Contributors: Hidayat Khalid, Chong Kwek Bin, Low Jarn May
While stepping out of the lift, I identified a man holding a white cane with his phone to his ear and approached him. With our introductions done, he shared that he had trouble locating the door to the exhibition area, and had approached someone to give him directions. He also added that there were large overhanging metal containers on the walls along the pathway, which could be potentially hazardous. Chong Kwek Bin is a vision-impaired person with genetic and progressive eye disorder, and has limited partial vision. He works at the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped. Starting off as an IT trainer for the vision-impaired, he has been doing more advocacy work in recent years. Kwek Bin and I explored the location for the exhibition with myself as a guide, while we waited for one more guest.
After circling back, a petite woman approached us and started signing with me, sharing her difficulty in locating the rendezvous point. Low Jarn May is a Deaf individual. She has been Deaf since the age of 3 due to a high fever. The capitalized D in the Deaf means that she subscribes to the cultural values of the community and proudly uses the language of the local Deaf community, Singapore Sign Language. May has been involved in advocating for her community and continuously volunteering for community development work for 20 years.
During a conversation over a drink, Kwek Bin and Jarn-May shared about their way of life as a vision-impaired and Deaf person respectively. They agree that while vision-impaired individuals and the Deaf community face a common challenge of accessing information, they differ in modality. While the vision-impaired face difficulty in accessing visual information within their immediate surroundings and textual information, the Deaf struggle with acoustic information.
From Kwek Bin’s perspective as a vision-impaired individual, “more than 90% of information is not readily accessible” due to its visual nature. Kwek Bin shares that assistive and adaptive technologies are necessary for his daily living. This was apparent when we heard the flurry of words communicated by a computerized voice as Kwek Bin checked his messages from time to time. He relies on text-to-speech software for daily communication and accessing information at work. These softwares allow vision-impaired individuals to receive textual information at a faster rate and without it, individuals with little or no residual vision will not be able access any information.
On top of the difficulty in accessing printed information, traveling to new locations requires him to extensively prepare his route so that he can familiarize himself with the directions but these routes may still be inaccessible and may be potentially unsafe at times. This was later exemplified when we were leaving, navigating through sporadic tactile paving and pathways that were bumpy with cracks and holes, beside a stretch of large uncovered drains. Kwek Bin pointed out that Deaf individuals would not have the same issues with the physical environment.
For the Deaf, effective communication is the main adversity. Jarn May believes in optimizing communication with any technology that is available. She always assesses assistive and adaptive technologies, identifying ones that work best for her, and ensures that the people around her are aware of these technologies in order to enhance communication with her. At the workplace, she receives the same information as her fellow Heads of Department, through group chats on various social networking apps that enable transmission of information. In order to participate effectively in discussions, her organization practices disseminating materials beforehand so that she is able to remain receptive and cognizant of the discussion points. She adds that it is useful to both her and her hearing colleagues, as such it has been adopted as common practice.
She shares that communication with people outside her organization can be challenging as she would often receive calls, thus requiring assistance from colleagues, who would assist in explaining that she is Deaf. As for face-to-face interactions, she uses a speech-to-text software that transcribes, even heavily accented voices. She shared about the two mobile devices that she habitually has on her and explains that it is crucial to have a functioning device to ensure effective communication with hearing people, when needed.
With these assistive and adaptive devices, and their initiative in making their environment more accessible, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected their daily living? They were both quick to highlight the perks in relation to the enforcement of online communication— the adaptability to the new normal that has enabled more awareness of the needs of their respective communities.
Kwek Bin explains that the shift to online platforms is more convenient as he no longer has to concern himself with planning the route to the meeting points or navigate through unfamiliar locations. Despite a win on the former, the latter is still a significant challenge— information on slide presentations are often not accessible as presenters tend to gloss over or omit the information on the slides, which disabled screen reader software requires to access information. The practice of sharing material beforehand is generally not a common practice hence he makes do with minimal information.
Jarn-May shares that with the enforcement of online communication, the presence of the sign language interpreter during meetings is more conspicuous, teaching people to be more aware of the different needs of the Deaf person. Apart from the interpreter, the automatic captions are also useful to her despite some inaccuracies in the transcription. With prior knowledge of the content, she is able to deduce the content of discussion with context, when necessary.
When asked about their experiences with the arts, from the get go, there is a clear difference in the response to the arts scene by the two interviewees. While Kwek Bin finds that the entire concept of visual arts was “not created for vision-impaired persons”, Jarn-May expands her horizons” with visits to museums during her travels.
Jarn-May excitedly shared her experiences at accessible museums in Europe. The Real Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, Scotland, was the most memorable and she highlighted some of the accessibility features that she hopes to see adopted in by our local museums, art institutions and exhibitions.
When she approached the counter to present her disability card and ask about the accessibility services, the staff gave her accessibility options for Deaf individuals visiting the museum—having a sign language interpreter or using the tablet that contains transcripts of the description of every installation. This small but significant gesture of allowing autonomy to the Deaf individuals was impactful to her as she was given the option to choose how she prefers to experience the exhibition. She opted for the tablet as she was not familiar with the British Sign Language. She was able to enjoy the exhibition independently.
Kwek Bin highlighted that not being able to touch artworks in most exhibitions is an aspect that significantly reduces the meaningful experience for vision-impaired people in Singapore. Jarn-May continued to highlight in her experience, museums allowed the vision-impaired visitors to touch the installations and were equipped with tactile paving to navigate the exhibition. These features granted the vision-impaired individuals to navigate the exhibition independently and intimately. Apart from the accessibility to information, the physical environment also catered the needs of persons with disabilities.
Jarn May recalls her participation in the UN 8th Session of the Conference of State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the United States. It was her first time encountering a large congregation of people with disabilities and she was surprised to see vision impaired and deafblind individuals independently replying on assistive and adaptive technologies. That was the moment where she realized that a fully accessible environment is essential for people with disabilities to thrive through empowerment.
The fundamental approach to being more inclusive is to communicate and be open to learning from persons with disabilities from the most preliminary stage of planning. They are able to provide information based on their knowledge and life experiences. Drawing primarily from generalized assumptions and theoretical sources creates several gaps on the road to accessibility—hence consulting and being receptive to honest feedback by respective disabled communities ensures a genuine effort to start off with. Moreover, by actively listening, individuals are empowered and encouraged to work as one, advocating towards a common goal.