150,000 required.

After his return, Mr Tan learnt Braille and ran a bookstore. He became the first blind member of the then Singapore Association of the Blind's executive committee.

He served for more than 30 years - 11 years as president - and started a low-vision clinic and library for the blind. In 2010, he received the President's Social Service Award, the highest accolade for volunteers.

Mr Tan said it was his old friend and Raffles Institution classmate, Professor Tommy Koh, who urged him to write about people with disabilities after his third book, 100 Inspiring Rafflesians, in 2008.

Prof Koh, Ambassador-at-large, writes in Mr Tan's latest book: "Many Singaporeans mistakenly think the disabled are not as intelligent, not as well educated and not as capable as able people.

"There are few employers who are prepared to employ them... This is one area in which I hope Singapore will make progress in the next 50 years."

Mr Tan agreed, adding: "It is easy to write about the achievements of the disabled but the book also aims to give a glimpse of the frustrations and challenges they face."

• To buy the book or donate to the upcoming play, e-mail

First to get a guide dog in Singapore
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2015

Golden retriever Stacey - Singapore's first guide dog for the blind - arrived here in 1982 but was sent back to Australia after just two years.

She had been a gift to Mr Kua Cheng Hock, who was born blind, from a guide dog centre in Australia. He had travelled to various countries to learn more about guide dogs as it was his dream to have one. But the reception here was cold.

Stacey was barred from buses and laws at the time prohibited animals from entering places which handle food.

"She could guide me only around the neighbourhood and that's a meaningless waste of her skills, so I released her to be paired with another blind person in Australia," said Mr Kua, 60.

But he did not give up. In the 2000s, he sensed that the authorities and community were more open to accepting guide dogs.

In 2004, he sought the help of Mr Michael Hingson, the blind manager whose guide dog Roselle led him to safety from the 78th floor of one of the burning World Trade Center towers during the Sept 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr Hingson linked him up with a guide dog organisation in California which gave him Kendra, a labrador retriever.

This time, Mr Kua worked with various agencies, from the National Environment Agency to bus companies, to address any problems that may arise with Kendra's arrival.

In 2005, 23 years after Stacey, Kendra became Singapore's second guide dog for the blind.

The Environment Public Health Act was amended later that year to allow guide dogs into restaurants and food centres.

Mr Kua founded the Guide Dogs Association the following year to help others achieve greater independence by being paired with guide dogs.

Today, there are about six guide dogs here.

Mr Kua is believed to be the most well-travelled blind Singaporean. His former work as president of the World Blind Union Asia-Pacific and council member of the World Blind Union took him to more than 40 countries.

Mr Kua, who has also worked as a teacher, insurance agent and businessman, said: "I am glad I persevered with the guide dog and did not take no for an answer.

"Ever since I read a Braille book in my school library about a blind woman and her guide dog, it was my dream, however impossible it seemed, to have them in Singapore for the blind."

Being blind didn't stop her from scaling mountain
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2015

Climbing the 4,095m-high Mount Kinabalu, one of South-east Asia's highest peaks, is challenging even for a physically fit person.

But Ms Rosie Wong, who is blind, managed to scale most of the mountain at the age of 50 in 1998, barely a year after an operation to straighten her deformed right leg.

"One wrong step and it would be the end of me, but at that time I just wanted to challenge myself and have fun," said Ms Wong, 67, who became blind after a bout of high fever at age nine.

She had made the trip with 10 students from Springfield Secondary and trusted them to guide her up the mountain.

Ms Wong had a radical streak from young. "I was never afraid to try new things because I feel that life should be lived to the fullest," she said.

After working for 33 years as a telephone operator, she went back to school to get a diploma in aromatherapy and holistic massage in her mid-50s.

Today, she is still a freelance masseur and sews items for the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped to sell for charity. "If I can do, I will do and not say die," said Ms Wong, who is married with two children.

"When I was at the top of the mountain, I began to realise how all human conflict and strife seem so distant, petty and trivial and I just wanted to try and experience things like any other normal person ."

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