Alden Boon

‘There’s Nothing Shameful About Disabilities… And What We Do Need Is Inclusion.’: Josh Tseng



Rather surprisingly, I did not fare as badly for my O-Level examinations as I had thought I would. I did well enough to enrol into a diploma course. My first choice was mass communications, as I had — still do — a strong interest in media. I am also passionate about storytelling, that creative process of weaving a narrative and then putting it out to the world. However, my application was rejected as the course does not accommodate students with vision impairments. But in life, you always have choices: it’s about identifying them and working your way through them. My next choice was marketing, which I felt was close enough to media to be a sufficient second choice I could be happy with. I was especially fascinated by Apple’s ingenious marketing strategy: how they use stories to sell their products. I waited with bated breath for the acceptance. Had all else failed, I knew I could still fall back on being a massage therapist: yes, it was and still is one of my career paths. I believe in keeping my options open and rolling with whatever comes along — good things will fortuitously happen.

Fortunately, I got accepted into Temasek Polytechnic’s marketing course. That then begs the question: how exactly does a blind person attend school? After all, the physical environment, a confusing maze of stairs and kerbs and hallways and pillars, is simply not designed for us. And yes, I’ve walked right smack into a pillar once, after politely declining the kind help from a female stranger in a misguided attempt to appear macho (hey, we’re all seventeen once!). How did I get from the lecture hall to the classroom? How did I avoid tripping over chairs?

First and foremost, the white cane boosts a blind person’s sense of independence when it comes to mobility. And yes, we call it a white cane even though mine is anything but white. Some others have pink, blue, and I own two ‘comedy canes’ I had custom made as a joke. One is gold with an austere wooden handle. The other is unashamedly purple with a very large hook on the handle for hanging. To use my cane, I sweep it in front of me left and right while I walk. Doing this, I can feel for obstacles that would otherwise cause me to trip over. It’s a literal extension of my hands and legs, helping me feel my way around the world. And yes, it can be embarrassing to identify myself as blind so blatantly – it certainly doesn’t help when the cane smacks into a particularly resonant object and creates a loud ‘bang’! However ungraceful its usage can be, this humble folding aluminium stick is what helps millions of blind people like me.

When I’m being more of a social creature and am out with others, I rely on sighted guiding so my friends and I don’t drift apart. I hold on to the elbow of the person guiding me, and follow along safely by the person’s side. If you ever find yourself becoming a guide, all you have to do is account for the girth of two people as we walk. If you’re wondering why specifically the elbow, and why not clasp your hand or lend a shoulder, there are good reasons behind it. For one, it is a safe place to hold on to someone. The shoulder can be a touchy area especially if the guide is a female — some people may not feel comfortable with their friends or strangers groping the straps of their undergarments. Holding someone by the hand is just as uncomfortable, since we have just met and are not romantically linked. Not only is it a neutral area, but the elbow allows me to feel one’s body movements when he is moving, stopping, or making a turn. And most importantly, for us, we have control over when we wish to let go if we no longer feel safe or wish to do something as mundane as scratch our nose.

When I was adjusting to life as a functionally blind person, I was surprised to discover that strangers were more than willing to be my guide and offer up their elbows whenever I asked. I guess people would rather cater to my need than suffer the guilt of seeing a blind person fall into a ditch while walking abreast.

I was also very fortunate in that the organisations and charities dedicated to helping persons with disabilities were already in their infancy by the time I entered polytechnic. Had I been born just one or two years earlier, the lack of support during my tertiary education journey would have probably led to my giving up. One such organisation was iC2 PrepHouse, which was born out of the founders’ frustration at the lack of services available to their visually impaired son. Before its inception, there wasn’t any entity dedicated to assimilating blind students with their classrooms as well as teaching them how to use modern technologies. Many were hence left behind in an increasingly digital age. It was through the organisation that I figured out assistive technologies such as screen readers, which are by far one of the most useful assistive devices for a blind person. This text-to-speech software interprets text on the screen and translates into speech that I can listen to. Yeah, those mechanical text-to-speech voices now widely popularised on TikTok? We blind people did it first! I would take the soft copy of the course notes and put them through the screen reader software. It also doubles as a writing tool — when I type the characters, it will read back to me the words that I’m typing.

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.