Only as handicapped as the society you’re in


If you had to lose one of your senses, which would you rather lose? Which would you loathe to lose?

That was one of many ‘would you rather / what if’ games we used to play as kids. My answer to that one was always the same: I couldn’t imagine losing my sight. Where would I be if I couldn’t see? All the colours? The skies and the clouds and the seas and the trees… all this beauty? Painting and drawing and art and photography would all be meaningless. To be shrouded in darkness. I didn’t think I could bear it.

A week ago, the school brought all of us to Ngee Ann Poly to take part in Dialogue in the Dark, a short session for you to have a brief experience of what is it like to be blind. In a nutshell, Dialogue in the Dark “is essentially a walking tour of various simulated environments in complete darkness, led by visually-impaired guides.” We took a stroll in a park, a boat ride down the river, walked in the city streets, identified a parked vehicle, crossed a road and even ordered some snacks at a cafe, all in pitch darkness.

It was a good experience. Can you identify a statue by feeling the wordings on the wall? What do you appreciate on a boat ride if you can’t see? What’s the number plate, colour and model of this car? How about grocery shopping without sight (everything feels potato-ish)? Do you think you can figure out how to share ice-cream with a friend when you can’t see the ice-cream, your friend or even your own hands?

As an activity that’s obviously meant to have a larger impact than just testing your listening and touching skills or putting you out of your comfort zone for a short while, I thought there is still room for improvement. I confessed that my mentality while in the darkness instinctively took on a playful, competitive edge rather than a sombre, contemplative one. What I mean is, I saw it as a game, as a challenge– to see how much of my environment I could discern without my sight, to see how confidently and quickly I could move and orientate myself. I had to remind myself that it may possibly be a fun ‘game’ for that half hour to an hour, but how fun is it when this is you life, all the time?

We went in as a group of 9, which meant we were in a line and clinging to each other all the time, the train of people seldom broken. We must have looked hilarious, all huddled together. The guide was also constantly giving us instructions (follow the wall on the left, everyone found the wall? move slowly, slowly, found it? okay good, now just follow and go straight!) so we never really had to navigate on our own. I thought it would be a much more powerful experience if you were left to on your own, deposited in the ‘park’ and told to find the bench with no more help other than to know it exists. How much more vulnerable you would feel, with no one to cling on to, no one to feed you directions? That’s their reality.

I was sweeping my hands all over any and every surface I could find and swinging my cane as far out as it would go, trying to paint as clear as picture in my head of my surroundings. That must have looked hilarious too– no blind person would have the luxury of doing that in real life, at least not in public. You can’t go around molesting everything within reach.

Your sense of touch and hearing can actually feed you a whole wealth of details– but it’s so limiting compared to sight. Like I said, you can’t feel up everything. And while I felt I could get a lot of detail, it took too long. And you can only discern things spatially close to you.

When we got out of the darkness and into the open again, I couldn’t help but notice just HOW MUCH information I was taking in with just a casual sweeping glance. The layout of the metal chairs on the wooden floor (and their shapes, sizes, occupancy, even estimated weight); the number of motorbikes parked further down and their models and colours; the trees and plants in the distance; the light, time of day, weather…. and so much more. From a split second glance that wasn’t deliberate, that I didn’t even give any thought to.

Today as I was at the bus stop waiting for my bus, a white-haired uncle with a cane came inching slowly towards the bus stop. I stared at him worriedly. Did he know where he was, where he was going? Does he need help? Oh no, is he going to crash into the pole–okay, no. Is he going too near the edge of the road? Should I help him?

Slowly, he positioned himself by the pole/barrier at the edge of the pavement at the bus stop. I saw him lift the cover off his watch to look at the time. Excuse me, I mean to feel for the time. Should I help him? I wondered. How should I help him? Does he need my help? How does he know what busses are coming?

As a bus pulled in, I tensed up–should I help him? what should I do?— but I did nothing as I watched him shuffle towards the front of the bus stop — that’s way too slow…— and I realized he intended to ask the bus driver. At the moment, one of the other people at the bus stop passed near to him and he spoke out, asking the guy what bus it was. It wasn’t the uncle’s bus, so he stood back at his spot.

As the bus pulled out and the background traffic noises continued, I suddenly noticed how full of people the bus stop was. Not packed, but a significant number. And all of them silent. Invisible, out of reach. I was back in the dark room, where you couldn’t tell if there was someone right in front of you or not, not unless you reached out, not unless they spoke out. When everyone fell silent, when you kept your hands to yourself, you lose all sense of orientation and scale, you can’t tell… You may know there are people there, somewhere, but you can’t reach out to them because they are invisible to you. The power is in their hands to reach out to you

I thought of a typical scene in an MRT carriage in Singapore. Packed but silent. Each individual in their own bubble and none reaching out.

No one was reaching out at the bus stop. The suffocating darkness further stifled by the silence of our society. It would be so easy for someone to go up to him and offer assistance, to make their presence felt, rather than leave that more than physical gulf of detachment between all those seated and the man with the cane at the edge.

It would be so easy… Go on. Just go tap him on the should and ask him what bus he is waiting for. C’mon. 

I pictured it in my mind, and again, trying to push myself out of my bubble, to overcome the inertia of a Keep Quiet and Mind My Own Business Singaporean.  Why is it that difficult?

Another bus pulled into the bus stop and the uncle started moving again. I quickly stepped forward. Did I touch his shoulder? I should have but I don’t think I did. My Personal Space bubble is even harder to get past. Imagine a voice that suddenly appears by your ear, then vanishes again– how do you know if it’s still there or not? I should have touched his shoulder, or elbow, or something.

“It’s bus 14. Bus 14.”  I say.
“Oh I’m waiting for 961. So the bus is not here yet?”
“What bus? 196?”
“No, 961.”
“Oh, no, not here yet.”

Another bus is behind this one.

“The next bus is 147.” I tell him.
I suddenly realize this is my bus. Feeling a little confused, I head towards the bus then quickly doubled back to the uncle.

“147 is my bus.” I tell him.
He says something like, “Oh okay, then go, go.”

And so I left. Thinking about how much easier life could be for him if people around just acted a little differently, took a little more initiative, cared a little more. If, in our society, it becomes a given that someone will go to his side to be his eyes just for that short while. And if when that person boards a bus, someone else would automatically step up to take their place to help. Such a small thing for us, such a big difference for them.

Why so much inhibition to perform such a simple act that can make someone else’s life so much simpler? Practice makes perfect. I hope I will  help more readily the next time.

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