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Unseen Potential: How Imenwell, Celine And Faizul Overcame Their Blindness To Find Success

Everyone has hopes and dreams, but they also have unexpected roadblocks and obstacles in life. According to 2022 data from the Social Welfare Department, there are 52,027 registered visually impaired in Malaysia[1], with approximately 1.2% of the population experiencing some kind of visual impairment[1] and around 1 in 10 children suffer from undiagnosed vision problems that could lead to visual impairment if not treated[3].

The loss of one’s sight, whether temporary or permanent, can devastate a person’s chances at finding success in life.

But blindness is not the be all, end all. Recently, Imenwell Isak of SMK Matang Jaya, Kuching, scored a Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of 3.50, despite having lost his eyesight to glaucoma in his teens[4].

I lost my eyesight to glaucoma when I was 16 years old. If I had sought medical treatment earlier, I might not have gone blind. – Imenwell Isak[4]

Imenwell said despite his handicap, he is very determined to succeed in life starting with his studies and hopes to become an educator himself.

He will be applying to further his studies at Universiti Malaya as he said it has the best facilities for a disabled person[4].

Imenwell attributed his success to the serious efforts of his father, Isak Ngau, 46, who is also blind and is the chairman of the Sarawak Society for the Blind.

He spent several thousand ringgit buying a special digital device for blind persons like me to read and write. I usually spend about two hours revising every day. – Imenwell Isak[4]

Imenwell also expressed deep gratitude towards his teachers for the help and support they gave.

I would like to express my deepest appreciation to the teachers at my school (SMK Matang Jaya) for their sacrifices while teaching and educating us throughout this STPM preparation. – Imenwell Isak[4]

Imenwell’s success perfectly demonstrates how disabilities such as blindness are not obstacles to success. And he is far from the first person to find great achievements despite their blindness.

Faizul’s Journey

Bad luck either destroys you or transforms you into the man you truly are,” quoted Faizul bin Ahmad Zuki. Faizul lost the use of his right eye after a tree limb struck in a hit-and-run motorcycle accident[5].

Since the accident left the retina of my right eye damaged, I have had trouble concentrating and completing tasks. Being a breadwinner and a business owner is extremely stressful, and it has caused me to have several nervous breakdowns. – Faizul bin Ahmad Zuki[5]

Faizul tried to get by despite his disability. He’d started a carpet-cleaning business from his home in 2019 but did not find much success initially.

When I first started out in business, many people had the misconception that disabled people like myself only needed monetary aid. The truth is that we need more help with things like education, business knowledge, and basic necessities. – Faizul bin Ahmad Zuki[5]

On top of his visual impairment, Faizul also lacked prior business savvy and expertise which contributed to much undue stress.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve struggled with the nagging fear that I’m not making the most of the opportunities before me to better my life. In addition, I lacked the necessary business expertise, particularly in the area of financial management. Because of this, I had no idea how much money was coming in or going out of the business, so I had no idea whether or not it was profitable. – Faizul bin Ahmad Zuki[5]

Eventually, Faizul decided to enrol himself on the R.I.S.E. Programme (Reach Independence & Sustainable Entrepreneurship) of the Maybank Foundation. The programme works closely together with the People Systems Consultancy (PSC), a multinational social enterprise to develop a programme that enables people with disabilities (PWD) to achieve significant, measurable, and long-lasting economic outcomes as opposed to simply receiving handouts[5].

After finishing the course, I could look at things from a new angle. I’ve decided to put in extra time at my cleaning company so that I can improve my family’s standard of living. As my eyesight worsens, I am more resolved than ever to make significant improvements in my life. I am also ecstatic to share that I came in second place at the most recent Liga Usahawan OKU Selangor 2022 competition, which was run by Raja Muda Selangor. – Faizul bin Ahmad Zuki[5]

It was thanks to the help and support he’d received from the programme that Faizul was able to turn his life around. Since then, his monthly income has boosted to at least RM40,000, which is four times what it had previously been (RM10,000)[5].

Celine Shares Her Story

Celine Lean Yew-lin. Source: YP

Celine Lean Yew-lin lost her eyesight when she was just four years old following a battle with leukaemia. The cancer and her chemotherapy treatments resulted in her retina detaching. “I’m as blind as you can get,” she said[6].

Celine did not let this disability become an obstacle to her, however, as she attended one of the world’s most prestigious law schools at the University of Cambridge. But it was still not an easy journey.

Growing up in Malaysia was an immense hurdle given the country’s lack of support for disabled students. Fortunately, Lean’s primary and secondary school years provided her with what she needed in the form of integrated and specialised schools. However, finding another school that would prepare her to take the A-level university entrance exam proved to be a challenge as very few were willing to take her in.

[Schools] refused to accept me because they didn’t want to take the responsibility and risk of having a disabled student. – Celine Lean Yew-lin, law student[6]

Infuriated by the discrimination she faced, Celine wrote to local newspapers to complain about the issue and call for education reforms. However, the press would rather ask her to write about her success in overcoming obstacles as a disabled person than bring up the problems and discrimination she was facing[6].

Eventually, a mainstream school admitted her, allowing Lean to take part in an exchange programme in the US. While studying there, she learned more about advocacy for the rights of disabled people, inspiring her to study law so she could make a difference for people with disabilities around the world and in her home country[6].

After achieving excellent grades in her A-levels, Celine was given the opportunity to study law at Cambridge University and won a full scholarship from the prestigious Yayasan Khazanah Foundation. She took the offer as Malaysia’s status as a Commonwealth country meant that her law degree would also allow her to practise in Malaysia[6].

Although Celine knew how to read and write in Braille – a system of raised dots that can be read by the fingers – carrying around a bulky Braille machine proved too difficult. This prompted her to switch to Microsoft Word which can read text out loud.

It takes me longer to go through the same material because I have to listen to everything. – Celine Lean Yew-lin, law student[6]

But despite the trouble, Celine refused to ask for help.

I grew up in an environment in Malaysia where, if I [didn’t] fight to be the same as everyone else, I wouldn’t have the opportunity at all. So I didn’t want to get help because I felt I would be judged for being useless as a disabled student. – Celine Lean Yew-lin, law student[6]

But thanks to the encouragement of her tutor – someone who provides support for students – Lean eventually reached out to her college, Hughes Hall, and the law school for extra support. The experiences taught her to accept and embrace her disability[6].

In spite of all of the challenges she faced, Celine enjoyed her university experience. When asked how able-bodied people should treat the visually impaired, she responded that people looking to help the blind should always ask first.

I walk close to the curb near the cars, so people think it is dangerous. Some just grab me and steer me off my path, which disorients me instead. – Celine Lean Yew-lin, law student[6]

Challenges Of The Blind

As Faizul, Imenwell and Celine’s stories show, people with disabilities (PwD) can achieve great success but it will be an uphill struggle for them, especially in a country with little to no support for PwDs.

For a long time, the Malaysian education system failed to provide the proper support for the visually impaired. Visually impaired students have three options for their education: mainstream schools that have no experience supporting disabled students; integrated schools that mostly have able-bodied students but also offer support for disabled students; and specialised schools for the disabled[6].

Up to 95 per cent of blind children do not attend school. This is primarily due to the lack of skilled teachers and limited access to Braille materials or equipment. For adults, Braille skills dramatically increase opportunities for entrepreneurship and employment, but employers are often unaware of the need for basics such as Braille paper or keyboards. – Nabila Hussain, Social & Economic Research Initiative (SERI)[2]

One of the problems faced by the visually impaired in Malaysia is that educational books in Braille (a series of raised dots that enable the visually impaired to visualise words through their touch) are often hard to come by, as noted by Braille translator and editor S. Umashangari, who was born blind and learnt to read Braille when she was 7-years old.

S. Umashangari. Source: The Malaysian Reserve

By the time I was in Standard 2, I could already read Braille but found it extremely difficult to get a hold of books in Braille. It was frustrating to not be able to enjoy the variety of works of fiction that my friends did. It was then that I vowed to translate books into Braille when I grew up, so that no one else would have to suffer from the same disadvantage as I. – S. Umashangari, Braille translator and editor[7]

What’s worse is that only 51,540 among the 780,000 who are visually impaired are registered with the Welfare Department, and only 30% of them can read Braille[7].

According to the Development Organization for the Blind Malaysia (PPOBM) president Muhammad Huzaifah Ahmad (who suffers from glaucoma himself), Braille textbooks are not cheap, saying that a book that would normally cost RM9 can shoot up in price to about RM120 when translated into Braille[8].

And that’s before getting into securing copyrights for translation!

We cannot simply translate any material into Braille, and not all parties agree to have their work translated into Braille. Furthermore, we have to put up with layers of bureaucracy before we can publish a book. – George Thomas, CEO of the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB)[7]

Or just how tedious and time-consuming translating something into Braille is!

Translators have to manually copy the entire book, word for word along with figures and graphs. Imagine how long it would take to translate a book that is 30 to 40 pages long. The cost of producing a book in Braille is also higher because we’d need a special machine and use a thicker paper that is 120gsm (grams per square metre). – George Thomas, CEO of the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB)[7]

But it’s not just reading and education that presents challenges for the visually impaired. Before the advent of touch screens on ATMs, many ATMs had keypads with Braille imprinted on them. But with most ATMS now using touch screens, Malaysia’s blind struggle to withdraw money as they cannot read what is displayed on the screen[8].

Source: Malaysia Now

The innovation is good, but does it meet the needs of everyone? It’s not just the blind. What if a wheelchair-bound person wants to use an ATM? Are the facilities provided suitable for everyone? – Muhammad Huzaifah Ahmad, the president of Development Organization for the Blind Malaysia (PPOBM)[8]

Huzaifah even brought up how amenities for the blind are often hijacked by the able-bodied, noting how special walkways dedicated to blind people are more often than not used as a motorcycle parking lot.

I’ve personally criticised motorcyclists who do so. But the reason they give is always the same: ‘Who wants to use the walkway?’ or ‘There aren’t any blind people around anyway’. – Sakinah Hassan, the secretary of PPOBM[8]

Overall, it is not impossible for Malaysia’s visually impaired to find success in their lives, but it is a goal with much struggle on their part. But they shouldn’t struggle by themselves. We must also do our part to provide support and inclusivity so that our nation’s visually impaired are not left out of basic amenities.

Finding The Right Support

While there continues to be stigma and lack of awareness, we must realise that technology has changed the way we live, work and play, especially for people with disabilities.

People with vision impairments can do just as much as people with sight, and often surpass their achievements. There are now blind engineers, blind chefs and even blind footballers. In fact, Malaysia’s National Blind Football Team ranks top five in Asia and top 20 globally. – Nabila Hussain, Social & Economic Research Initiative (SERI)[2]

Recognising the need for us, as a community, to support those experiencing visual impairment and raise awareness around the challenges they face, Heriot-Watt University Malaysia (HWUM) students under the EmPOWER programme initiated several projects from January to May of this year, to raise funds for the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) and to create awareness of the challenges that the visually impaired face every day[1].

One of these events was held in early February 2023, when HWUM students organised a blindfold challenge on campus. More than 35 participants registered for this challenge.

These participants were blindfolded with a cloth and given a firsthand experience of the difficulties encountered by the visually impaired in attempting tasks such as brushing their teeth, ironing clothes, making sandwiches and applying lipstick. This challenge opened the eyes of the participants and raised awareness about the challenges a visually impaired person would have to face in their day-to-day life[1].

Through this simple activity, HWUM students successfully promoted inclusivity, understanding and support for the visually impaired community, taking a significant step towards creating a more compassionate society[1].

But events like these aren’t the only means of supporting the visually impaired.

Food Dreams Kitchen, founded by Cheah Tzi Qi, who only has 20% vision in his right eye, and Stevans Chan, founder of Dialogue in the Dark and is blind himself, serves as a commercialised kitchen rented to entrepreneurs to prepare food meant for delivery and hires differently-abled people.

Cheah recalls how thrilling it was to learn how to operate a microwave oven as well as a conventional electric oven and a coffee machine. Cheah said using these electrical appliances regularly helped him overcome his fear of hot kitchen equipment.

His stint with Food Dreams Kitchen was so inspiring, that before long, he began to entertain dreams of his own – that of opening a café and hiring other differently-abled people.

I want to tell other people with disabilities to stay determined and continue pursuing their dreams. Also, to be brave in taking that first step. – Cheah Tzi Qi, Food Dreams Kitchen[9]

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the need to intensify all activities related to digital accessibility and assistive technology to ensure social and economic inclusion of people of all abilities. And the blind should not be left out.

Although technology has offered numerous alternatives to Braille in the form of audiobooks and screen readers, Braille literacy remains paramount in educating the blind as it forms the building blocks for language skills and a means to teach spelling, grammar and punctuation. Learning Braille from a young age helps with literacy as Braille is a much better way to understand syntax and the rules of language compared to audio content.

Technology should be seen as complementary to Braille; it plays an important role in amplifying human ability. However, we must remember it is not a substitute for Braille, enabling and empowering policies, or purposeful vision, action and inclusion. – Nabila Hussain, Social & Economic Research Initiative (SERI)[2]

Overall, we as a community need to give our best support to the visually impaired and other people with disabilities. Disabilities are an obstacle but not a blockage as proven by Celine, Imenwell and Faizul. Of course, we need to offer our unconditional help to differently-abled people, but we must also remember that they are not completely helpless. They can live independently by themselves; we just need to give them a little push.

These Organisations Are Giving Their Support To The Blind

The following organisations have dedicated themselves to providing full support to Malaysia’s visually impaired, ensuring that they have the best resources available to be able to take care of themselves in this country:

#1: Malaysian Foundation For The Blind

The Malaysian Foundation for the Blind is a national non-profit foundation dedicated to making life better for blind and partially sighted people in Malaysia. They seek to support blind and partially sighted people by providing and equipping them with relevant technological aids, developing and promoting inclusive human capital among the blind and partially sighted community via skills and vocational training programs and enhancing the quality of life for blind and partially sighted people by creating equal access opportunities and greater participation in an inclusive-right-based society.

#2: Dialogue Includes All

Dialogue Includes All (previously known as Dialogue in the Dark) was founded by Stevens Chans, an Entrepreneur who lost his eyesight in 2007, and was licensed by Dialogue Social Enterprise GmbH in 2012. The purpose and main objective of their mission are to not only create and spread awareness but also to empower the disabled. They educate and equip the children and the adults who are visually, mentally, and physically challenged with skills they would need in their lives.

#3: The Malaysian Association For the Blind

The Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) was created explicitly to serve and aid the visually impaired and was established by the Department of Social Welfare in 1951. Its service extends from Kuala Lumpur to different parts of the country to assist them. They provide training, educational programmes, a Braille library and anything that could potentially aid them. Recently, they started reaching out to visually impaired individuals living in rural areas via programmes and training.

#4: The National Council For The Blind, Malaysia

The National Council For The Blind, Malaysia (NCBM) is a non-profit organisation established on the 14th of February 1986 under the Societies Act of Malaysia. Their purpose and objective are to introduce and improve the policies and provide services to help with education, employment, blindness prevention and anything of aid to the blind.

#5: Pertubuhan Bagi Orang Buta Sabah (The Sabah Society for the Blind)

Pertubuhan Bagi Orang Buta Sabah (The Sabah Society for the Blind) was founded in 1966. The main objective of this organisation is to not only promote education and employment. They also assist them by providing housing, taking care of the blind and having medical facilities and treatments if needed.

#6: Malaysian Association for Blind Muslims (Persatuan Orang-Orang Cacat Penglihatan Islam Malaysia, PERTIS)

Malaysian Association for Blind Muslims (Persatuan Orang-Orang Cacat Penglihatan Islam Malaysia, PERTIS) is an organisation that was established in 1996 to help visually impaired Muslims. The organisation aims to financially support and enhance the quality of their lifestyle, as well as provide financial support and improve their education.

Explore our sources:

  1. L.J. Peter. (2023). Understanding challenges of the visually impaired. The Sun Daily. Link.
  2. N. Hussain. (2021). More can be done for the visually impaired. New Straits Times. Link. 
  3. T. Arumugam. (2017). One in 10 children in Malaysia has an undiagnosed vision problem: Study.  New Straits Times. Link. 
  4. A. Chua. (2023). Blind teen overcomes odds to score in STPM 2022, aspires to be an educator. The Star. Link.
  5. Blind in a world that relies heavily on vision: This PWD shares how he learned to adapt to his disability. (2023). Businesstoday. Link.
  6. B. Ng. (2021). Blind Malaysian student at the University of Cambridge shares what inspires her to study law and challenges of online class. South China Morning Post. Link.
  7. Bernama. (2021). Braille literacy empowers the blind. The Malaysian Reserve. Link.
  8. F. Awaludin. (2021). The struggles of the sightless in a society blind to their woes. Malaysia Now. Link.
  9. V. Lim. (2022). Cloud kitchen serves up dreams for the differently-abled. FMT. Link.

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