Blind man seeing

PHOTO: Blind man seeing

His self-depreciating humour is what defines him. There is also a lack of cynicism, which one might expect from someone who was born with normal eyesight but became blind over the years.

Francis Chan Chin does not wallow in self-pity. Instead, his blindness has fanned his fighting spirit and he fights with diplomacy on several fronts. The issue closest to his heart is changing the way a person thinks, so as to be a better person and do better. And to hope.

Pontian-born Chan, 63, often obliges when he get requests to give motivational talks. He speaks from personal experience and his gift of the gab has drawn me, like so many others, into his world. What strikes me most is his ability to engage a person in conversation.

"I go about it with my eyes closed, but my mouth open!" he says.

"You'll swallow this!" I quip, and we both laugh.

He shares his secret in getting through to those who are indifferent to others who are different from them: "If you talk to him in his language, you make him an immediate friend."

Chan speaks English, Mandarin and Malay fluently, and Tamil passably well. His English is tinged with a Scottish accent, thanks to the influence of his mentor, Rev Bro Augustus, who had a strong influence in the life of young Francis.

Ask him about his blindness and he says, matter-of-factly, that at some point while growing up, he had high fever which damaged some nerves in his eyes. Wrong application of medicine compounded the problem.

From about 12, his eyesight began to deteriorate. Today, he cannot see at all, "but I don't make a big issue of it", he says.

This calm acceptance is reflected in other aspects of his life too.

"I can't see ... I don't know what's going on. So I don't panic fast. The traffic sees me; I don't see the traffic," he adds, with a guffaw.

More seriously though, he admits that he is "usually alert and cautious. I don't rush. When I tap and there's a vibration, I can more or less detect what's there."

Strange places

He only worries when he goes to strange places, or has to travel along roads that are small, uneven and have no pavements, or encounters obstacles thrown around the curbs by inconsiderate people.

Chan studied at the Princess Elizabeth School for the Blind in Johor Baru where Bro Augustus (who became blind in his mid-twenties) "turned up out of the blue" and gave him hope during the loneliest period of his life, and a vision , which continues to inspire him.

In 1971, Chan joined the publishing unit of the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) in Kuala Lumpur. In 1984, he was transferred to MAB's headquarters in Petaling Jaya where he served as a telephone operator.

Another 13 years later, he moved to MAB's audio unit in KL and worked there till his retirement in 2003.

Chan loves to read and is fascinated by people and ideas. He enjoys novels (including Chinese translations of books), health magazines, religious works and even books in Jawi! He had taught himself to read and Jawi at the Princess Elizabeth school because he was "curious about the 'code' of writing and wanted to explore it."

An alert mind and eagerness to learn new things keep him busy. He constantly attempts to master the latest gadgets, especially those that can aid the blind. At present, he is strugling with a laptop to send voice messages to his daughter Patricia, a second-year aeronautical engineering student – she's on a scholarship – in Florida, the United States.

Gadgets keep Chan in touch with people and the things around him. His phone has GPS and clues him in on where he is when he moves around.

"I have built-in GPS too. Wherever I go, I know where my position in," he adds.

Which brings us to one of the things he enjoys doing now that he has retired – travel.

He recalls with pleasure one of several of his trips abroad. It was to Japan, where he was able to practise his Japanese, and met lots of people who went out of their way to take him to those places he was keen to visit.

When I ask him how he goes sight-seeing, Chan says he relies entirely on the accounts of the tour guide. He prefers to go about with small groups and appreciates every opportunity that welcomes him into a home in the country he is visiting.

Before Patricia, 21, left to further her studies, the family visited Australia, where she played tour guide for her parents. Chan's wife Cecilia Ooi Kee Heyok, 54, is also blind.

"In Vietnam, friends from a school for the blind came to pick us up and showed us around. Before going abroad, we always plan ahead, to meet up with friends," Chan says.

People might think – why travel if he cannot see. To that, he has a ready answer: "It's all in the mind.

"I go to visit friends, to experience the atmosphere of a place, the food, the people, the society, the traffic. And to get away from KL!"

Returning after a trip away often makes him appreciate home and what we have around us more too, he adds.

Nowadays, Chan does part-time massage - something he learnt in the 1980s – for customers who "come looking" for him.

He also keeps busy with the MAB's club for the elderly and its OutReach group, which visits and counsels those who are down.

"As you age, you must keep active and do what you can," says Chan, who believes in taking each day as it comes and not allowing what's past to affect the future.

"I am mentally alert, I can walk and do what I want. That's a gift."