Cassandra with her guide dog, Elke.
Cassandra Chiu tells us more about how Social Distancing has affected Persons With Disabilities (PWDs).
Social Distancing has become the norm of late. From marking out spaces to strange contraptions like the Robot Dog, we can see that worldwide, the way we know life to be has changed dramatically. While these implementations, along with the circuit breaker may seem pretty basic, they actually cause a lot of disturbances to Persons With Disabilities in ways that we probably never imagined.
We spoke to Cassandra Chiu, the founder of The Safe Harbour , author of A Place For Us and an advisor to the DPA Board Of Management. Cassandra was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease when she was 8 and her eyesight started to degenerate. She gets around with the help of her guide dog Elke. She has represented Singapore in FESPIC (The Asian Para games) and is a champion bowler.
So how exactly does safe distancing affect people with disabilities living in our midst? According to Cassandra, she is holding up, but things are not optimal.
Cassandra and Elke’s at Elke’s Graduation Ceremony
“Due to social distancing measures, my independence has been thwarted to a certain extent”
In the past, Cassandra was fully capable of getting around and about by herself, however she now relies mostly on her family to accompany her because bringing Elke around is not as feasible as it used to be.
“Now I go to the supermarket with my daughter, previously if I wanted to just get a bag of chips, I could do it by myself. Now, I feel judged if I stand along the aisle for too long”
For someone with a vision impairment, Cassandra can feel eyes on her at all times, while it is something that she has mostly adapted to, she does feel that the heightened tension due to fear has led to major inconveniences for her.
Before the circuit breaker, Cassandra could easily approach supermarket staff to help her pick out the items on her list or use certain apps to help her identify the right item. However, due to the crowds and how they are pretty much shorthanded, it is much harder for her to get her items. Shopping online is not always available because of delivery restrictions.
“One of the things I distinctly recall would be the case for contact tracing. I want to do my part and be socially responsible, but I cannot identify where the QR codes are because they are not standardised”
Contact tracing is one of the key measures aimed to quickly identify clusters so that we can act swiftly, but due to how fast everything was implemented, there may be gaps that go unnoticed. Furthermore, the general fear of coming into close contact with anyone means that people are generally more wary and unwilling to reach out to help those in need.
Cassandra with her guide dog on public transport. Photo credit: The Straits Times.
“Another thing would be the tapes on the floor to demarcate where we can or cannot stand, a guide dog does not recognise these cues. If Elke sees an empty spot on the bus, she will just guide me there. But now, because of safe distancing, I avoid public transport entirely”
For those that are not aware, Casssandra is actually one of the first few people to attempt to normalise the use of a guide dog in Singapore. It is an evolving situation as there is generally discomfort around guide dogs in Singapore. Perhaps people lack the understanding- Cassandra stresses that they are not guard dogs, they help her increase her mobility and are trained to guide people, so there is no reason to be afraid that they will attack.
“If people practiced a little more compassion, it would actually make a huge difference”
People that live with disabilities often experience life very differently from “normal people”. Their difficulties are very much hidden from society and we do not take notice of their struggles. Cassandra may not have her sight, but she definitely sees much more than us.
“Even simple things like taking the lift can be a struggle for someone like me”
Taking the lift? How so?
“Well, the one near my block has not had the sound working so I am not sure what floor I’m on. There have been instances where I was at the wrong floor and only found out when I realised my keys did not fit in what should have been my house. I would then have to go back down to the ground floor and try again.”
I was completely caught off guard. Simple things that we often ignore, like the robotic voice in the lift that goes: “Storey eight” are little things that are essential to the well-being of someone like Cassandra.
“Because I do not have my sight, I rely heavily on other senses. Such as listening to traffic or smelling leather when I walk past this shoe shop, these help me indicate that I’m going in the right direction.”
Cassandra crossing the road with Elke. Photo credit: mustsharenews .
With Circuit Breaker in full swing, there have been fewer cars on the road. For us, it means less pollution and clearer skies- for Cassandra, it’s a question about safety. Especially at junctions with silent traffic lights.
“The traffic light at my block actually does not beep, so for the longest time I’ve relied on listening to the traffic to get a better sense, along with Elke, I am able to cross the roads on my own.”
The thought of having to listen intently for oncoming traffic is pretty scary, but Cassandra says that she has gotten rather adept at navigating on her own.
With all that Cassandra has mentioned, it seems like we as a society have much to learn in terms of making our environment more inclusive, is Singapore ready to have a conversation about ableism and accessibility?
Cassandra as a Panelist at NUS Tembusu Forum
“Actually it is not all that bad, our government has made sure that tactile flooring is in place and we do have schemes to help us out- generally, our built environment is pretty good. However, I do think that as a society, more can be done”
Cassandra recalls a time when she was in San Francisco that a man actually got out of his car to tell her that it was safe for her to cross as he recognised that she was visually impaired.
“In Singapore, I think we are pretty shy. But, I must say that social distancing has made people slightly more vocal. For instance, as I was about to board the lift, someone voiced out to let them get out first so that I could board and practice safe distancing”
It is the little things like these, such as voicing out or simply directing someone that could make a difference. Sometimes, all it takes is a little initiative.
Speaking of shifts in mindsets and societal observations, how has the changes and measures taken affect your work and relationships with clients?
“The Pandemic has amplified the gap,”
Cassandra giving a talk at the NUS Enterprise Summer Programme
It has been noted by psychologists that prolonged circuit breaker measures could have a negative impact on mental health. These could be due to the psychological effects alluded to social isolation, financial stresses and familial tensions. There have also been an increase in levels of domestic violence.
“While I still connect with my clients online, it is not the same, the human connection is still absolutely necessary”
When giving her consultations online, Cassandra cannot feel the vibrations on the floor if someone is anxious, she cannot assess the tremble in their voices as clearly or listen for feet tapping or any other signs.
In the initial weeks of the circuit breaker, there was a huge question mark on what was considered as an essential service and Cassandra’s private practice was still awaiting approval to operate as an essential service. While she does have that approval now, she did mention that the initial weeks were tough.
“People tend to be less truthful over these online conversations because they do not feel safe due to the lack of privacy in the home environment”
Many people talk about mental well-being, but a lot is based on what they are comfortable with understanding.
“I do feel like I can’t help them as much as I want to. There are options, but the human contact cannot be replaced. But at the end of the day, some help is better than no help”
There is more compassion and online support for those who are able to help people understand what they are dealing with. However when it comes to those that we feel threatened by, such as the lady claiming to be a “sovereign”, the same compassion is not extended.
This calls for us to be more understanding, and even tolerant as a society. There are many struggles that people go through but it is difficult to see because we do not have more understanding of the situation.
What do you wish people would know about people with disabilities and their struggles during a pandemic such as Covid-19?
“It would be really nice if people could step out of their comfort zone to think about others by taking preemptive steps, don’t wait for something to happen.”
Cassandra as a panelist at SMU’s Shirin Fozdar Programme
Maybe instead of lamenting when things go bad, take the first step, reach out and ask people if there is anything they need help with. Who knows, you might be the reason someone smiles today.
To find out more about Cassandra and her work, you can check out her website here.
Disabled People’s Association (DPA) is Singapore’s only cross-disability non-profit organisation. We represent the disability community, working to build a fairer society where everyone can participate in all aspects of life from education to employment and access to social integration. We help the disability community have a voice in society by working with decision-makers in political, commercial and educational institutions so that no decision that impacts us is made without us. We also provide training, consultancy and education for both people with disabilities and the public, so we can work together to create an inclusive, accessible society we are all proud of.
To learn more about the DPA and their initiatives, head down to www.dpa.org.sg
Written By Natalie
Natalie is a content writer that enjoys sunsets and movies. She loves having deep conversations about the world and dreams about being a rockstar. Connect with her on Instagram : @quackitsdonald