Blinded ex-engineer sees visible difference

For many people, suddenly losing their sight in both eyes can be a disaster.

But not for Yam Tong Woo.

The 58-year-old former engineer from Sungei Buloh, Selangor, became completely blind within a week in 2008 after a severe bacterial infection.

He says being blind today has, ironically, been an eye-opening experience to a lot of finer things in the world around him.

Yam and his sighted wife Ooi Pak Hong have just spent a month-long holiday in Britain.

Returning last week, he spoke to me about some of his experiences as a blind man in Malaysia and abroad. One was in the way he was treated.

At the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, no one paid any attention to Yam although he was using a white cane to get around and he and his wife had struggled with their bags.

"We weren't offered any help from the airport staff or members of the public even though it was plain as day that Hong had trouble being my guide and handling our luggage at the same time," said Yam.

"We struggled through the entire airport, the long queue at the check-in and to the immigration. We also had to put up with some impatient, grumpy passengers," added Yam.

At London's Heathrow airport, it was a totally different picture.

Despite being one of the busiest airports in the world, the Yams were spotted immediately.

"My wife and I were approached within moments of disembarking," Yam pointed out.

"We were asked if we required assistance and when we nodded, we were personally guided through a fast-track priority lane meant for disabled and elderly passengers.

"Thanks to them we were finished in no time all the way to the immigration section before retrieving our baggage from the carousel."

Yam is an activist for the blind who conducts audit access analyses of disabled-friendly buildings with the Petaling Jaya City Council's team of experts on disability access.

Another grouse he had was with the toilets at KLIA.

"One of the biggest problems is the incredibly strong and heavy doors into the disabled loo that make access virtually impossible.

"Even as a blind person I was trapped in the toilet until my wife came to my rescue and opened the door for me to get out! What more for someone in a wheelchair?"

Yam noticed a different attitude to the disabled in London compared to what he has encountered here.

Despite using the Tube during peak hours, the Yams were always offered assistance from the service staff.

"People with disabilities are obviously a top priority for them even during the mad rush hours," Yam noted.

"Even the passengers displayed a caring attitude that touched us deeply.

"For instance, sighted passengers would gladly give up their seats when they saw me standing. Some even offered a seat to Hong as well!

"With an attitude like that, it is no wonder why so many elderly and disabled people are able to leave their homes and be in public."

Yam said that not only were the access points into buses level with the street, but it was also a great help to disabled people that public transport was reliable and on time.

"Just imagine a blind person waiting for a bus, and not knowing whether the bus will turn up or not!"

During a trip from Glasgow, Scotland, to Dublin, Ireland, the Yams had to travel on a budget airline.

Despite the lower cost, they were delighted to note that disabled passengers were provided with an ambulift in place of an aerobridge.

No additional fees were imposed for special assistance.

On the return journey to Malaysia, however, the Yams did meet helpful Malaysians.

The person manning the airline counter asked the couple if they needed special assistance when they checked in.

And they were once again taken on the fast-track special lane which avoided the queue.

On the flight back, there was some air turbulence while Yam was in the toilet.

He was pleasantly greeted by one of the crew when he emerged and was guided back to his seat.

More good news welcomed the couple at KLIA when they came across a special counter at immigration for the elderly and the disabled.

But there were still those horribly heavy toilet doors at the arrival hall!