Alden Boon

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



Around the same time, Singapore saw the commencement of Guide Dogs Singapore and introduced the country’s first full-time orientation and mobility specialist, who trains people with low vision like me to lead independent lives safely. I was offered by the organisation a service dog, but I rejected its offer, much to the surprise of my friends. ‘You turned down a free adorable companion? You must be out of your mind!’ What people don’t understand is that a service dog is not a pet; it’s a working dog. Of course, a relationship is bound to blossom at some point between human and beast. But no one should ever get a service animal if the aim is to cure loneliness. After much mulling, I realised I didn’t need one: I’m a homebody who leads a mostly sedentary lifestyle. Dogs, be they a service dog or a pet, need to be walked every day. Guide dogs especially need to be exposed to regular stimuli, and new routines must be devised for them so they do not get complacent. I knew I had not the discipline to do so. And given my aspiration to be a public speaker, and knowing how woeful it is to get a service animal onboard a plane — even today, the general public is still ill-informed about service animals — it just wasn’t right for me.

So, I had all the tools I needed at my disposal. I kept my nose to the grindstone. Thankfully, the marketing course turned out to be everything I had envisioned it would be. Even modules that my peers found dreadfully boring I thought were interesting. Because there was a purpose: we could apply the knowledge we learnt to real-life situations. There were of course challenges that were inherent to me as I’m disabled. I had to put aside my pride (hey, once bitten, twice shy: walking into pillars in front of total strangers you’re trying to impress does that to you) and learn that it was a partnership. I had to be willing to work with the people who were there to help me, from trainers from iC2 PrepHouse to the lecturers. I needed to know when to ask for help. In this way, I managed to complete my studies and even earn a no-bond scholarship sponsored by Asia Pacific Brewery Scholarship, which just nicely covered the expenses for my four-year degree in Information Systems. Those university years were excruciating: I realised I had no interest in the technical aspects such as coding. I didn’t want to be a software developer or a data scientist. But in life, no experience is ever wasted. Today, my degree informs my work as a digital accessibility advocate and consultant.

My message to the world

As much as glaucoma has taken from me — my sight and the enjoyment of many things — it has also given me one thing: perspective. My girlfriend and I both believe that I would have turned out to be a very different person if not for this condition. I probably would have been a gamer who spends way too much time slouched in his chair. You may label me as a victim of circumstances, and that would not be inaccurate. However, if I let that define me, I probably wouldn’t go very far in life. The world is unfathomably big, and there are people with problems as big or bigger than mine. I can wallow in self-pity, and it’s okay to do that, but what do I do afterwards? I am a huge believer of accepting what you cannot change, and change what you cannot accept. I accept my condition, but I want to change perceptions on disabilities.

Accessibility is a universal problem, not just for persons with disabilities, mind you. Because I speak their language, I can work with developers to identify problems and fixes so that they can make their websites and apps even more accessible. Most recently, my team and I have been engaged as a digital accessibility vendor with SG Enable, Singapore’s leading agency serving people with disabilities. Right now, we work together to train people with disabilities to become accessibility testing specialists (like me). Most recently, we performed an accessibility audit on the mobile app for the National Library Board, providing direct feedback to their development, accessibility, and design teams. We also perform awareness workshops with SG Enable on the importance of digital accessibility for software products, and we are intentionally reaching out to developers and leaders in three of the most important sectors that serve the general public: banking, healthcare, and transportation.

The biggest misconception about disabled people is that there are many things we cannot do. I know what it feels like to be at the receiving end of people’s judgements of what I can or cannot do. That is not being empathetic; it’s making assumptions. You didn’t take the time to ask us, listen to us and to think about what is in our realm of possibilities.

There are in fact many things we can do. Are blind people able to cook, indulge in pole dancing, create batik art or even complete an obstacle course? Why not? I’ll be the one to try and do it. Drawing on my interest in video production, I have applied for grants to fund a series called ‘Blind Guy Tries’. I bet you could never guess what the video series is about. You may think that the motivation for spearheading this project stems from the defiance of a headstrong activist out to prove the world wrong, but really, there isn’t some greater meaning to it, other than the fact that they are simply fun experiences I would like to try. Of course, I foresee that I will not be successful with every endeavour, but it’s okay: all that it matters is that I have given it a shot, and I have a great story to tell about the times I tried asking for thousands of dollars to fund a crazy idea like this one.

So, the next time you encounter someone like me, don’t automatically assume that he is incapable. Or that he leads forlorn lives and stays cooped up in his house. We go to work, and we have both platonic and romantic relationships.

For me, the ship of becoming a palaeontologist has long sailed. Today, I have a different dream of becoming a keynote speaker. Given my position, given my outlook on life, I believe I can have meaningful conversations with people, both disabled and non-disabled, on how to build an anti-fragile mindset and resilience. And through sharing my life story, I hope I can inspire more decision-makers to start thinking about inclusivity. We persons with disabilities are on the fringe of society, and we deserve to be a part of the community as much as anyone else. Blindness and all the other disabilities are not things that are life-ending or something to be ashamed about. It’s non-disabled people who associate disabilities with uselessness, brokenness, and shame. You can think of a thousand and one things that are wrong with us. Or, you can choose to build an inclusive environment that is more accepting of everyone, so that all of us can shine in our own ways.

Josh Tseng is the Director of Digital Accessibility Services at Etch Empathy, a non-profit organisation dedicated to ensuring software services are accessible to everyone. He is also a keynote speaker and online content creator educating the world about people with disabilities using his personal life experiences, having appeared on the likes of TEDx, Channel News Asia, The Straits Times, and more. For speaking engagements or media enquiries, contact [email protected].

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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.