On a holiday to Surabaya, Indonesia, with her colleagues some years ago, Amanda Kong recalls how she enjoyed catching the sunrise and sunset.
Many, however, were puzzled at this because Kong, 28, is blind.
“We ‘see’ in a different way,” she says. “I could enjoy the experience, feeling the warmth from the sun and the sounds, smells, and other sensory cues around me, as my friends described the scene to me.
“I’ve uploaded selfies of myself, with the tag ‘#purelyfortheview’ to challenge conventional perceptions that the blind cannot ‘see’,” she says.
Kong also enjoys going to the movies at the cinema.
“You might wonder how a blind person watches a movie. In certain countries, they have headphones with audio descriptions for the blind, but unfortunately, not in Malaysia. Here, a friend sitting next to me will give me the audio description,” she says.
Changing perceptions and navigating challenges has been something that Kong has had to do all her life.
Kong who had congenital glaucoma, was blind at birth.
During her childhood, her parents wanted her to interact with “regular society” and enrolled her in an integrated school.
However, she encountered many challenges, including a lack of understanding from teachers.
“They requested that I stop using the brailler (instrument for the blind to take notes) because it was noisy. They weren’t aware that I couldn’t stop because I would be left behind if I didn’t take notes immediately,” she recounts.
“Instead, they told me to go to a sekolah khas (special school). But these schools are more for slow learners and not the physically disabled,” she stresses.
After secondary school, Kong wanted to read law but found it difficult to find a tertiary institution that could support her disability.
“After SPM, I contacted many colleges and universities in Malaysia to find out if they could accept a blind individual pursuing a law degree.
“But all of them had the same response: ‘You’re blind. Why do you want to study law?’ or ‘Are you able to?’,” she shares.
Many institutions said they didn’t have the facilities to accommodate to students with disabilities and they weren’t willing to invest in such facilities.
But, luckily, she found a college that was willing to enrol her.
“Brickfields Asia College (BAC) in Petaling Jaya already had a blind student studying there and they welcomed me to pursue my A-levels and law degree with them,” says Kong. “They asked what I required and I received softcopies of all the materials. The lecturers would accommodate me in their classes too – they would provide slides and hand out notes early because I needed time to convert them into audio format,” she says.
For her final year, Kong went to the University of Liverpool in England and the support she got there was excellent.
“The university wrote to me before the semester started, asking what facilities I needed. I had a library assistant to help me scan all the books and convert them into audio format. And I had a mobility assistant who would guide me to class and if I wanted to get groceries during the weekend. The university hired and paid these people to help me,” says Kong.
Kong was the top law student for Cambridge A-levels in 2013, and graduated with first class honours from the University of Liverpool in 2016. She got her certificate in legal practice in 2017 and completed her pupilage at Skrine, after which she was admitted as an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya in 2019.
Champion of her community
Kong now works as a community development manager at Make It Right Movement (MIRM), an initiative that champions community causes both locally and globally.
“After my pupilage, I went for interviews to be a practising lawyer. Most law firms said they couldn’t take in a disabled lawyer because of the ‘cost and inconvenience’ factors,” reveals Kong.
“Unfortunately, the laws in Malaysia don’t have provisions for discrimination against people with disabilities. Lack of awareness makes companies unwilling to explore how they can be more inclusive and hire people with disabilities. Many companies are run by the non-disabled who don’t understand what the disabled need, or how to run the company to be disabled-friendly,” she says.
But at MIRM, Kong is regarded as an “exceptional and integral part of the team”. Unfortunately, when she liaises with outsiders, she still sometimes encounters “discrimination”.
“When I talk to people on the phone, they often tell me, ‘you don’t sound blind’. What is a blind person supposed to sound like?” she asks.
“People who liaise with me via WhatsApp or through email sometimes refuse to talk to me when they finally meet me and see that I’m blind. Instead, they talk to my sighted colleagues,” she adds.
MIRM community liaison executive Tristan Siew says that support systems in educational institutions (and workplaces) need to be more inclusive so that the disabled can participate in society.
“In Malaysia, a common phrase that people with disabilities often hear from those who aren’t, is ‘not to make life difficult for those who aren’t disabled’. This is very different from the West where it’s ‘how can we remove any obstacles to help you achieve your goals?’,” says Siew who actively advocates for the disabled.
He adds that many people with disabilities face “blatant discrimination”.
“(There’s) a stigma that physically disabled equals mentally challenged, which isn’t true at all,” says Siew.
People with disabilities are not given much choice of what they can pursue, adds Kong.
“There are several associations for the blind in Malaysia, but they don’t offer an extensive range of courses. It’s very basic such as reception duty, learning to type and so on.
“At the end of the day, a disabled person’s goal is to be able to sustain themselves and live independently, but such training programmes don’t really fulfill this purpose,” she highlights.
Kong uses an ehailing service to get to work when her father isn’t free to send her. She will also take the MRT if it is a direct route, but not if she has to change trains mid-way.
“The roads/sidewalks are so inaccessible, I might walk into a hole that’s uncovered. Station staff also aren’t willing nor aware of how to help the disabled,” she says.
Kong, who has a powerful memory, uses an app to communicate on her smartphone. According to her colleagues, she’s able to type and listen four times faster than a sighted person.
“The screen reader converts text to audio, and the speed of the voiceover is much faster than what people can normally hear,” she explains.
With this app on her smartphone, Kong can order food delivery, and use social media such as Facebook and Instagram.
“I can ‘see’ people’s stories on social media because the app reads the captions aloud to me. I can even take photos using the AI function which adjusts the picture for me,” she says.
But not all apps are designed to be blind-friendly, she admits.
Looking to the future
Kong, who is single, lives with her parents and two sighted younger siblings. While she is alright with being single, she says she’s open to a relationship but has certain “requirements”.
“As a disabled person, I’m independent so I’d naturally look for someone ‘more independent’ and able to support me – someone able-bodied and not also disabled.
“In Malaysia, people tend to matchmake those who are disabled with one another. But if I’m already disabled, it’s not practical to have one disabled person helping another disabled person,” she adds.
A blind person faces many challenges when meeting new people.
“Most people assume a blind person needs help and they’ll grab my arm or push me – without asking. Some like to pull your walking stick from the front and and expect you to follow. This can be unsettling,” she explains.
She adds that people don’t really “see” the person behind that disability.
“When I go out with my friends, people will tend to speak to my friends instead of me. They will ask my friends, what does she want to eat, etc. because they’re afraid of offending me or assume I can’t answer for myself,” she says.
Having said all that, Kong reveals she does have many friends whom she goes out with for activities.
Kong also works out in the gym, swims and plays the piano.
“The gym needs to be more accessible to persons with disabilities. The buttons on the machines need to be labelled using Braille or differently-shaped stickers. Currently, my friends will tell me the position of the buttons, and I memorise it,” she says.
“A large part of helping the visually-impaired is communication. The primary sense of sight isn’t present, so when I approach someone like Amanda, I will greet her so she knows I’m there,” says Siew.
“I also need to provide clear verbal instructions, for example ‘Amanda, on your right’, and extend my arm.
“Those who aren’t aware might just grab her arm, shoulder, back or waist, and that would startle a person who can’t see,” he explains.
He adds that people need to be respectful and ask for consent before offering to help or touching the person.
“As in everything, ask for consent first. Sighted people often take stuff for granted, and we need to be more aware that in order to integrate persons with disabilities, we need to accommodate to their needs,” he concludes.