Cassandra Chiu, 41
“I have many big dreams,” Cassandra Chiu says emphatically. “But we can only take things one step at a time and grab that ball and run as fast as we can. Hopefully, at the end of our lives, we would have accumulated enough brownie points that can make a significant difference in this world.”
Perched on a curved swivel chair in her office, Chiu looks the part of a woman who has arrived and fulfilled all the goals she had set for herself. The multitude of degrees and accolades on the wall behind her are a reflection of her academic and career success. In between having her make-up done for our shoot, Chiu is responding to messages and emails on her iPhone through the VoiceOver function, which reads text aloud. She is in her element, deftly swiping and hitting buttons purposefully on her touchscreen. Her guide dog, Elke, sits quietly at her feet and dozes off into a sweet afternoon slumber.
When she turned eight years old, Chiu was diagnosed with Stargardt disease—a juvenile form of macular degeneration that causes vision loss in children—when teachers realised she wasn’t reading off the blackboard. One doctor told her the words that would stick with her till today: “You do not have a choice whether you’re blind or not, but you have a choice to make your life whatever you want and show the world who you are as a person.”
“To me, genuine inclusion is when we take somebody, whatever disability they may have, and treat them as an equal and want the same for them—not only when it’s convenient”
As her sight deteriorated, the determined, young Chiu took that golden line seriously and has never looked back. Today, she is a trained psychotherapist at The Safe Harbour Counselling Centre and has written a book titled A Place For Us, a part-autobiography documenting her experiences living as a person with a visual impairment and how she is advocating for an equal future for people with disabilities. Chiu, who can now only tell if the lights are on or off, also frequently engages in various speaking engagements and advocates for real inclusivity for anyone with a disability.
“Hopefully by the time I’m gone, there can be more genuine inclusion in Singapore. The word ‘inclusion’ to me is not accurate because many people’s idea of inclusion is condescension,” Chiu articulates. “For many people, inclusion is doing something for others from a charity perspective because ‘you’re so poor thing, you’re worse off than me, so let me give you some money’. To me, genuine inclusion is when we take somebody, whatever disability they may have, and treat them as an equal and want the same for them—not only when it’s convenient.”
Citing an example of putting $5 in the box of a blind man busking as inclusion out of convenience, Chiu believes that real inclusion is wanting to level the playing field to make it the same for everyone, whether with disabilities or otherwise. “At the workplace, would we employ someone with a disability and make it accessible for them, such as a talking computer?”
Chiu pauses, taking a sip of water before summing up thoughtfully: “I think a good yardstick is when we have children, can we accept if our children’s partners have disabilities? Would we automatically tell our child that it’s a bad life option because they’re going to be burdened for the rest of their life? If we continue to have that mindset, then inclusion will always be tokenistic.”
Finding a slot for an interview and shoot with Chiu was a challenging task as her days are packed with work commitments and engagements. It is only in the early mornings when Chiu has time to go for long walks with Elke and breathe in the balminess of the break of day. The multifaceted professional says it is on these walks where she refocuses, clears her mind and fuels her creative energy.
To Chiu, beauty is in the little things, like her relationship with Elke. Elke gives Chiu the independence to wander freely, guiding her on her daily travels and navigating around dangerous obstacles. “When Elke lays down under my desk, she’s leaning up on my feet—that sense of touch is comforting. The relationship is two-fold with an assistance dog. There’s the mobility part where she helps me get around, but also a companionship part where she makes up for the fact that a social life isn’t easy. There is beauty in our relationship and I always feel gratitude for what we have.”
“Motherhood taught me a lot. I used to let people take care of me, but now I’m responsible for a little life”
Her other love? Chiu’s 14-year-old daughter, who changed Chiu’s life completely when she was born. Motherhood was an impetus for her to do more with her life. Chiu recalls an incident when her daughter was a toddler and an older aunt told her daughter to look after Chiu when she grew up because Chiu couldn’t see.
Chiu quickly realised that she had to gain more independence as it was unfair to place that kind of responsibility on a young child. “Motherhood taught me a lot. I used to let people take care of me, but now I’m responsible for a little life and the person I want her to become.” She recalls a time when her daughter fell sick and she needed to feed her oral medication through a syringe, except she couldn’t tell how much medication to put in the syringe. “With some help, I used a knife to cut the plunger of the syringe so when I pulled it out, it was exactly the right amount.”
COVID-19 is Chiu’s latest challenge as the layouts in malls have changed with the various entrance closures. While Chiu knows Orchard Road like the back of her hand, she explains that the changes with checking in and out of places have made life that bit more difficult. Guide dogs aren’t trained to identify QR codes, which are placed in different spots at every mall, shop or restaurant entrance.
Chiu takes the challenges in her stride. She quickly dictates a message and sends it off before putting her phone down next to her. At the end of the day, her voice always lends back to advocacy, as it is what keeps her going—for real inclusion, for the usage of guide dogs in Singapore, for people with disabilities.
“I couldn’t have gotten where I have in life without the help of both friends and strangers who have allowed me realise my potential. I feel like I have to pay that forward to others, so that help can be amplified.”
Shawn Flower, 46
Shawn Flower belongs to a unique group of people who can make the room laugh along with him in the first minute of meeting him. Perhaps it’s in the way he speaks, inflected with Singlish colloquialisms, that makes you feel right at ease, or his hearty guffaw that punctuates the end of every sentence. Combine that with the fact that he looks like a celebrity. When Flower walks into the studio we are shooting at, he is dressed head to toe in black, hair up in a perfect man bun and oversized glasses over his eyes.
“I must always dress up. How can you leave the house without wearing something nice?” Flower exclaims, his face set in a perturbed expression. “But people will always look at me strangely. I know they’re thinking, ‘Who is this guy? He dresses so stylishly but why must he wear these sunglasses indoors’?”
Flower is referring to his seeing aid, a pair of red-lensed glasses that helps with photoreceptor dysfunction, which he was diagnosed with in 2014—where cells in the retina that respond to light degenerate prematurely. In bright light, all he sees are fiery glares and vague shapes. In dim light, he can generally make things out, but the details are fuzzy.
“Being a make-up artist was something I loved, but I knew I couldn’t do it for much longer”
Our make-up artist, Greg’O, runs over to greet Flower and both men squeal with delight and start chattering away in a mix of English and Malay, recognising they knew each other from years back, when Flower was an established MAC make-up artist. It was a different life back then, Flower admits, as his days were fast-paced, thrilling and glamourous. He worked backstage at fashion shows and often led the charge where he worked at Changi Airport Terminal 1 to create themed counters, including the time the team dressed as Lady Gaga, which was an instant hit. He knew the brand inside out, including where every product was located.
Until one day in 2012, when Flower realised he didn’t anymore. He started giving customers the wrong products and making mistakes at work. Initially, he struggled to hide his deteriorating vision and refused to acknowledge that something was wrong. “I told people I was OK, but inside, I knew something was not right,” Flower says candidly. “I was too proud to admit it.”
“When I was first diagnosed with photoreceptor dysfunction, I was depressed,” he continues. “Being a make-up artist was something I loved, but I knew I couldn’t do it for much longer.” Flower felt his dream job inexplicably slipping through his fingers—a career inspired by his late mother, whom he was very close to and often tagged along with when she did bridal make-up. His mum was very sick at the time he received news of his condition. “During my break at work, I would rush home to feed my mum and change her diapers. I was constantly feeling down and it didn’t help that I was always getting scolded at work.”
Flower left MAC in 2014 and took a break, only taking on a few freelance jobs for people he knew (which he could still do in dim lighting with his vast experience). Being creative is in his blood but he didn’t know what do next. As a child, he used to sing, act and model, and in his early 20s, he made costumes and performed in drag in clubs.
“Singaporeans don’t realise that visual impairment is a spectrum. It’s not just blind people or sighted people”
When fragrance company Firmenich offered him a part-time job as a sensory panellist in 2017—where he smells and tests the different products the Swiss company produces—he willingly took it on. At present, Flower is still employed by them and is also a scare actor for Universal Studio Singapore’s annual Halloween Horror Nights. Its night setting renders the job more comfortable for his sight and he loves being able to dramatise in his various roles, be it as a wizard or a possessed person.
Flower says that having to adapt to his new reality has humbled him and he is glad to be in Singapore. “We have the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped and they will visit us and ask us how we are. I know I am well taken care of,” he continues with a smile. “I don’t often carry my white cane when I’m out but when I do, everyone is more helpful.”
While Flower is grateful for people who step in to help when he needs it, he also hopes that Singaporeans will recognise that many people with visual impairments can live their lives independently. “Singaporeans don’t realise that visual impairment is a spectrum. It’s not just blind people or sighted people. There are many who are partially blind and we don’t always need help. I try to do most things myself because that’s what I’m used to, so the best thing to do if you want to help someone with a visual impairment is to ask.”
Claire Teo, 21
Before you meet Claire Teo, you might assume from her work experience that she’s in her mid to late 20s. The Singaporean thespian currently holds down multiple jobs. She is the resident playwright and curriculum developer at community theatre company PLAYinc, trains young theatre artistes for a talent academy showcase that she is writing and directing, and is spearheading a special project with volunteer-run platform Unseen Art Initiatives.
When we catch up in her home one evening, Teo’s petite frame is clad simply in a tank top and a pair of jeans. Her sharp features, glowing skin and infectious smile are a sight to behold, but she sheepishly laughs off the notion that she is good-looking. “For obvious reasons, I don’t care much about appearances. Neither my own nor my potential partner’s,” she adds.
“Imagine only being able to see through a straw and what you see is a kaleidoscope of fragments that you have to stitch together”
Diagnosed at the age of four, Teo has retinitis pigmentosa, which brings with it symptoms like tunnel vision, night blindness, colour deficiencies and distorted vision. As we chat, she mentions that she has been focusing her gaze on my eyes and so knows what they look like. As for the rest of my face, she has no idea. She describes to me the current scope of her vision. “Imagine only being able to see through a straw and what you see is a kaleidoscope of fragments that you have to stitch together.”
Teo first found interest in theatre when she was seven, in a speech and drama class in school. Her talent was indisputable from the get go. She excelled in the class and was chosen to take the Trinity College London examinations. But what sealed the deal was a performance of The Phantom of the Opera she watched when she was 15 years old. “That was it for me. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be the next Christine Daaé’,” she laughs. “It was a naïve dream. Of course, my goals have now changed. But it was that show that drove me towards theatre. I have not looked back since.”
Having submerged herself in the theatre world, Teo soon discovered that the true draw of the craft was that it could give voice to anyone. She navigates her various roles as a director, actor and scriptwriter deftly in spite of (and perhaps, because of) her disability, using tactile tools and methods to guide her where others may have used sight.
“Directors use sensorial ways to tell me what to do. They can’t just say, ‘Do this.’ They’ll have to take my hand and show me the movement or let me feel them. There’s a lot more touch involved,” she shares. When she puts on her director pants, she uses her sense of hearing to check her actors’ believability. “Sometimes, I’ll ask the actors to describe what they are doing. It helps me to visualise the scene and then I can give directions like, ‘OK, so at this point, can you snatch the book away?’. And we’ll see if that makes the performance more believable.”
“The stigma surrounding disability tends to be that if you have one, you have them all”
As for facial expressions, Teo is adept at picking up the nuances of her actors’ smiles from their voices alone. “You can totally hear someone’s smile in their voice. You can hear when it’s fake and you can hear when it’s genuine. And ultimately, all I care about is how truthful you are and how authentic your performance is. I’ll pick authenticity over the sharpest, most outstanding choreography anyday.”
Having graduated from LaSalle College of the Arts in 2019, today, the project Teo most brims with pride and excitement about is Unseen Inside Out, an accessibility-focused programme co-led by herself and her long-time collaborator Kira Lim. Working with a group of visually impaired participants, the goal of the programme is to create a fully accessible, sensorial and immersive installation piece that is grounded by voices of the community. Slated to be shown later this year, the project will take the form of an installation of soundscapes.
“We’ve had countless dialogues with our participants, prioritising listening to them and their needs. Everything is customised and tailored to each individual,” Teo shares.
“Once you walk into the installation space, there’ll be something to see, something to hear and something to touch. We’ll have tactile markers around to make it visual impairment-friendly, so that they can move around freely without a guide. We also want to make it accessible to the deaf community, so there will be transcriptions and mood-describing motifs. Basically, the goal is to make everything as accessible as possible,” she enthuses.
And what does she want to do after the completion of this boundary- breaking passion project that she has poured so much into? Looking forward, the gifted performer has her sights set on reaching out to another marginalised group. “I really want to serve the incarcerated community. They are very misunderstood and often forgotten.”
The same words could be used to describe the visually impaired community, according to Teo. “The stigma surrounding disability tends to be that if you have one, you have them all. So people assume that because I have a visual impairment, I am incapable of doing anything on my own. I’ve had staff members yell at me in the MRT for not wanting to take an old lady’s seat. When I explained that I was accustomed to public transport and fine standing, I was told to just be grateful for the help I was receiving.”
Unsolicited ‘assistance’ like the kind that Teo describes can often come off as being condescending and infantilising, especially to a community that is frequently underestimated in their capabilities. “I do appreciate when people go out of their way to help me, but it’s also about respect. If I say I don’t need the help, don’t force it upon me just to make yourself feel better,” she explains.
Teo’s disability is one that is at risk of deteriorating over the years, which means that in future, she could lose her vision completely. “I’m prepared to go blind. I’m scared. I won’t lie, I am scared. I think that’s normal,” she takes a deep breath, then smiles. “And yet, I think… no, I know that I’ll be fine. I’m a can-do person. I won’t let this affect my life. I have a lot that I’m excited to do. I want to make the creative world a more accessible, inclusive space.”
Photographer: Sayher Heffernan
Fashion Director: Desmond Lim
Hair and Make-up Artist: Greg’O using Keune and Chanel for Cassandra Chiu, MAC for Shawn Flower and Hera for Claire Teo
Styling Assistant: Joey Tan
Special thanks to LaSalle College of the Arts