Thursday, May 1, 2014

“Seeing” Hong Kong thru the eyes of the sight impaired


Once again I was offered an opportunity to participate in an activity that, while not unique (due to its availability in other cities), was definitely off the radar, yet life changing, and excuse this…eye opening.

One of my volunteer opportunities is Reading for the Blind.  My group is responsible for clipping news articles from periodicals for a two week period, then reading them in a recording booth. The readings are transferred to tapes, so the sight impaired of Hong Kong can check out tapes and hear news and, well, English.  I love doing it.  I am always amazed as I walk through the facility how many sight-impaired workers are there…doing office work, dealing with computers…just day to day stuff millions do around the world…but most of those millions CAN SEE.  I thought by going to the Hong Kong Society for the Blind I had a clue as to what went on with a sight impaired person…nope, not one inkling.

SO…the opportunity afforded to me (us, I went with a group) was to experience Hong Kong as a sight impaired person would experience Hong Kong.

We journeyed to Mei Foo…one of the stops on the Tsuen Wan line of the MTR (our subway). I take the MTR most days and don’t think twice about it. Buzz myself in with my Octopus card, go downstairs to my train (left is to one set of locations, right to another)  Get on, watch for the stop, get off. 

We walked over to The Household Centre ( a shopping mall of course) and took the escalators to our destination.  For those that needed the restrooms, off we went…those that wanted water at the SUPER HUGE Park ‘N Shop, yep, scattered to reconvene a few minutes later.

Travel.  Walking to destinations. Restrooms.  Supermarkets.  Just things that happen.  Just things we do.  In 90 minutes, my perception of all of that would change!.

We are met and briefed.  We are told to stow our belongings in a locker…NO PHONES!   Nothing that illuminates (watches, etc.).  NO glasses.  You won’t need them (total darkness) and I guess there might be a falling issue. We are shown how to hold a walking cane (you hold it like a pen??).  We are broken into two groups.  My group has 5 individuals, the other 4. 

We are moved into an area that is shrouded with curtains, I think to get us used to the darkness to come.  We are told to stand with our backs to the wall…and somehow, I end up as the last person (Matthew, the brilliant, personable twenty-something Pastor moved right to the front.  Oh the confidence of youth!).  We are told that when our guide is ready, she or he will turn on a green light, and we will enter the exhibition.

I have to tell you, I am getting anxious…like really anxious.  I figure this has to be a safe environment…I mean if the guests were hurt constantly, how would this place stay in business?

SO…on goes the green light, and we file into a dark room.  When I mean dark…well, DARK.  PITCH black.  We were told to keep our eyes closed as much as possible so when we exit the tour, our eyes won’t need as much time adjusting…but I would vary from opening to closing my eyes trying to get a glimpse of light.  Yea, there wasn’t a lick!

I was behind Eileen.  Eileen is a good egg.  I did apologize in advance for any random touches, grabs, etc. that might happen. Believe me…it happened!

Our first moments were to just get acclimated to the dark.  Eyes open?  Eyes closed?  It just didn’t matter…dark is dark.

Our first steps get us used to changing elevations.  They aren’t great changes…I am talking cement to grass…and back.  I’ve decided that tiny steps and shuffling is a pretty safe way to go.

Without leaving the floor of this warehouse, our guide has us move through different parts of “Hong Kong”  We cross a bridge, we cross a road (trying to get across before the light changes and the onslaught of waiting passenger cars and taxis hits us. Our ears are our allies.  The changing tones of the chimes as we cross the street lets us know the timing involved.  While I know I will not be smashed, I am still quite anxious.

We were instructed to bring a little bit of cash so when we stop at a store, we could buy refreshments.  We were told the menu (water, juice, milk, iced coffee) then ordered and offered change. I had a $20 bill carefully folded in my buttoned pocket. My water was $10 HKD,. I handed over my $20 and  I knew I got correct change since a $10 HKD bill is very distinct (small and plastic)…but it got me thinking…in the US…all bills are the same size…how DO the site impaired know?? They have to rely on the honesty of others for the correct change…and I’m guessing that does not always happen.

Our fingers move over products that are in barrels, feeling the goods that are for sale.  The store here was a general hardware type …buckets, mops, sponges.  The are large and obvious for a reason, but of course, that would never always be the case.

The next challenge sounded so simple…find a seat in a theater for a concert.  However, we were not prepped as to the seat arrangements. How many rows were there…how many seats in that row…was there someone else IN the seat?  I only tripped twice and sat on someone once before I kind of stumbled into a chair. Luckily the chairs did not move, or I would have been on floor.

Truly listening to music in the dark is a pretty amazing experience.  With nothing to distract you, the music is 100% of the focus.  Instead of watching performers, your mind has a chance to paint its’ own picture of what you are hearing.  I do not know the name of the piece we heard…but it reminded me of space travel.  It was great.

Soon enough we were making our way to the end of the tour.  We were escorted out and told one of the guides would come and speak with us and answer questions when the 2nd group was done.

In the mean time…we were given the opportunity to try our hand at braille writing.  Each letter of the alphabet has a series of bumps attached to it…as do numbers.  You read it from left to right…of course…but here’s a thing…you WRITE it right to left…backwards…so when you flip the page over it reads properly (think mirror).  HOLY HECK!  It took forever to write my name…let alone a paper, or a test.  WOW. 

When our 2nd group returned, their guide was escorted in.  She was a lovely young lady.  Born in China, brought to Hong Kong at age 9 or so to go to school.  She lost her sight very young…and was just kept at home while her sisters went to school.  Hong Kong gave her the opportunity to go to school. 

The BEST BEST BEST part of the entire day is Eileen (remember Eileen?  I apologized to her early on for the probable groping that would happen!)…She taught this young lady years ago at Ebenezer School and Home for the visually impaired  here in Hong Kong.  The minute Eileen tried to re-introduce herself, the young girl knew exactly who Eileen was and got up to give her a big hug.

It was such a lovely moment and what a statement to what the school does for students.  This young lady was educated there.  She left and went to a main stream school in Sha Tin and now has worked for Dialog in the Dark in other cities. 

It brought the whole thing full circle for all of us I think. 

To this day I look at the tracks on the ground and listen to the bells as I cross the street and know how lucky I am…and again to take opportunities as they are opened to me.

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