Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Adios Dear Friend

Adios Dear Friend

When I became blind I was fortunate to meet a few friends and became close with them over the short span of 4 years. It was from them that I managed to quickly grasp the basic rehabilitation skills, such as orientation and mobility, basic Braille reading skills and not forgetting hanging out at nearby coffee shops for tea breaks. One of them, Mr. Chan Chen, Francis, age 64, who loved `kopi oh kau’, extra strong black coffee, often send me motivational and inspirational text messages and we often too, engaged in intellectual discussion pertaining to life, health, social and even current political issues. I am sad as all this will be a thing of the past. Francis, left us on Aug 6. His sudden demise really shocked me and all the other local Brickfields blind folks who knew him.

Francis, who was blind for most of his life, did not let blindness hinder his passion to help others, particularly, helping the adult blind. It’s due to his unselfish caring attitude that guided and led both my wife and I to be actively involved in helping the blind community, to improve their lives, offer emotional counseling and helping the adult blind individuals and care givers to learn to accept and adapt to the new blind world. Francis would often travel to other towns to visit blind individuals and spend time talking to those needed help and offer counseling in overcoming blind issue problems, etc. Now and then, he would introduce blind friends to me. It’s from such interactions that helped in my rehabilitation within a short period of time. He would share and discuss `case studies’ with me and together, we would devise strategies to help, at times, depressed adults, about to go blind due to eye diseases and other health problems that could cause blindness.

I could vividly recall the early days when we first met. Francis was a character, full of jokes and would keep us all in laughter, always reminding all that yesterday is history, tomorrow is anyone’s guess and today is now and what we make of it. One of his memorable classic tales about his early days, after relocating from Johore to KL for employment was this : he could not speak Cantonese and spoke only Hokkien. One day while ordering coca cola, he asked for a little salt to go with his Coca Cola. As he held up the glass of coke and asked the coffee shop owner for some salt, he said `yiam’ (salt in hokkien) and in response, the shop owner said “yam” (drink in cantonese). Francis repeated the same word a couple of times and this got the coffee shop owner agitated and scolded Francis, saying that Francis‘s probably is crazy for repeating the `yiam’ so many times. A kind and amused next table customer interpreted the dialogue and told the shop owner that Francis was actually asking for salt in Hokkien. The shop owner realized his mistake and quickly apologized to Francis and all burst out laughing. The lesson got Francis to pick up the Cantonese dialect and I am most amazed to find out Francis was gifted where languages and dialects were concerned. He was indeed multi lingual. He could speak Tamil, English, Mandarin and some Japanese . He could converse in Hainanese, Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkien dialects. His could put on accents from Scotland, Ireland, Cockney when speaking English. He told me he picked up this talent of mimicking from listening to the BBC World service and other short wave radio stations

Th other noble service which many blind folks would dearly miss is his hand brailled annual calendars. He had, over the years, personally hand brailled the 12 months calendar in Braille and he took pains to include the important dates for the blind, such as, school term breaks, religious festivals, and state holidays. He had insisted that I accept his annual brailled calendar though I told him that my Braille skills’s still very basic. The braille calendar will be a memory of Francis that will stay with me for a long time. I would not have the opportunity to learn Braille from him, an understanding that we had earlier on, that was, I coached him in learning the basic computer skills and he would coached me in Braille. I am glad that he did pick up some computer skills and he was able to read some e-books and operate his laptop to play his favourite CDs and DBDs.

Upon his retirement from the Malaysian Association for the Blind, some years back, other than the voluntary outreach activities, he was also a part time massage therapist and could assess and advice his customers about their health condition from his touch during a therapeutic massage session, another of his talents .

Francis had very vivid imagination and memory and I could rememember him telling me about his travels to Australia and Vietnam. He could describe in detail the places he had visited and seen, including an unforgettable scene, standing on the ridge of a cliff in Hanoi and looking out to Hainan Island, China, across the seas.

On a holiday to Australia, upon arrival at the immigration counter, an Australian immigration officer asked him, `You come to Australia `to die’(today) and he said, “No, I come here for a holiday” that’s Francis for you.

There were more than 50 blind friends who turned up for his funeral service at the Holy Rosary church, Brickfields and many of the blind friends walked to the church on the morning, braving the heavy morning rush hour traffic, risking their lives in crossing a couple of busy road junctions, just to be there in time to bid farewell to Francis and offer condolences to his wife, Cecilia and his only daughter, Patricia.

Farewell, my friend, Francis.

More challenging times ahead!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Inaccessible Hotel in a Liveable City

PJ, the city of choice Conference:

It’s truly heartening to listen to 2 renowned International experts talking about the importance of engagement, involvement and participation of all sectors of community, working together to realize a shared vision of a livable city for all. Yes, the message was clear, that is, the disabled community should be included and be actively participating. What a timely reminder to the local audience in the conference room. I knew then, I was in the right place and with the right people ie., town planners, architects, Residents Associations representatives, Local council members, NGOs and other state agency officers. I had to admit that I was initially hesitant to attend and thought I would probably just attend the first day and skip the next day. However, the conference was enthralling, so to speak, and I am happy that I marked a full attendance for the duration.

The conference was held at a newly completed hotel that offered modern conference amenities and facilities. The hotel design architects, however, had not given a thought that the disabled, being part of the community, also do attend conferences or as hotel guests. Both my wife and I were disappointed to discover the lift was not talking! No tactile to guide the blind and no hazard/warning tiles at strategic and possible hazard areas. It was simply unimaginable and unacceptable in a newly completed hotel that’s supposedly to welcome all hotel guests, both home and abroad. Another shocking irresponsible action by the cleaning staff was, converting the toilet for the disabled into a storeroom for their cleaning equipment and tools. Social attributes and attitudes were clearly lacking despite the grandeur settings of a nice looking hotel.

During the morning tea break, I had to join the long line of queue and also noticed that my wheelchair bound friends were also having difficulty in getting refreshments. My wife had to seek the cooperation of the hungry crowd to kindly make way for the disabled and informed the hotel service staff to organize an area for the disabled to enjoy the tea break. It was a similar experience during the buffet lunch break, where the blind had to rely on my wife to bring the food to them as there were no prior arrangements made to offer assistance. However, the service staffs were quick to assist the blind when informed about the needs. It was a great positive change and feeling on the next day. There were no issues to inconveniences, and the service staffs, including the conference organizers, were most helpful, be it at teatime, workshop session participation, and not forgetting the sumptuous lunch. Also, it’s nice that other conference participants interacted with the disabled at meal times to share their viewpoints. I know for a fact that from now onwards, the disabled guests coming to this hotel will certainly be warmly greeted and accorded good and caring service by the hotel service staff.

More challenging times ahead!