Going blind while still in school: 'I was unwilling to face disability'

Your Life

YOUR LIFE: Every human being has a story to tell. In this series, Your Life features personal accounts by Singaporeans detailing their respective trials in life and their courage to face them.

After discovering that he was growing blind, Joshua Tseng struggled to accept his disability. (Photo: Joshua Tseng)
After discovering that he was going blind, Joshua Tseng struggled to accept his disability. (Photo: Joshua Tseng)

Losing my eyesight didn’t happen all of a sudden.

I’d known since I was 7 years old that my vision would one day succumb to glaucoma – an eye condition where the high fluid pressure within the eye eventually damages the optic nerve fibres. It was gradual and happened at a pace I didn’t pay much attention to when I was younger.

It was only when I reached Secondary 3 that the pressure behind my eyes spiked to dangerous levels, and reading became a struggle. However, seeking help would mean that I was admitting that there was something wrong with me. I had too much pride in myself to give in.

So I forced myself to read till purple splotches appeared in my vision until there was only two choices left for me: Go for mandatory surgery, which posed a risk of complete vision loss, or delay the surgery through the use of heavy medication.

Not wanting to risk having to retake a year in secondary school, I opted for the latter.

I struggled with the side effects, which included extreme drowsiness. It was so bad that at one point, I would sleep at 3am only to wake up at 4pm.

I wasn’t able to attend the last six months of Secondary 4, and my social life was almost non-existent.

Nevertheless, I persevered till the end of the school year and took my ‘O’ Level examinations before eventually going for the surgery, from which I emerged with only 10 per cent of my vision.

While I can still tell the difference between night and day, all that is left of my world are blotchy shapes and blurry colours in a narrow visual field. This is called “tunnel vision” – the lack of any peripheral eyesight.

The period immediately after the surgery was surely not the best time of my life as I spent days cooped up in the house, drowning myself with self-loathing and frustration.

And then a thought came: “If had always been arrogant, too proud, and never wanted to accept help, how far would it take me?”

I knew that I had to put my pride aside in order to pull myself out of depression.

Eventually, I got around to learning how to use a screen reader to read, and bought a cane to guide me in walking.

I made several adaptations to help me with bathing, washing my face, and using the computer on my own.

I soon realised that my biggest obstacles as a visually-impaired person were not such tasks, but rather, social interactions. Even after regaining most of my independence, it was still difficult for me to initiate conversations.

Since visual cues take up 80 per cent of face-to-face conversations, I couldn’t tell right away if someone was talking to me or not. It was difficult for me to gauge if someone was even keen to speak to me in the first place.

I began my time in polytechnic somewhat as an anti-social. I had no one I could truly call a friend.

During my second year, I made a firm resolve to turn my life around and eventually found friends who were refreshingly candid, and whose intentions I didn’t have to doubt.

While I still find social interactions difficult, I learned to read a person’s character purely through their sounds. Whenever somebody new arrived I would fall completely silent in observation, which could make me seem slightly creepy. But this is because their personality and intentions come out most clearly to me through their intonations, pauses, and vocal interactions with other people.

Now as I wait to graduate with a diploma in marketing and subsequently enter university, I have been spending my time as a part-time copywriter for a hotel as well as a facilitator for a non-profit organisation that promotes social inclusion.

Life has come a long way since the days I was unwilling to face my disability, which I’ve learned is mainly about coming to terms with myself, getting up and learning to become as independent as possible.

Interview conducted by Rachel Oh

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