Stepping Out of Her Shell Into View

via AbleThrive Original

As a kid in a mainstream primary school, Charmaine Tan had resigned herself to sitting in a corner and reading books because she was not able to play with her normal-sighted classmates.

“When I was young, I did not have any visually impaired friends. To me, I was the only one in my world.”

Born with a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive deterioration that causes eventual total vision loss, Charmaine’s self-imposed isolation kept her shy and reclusive. “When I was in P1 and P2, I didn’t talk at all. If I wanted to go to the toilet, I would write it down on a note.”

While this eventually ignited in her a love for literature, she describes her world as being “very, very small” because of her visual impairment. “I didn’t know what other people were experiencing,” she said.

Meeting others like her

It was finally at the age of 12 that she made friends with other visually-impaired children, during a life skills workshop organised by the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped. Serving as a support group as well, they met every week to not only learn different skills, but also play games and spend time with other people from the blind community in Singapore.

“[My mum] didn’t know any other parents with kids like me. And she herself was also very scared, so she was trying her best to help me prepare for my life.”

As Charmaine grew closer to these friends over several years, her mother eventually met their parents. It was, for her, also the first time she met other parents with visually-impaired children. “I feel like she feels solidarity with them. They have common worries for their children. She learned some things from some of my friends’ parents, and we sort of learned from each other as a whole.”

She credits her mother with being her first teacher, mediating between her and school teachers even though English is not her first language.

“My parents are very supportive of me. It was very hard for my mom, but she brought me to school when she was worried for me, and she had to explain to my teachers about my disability.”

As Charmaine grew older, her mother decided that she wanted her daughter to go out as much as possible. It was not a realisation she came to overnight, but rather, after much observation of other families with blind children.

“She tried to encourage me to step out of my comfort zone and talk to people. Sighted children can learn things just by looking, by observing, but she realised that I cannot observe.”

“She will talk to me about: if a teacher is talking to me, how can I talk to people, how can I build conversations, and be comfortable in social situations. She will tell me that normal sighted people don’t really just use words to communicate. They also use body language, they use expressions. People will have different body language, different gestures for different things.”

Charmaine’s mother does not only help her develop her social skills, but just as importantly, her mobility skills. “I have mobility trainers but my mum is the one teaching me because she understands me and understands my feelings, emotions, my mood.”

“Once, we were standing beside the road, waiting for a taxi. She waved down a taxi but the taxi drove past. I said, ‘Mum, the taxi doesn’t want to pick us up.’ Then my mum said, ‘No, the taxi uncle did a gesture. He actually turned his wrist, like make it in a circle repeatedly.’ She said, ‘That means the taxi is making a u-turn.’”

Charmaine had not realised before that incident that gestures and facial expressions were vital for communication between sighted people.

“For me, as a blind person, we only use our voice and our words to communicate. It  is a disadvantage for me, because I cannot see people’s body language and gestures, but at least I know that it is something that people do.”

She credits the people around her in school who, like her mother, continually encouraged her to step out of her comfort zone. “Because of them, now I’m not self-conscious in social situations. I am able to speak to a group of people in public.”

“That’s my biggest accomplishment, stepping out of my shell and being willing to talk to people.”


This article is a part of our #AbleFamilies campaign in Singapore. Stay tuned for real life stories, advice and experiences from people who believe in and represent the potential of all kids. By now empowering the thousands of kids with disabilities in Singapore and supporting their parents and caregivers, we strengthen the next generation of citizens to promote a more inclusive Singapore.

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