Expanding the World of the Blind and Visually-impaired

loading St. Nicholas' Home, Penang is situated along Jalan Bagan Jermal.

FOUNDED IN 1926 the St. Nicholas’ Home for the Blind (SNH) is a pioneer in educational services and training programmes for the Blind and Visually-impaired (BVI).

But where making sure these BVIs lead an active, healthy lifestyle is concerned, there are naturally some unique challenges involved. Being physically disadvantaged notwithstanding, psychological barriers can also deter these individuals from getting the required amount of exercise daily. But with the guidance of both staff and volunteers, the BVIs at SNH are finding new ways to engage in outdoor activities.

Experiencing Wonders with the Aid of Volunteers

Participants during Ride for Sight 2015.

The Ride for Sight (RFS), introduced in 2011, allows BVIs to experience cycling like sighted individuals. According to SNH’s general manager David Chiang, a group of 20 BVI students will ride on tandem bicycles led by volunteers. The itinerary includes a two-hour bike ride along Jalan Kelawai, Gurney Plaza, Tanjung Tokong and a few other locations. The safety of both the participant and pilot is paramount, with RELA volunteers present throughout to control traffic.

“The best part about it is that I am able to join the public in doing these activities. I may not do as great as sighted people, but at least I am able to complete it,” says Lim Yew Yi, an IT trainer at SNH. The volunteers have also helped to expand the BVIs’ worldviews.

Lim says he discovers more details of the world whenever he engages the sighted pilots in conversation. “Different volunteers have different stories to tell, and meeting new ones gives me the opportunity to learn new things,” he explains, before expressing his gratitude to the kind-hearted volunteers. Lim also busies himself in marathon events, as well as exercises organised by SNH. “As a trainer, I am in charge of setting up and coordinating training for the participants with volunteers who specialise in long-distance running. We would either train at Straits Quay or the Penang City Park every weekend when there is an upcoming marathon,” he says. Lim last participated in the Penang Bridge International Marathon 2019. Though such achievements have him on Cloud Nine, Lim says it also motivates him to break new records.

Basketry product made by a trainee.

Mountain biker Foong Swee Yeok has been an RFS pilot for about five years now, after having been invited by friends who are pioneer RFS volunteers to lend her services to the initiative. A memorable experience, Foong shares, is the RFS’ first attempt to cycle out of Penang Island for SNH’s 90th Anniversary Ride in May 2016. They trampled a total of 90km to and from Sungai Petani, Kedah. “Despite what people said, I am glad we made the decision to venture out of our comfort zone because it was nice to see the participants feel good about themselves; it gave them a sense of achievement.”

RFS cycling activities are usually held early Sunday mornings before Penang’s roads get clogged with traffic. Even so, riding out from the SNH grounds can be daunting sometimes, as some road users tend to be uncooperative. “We cannot cycle too fast since it is not safe for the participants. We also wear reflective vests and try not to obstruct traffic with the help of the marshals,” says Foong, who strongly urges the public to be considerate and mindful whenever they come across cyclists on the road.

To organise an RFS activity is no easy task. It requires a big enough group of volunteers; this includes both the pilots and marshals. A shortage of volunteers would mean that not all 20 BVI cyclists are able to participate in the ride. “It is sad to witness disappointed participants who are unable to join due to an insufficient number of volunteers present on the day. One in three Penangites are cyclists or bikers, but we currently only have 12 permanent volunteers for the RFS. I’m trying to encourage more people to come forward as permanent ones. This could be a good form of exercise for the pilots too,” says Foong.

Available Amenities

Equipped with gym facilities and a field, SNH schedules weekly exercise sessions with its students. Depending on their fancy, students can either go for a run or attend Zumba lessons after classes finish for the day. “We also organise Sports Day events every year but unfortunately, we had to postpone this year’s due to the pandemic. Usually when there are sports-related events coming up, most students would dedicate their time to training in order to build stamina.

But with the guidance of both staff and volunteers, the BVIs at SNH are finding new ways to engage in outdoor activities.

“There aren’t many after-class activities available, and the BVIs are not allowed to leave the compound unsupervised for safety reasons, so they look forward to participating in activities organised by the Home itself,” says Chiang, adding that the institution is toying with the idea of including more sports like badminton and football in the future. Visual impairment may deter these BVIs from trying out new things. When asked how such anxieties are calmed, Chiang praises his SNH staff for looking out for the BVIs, especially the introverted ones. “We don’t force them to participate. It mainly depends on their interests and personalities. Some are ever-willing to try new activities, but for the introverts, we try to start small and slow with them. In this, staff participation is very important.”

Building Future Careers with Vocational Trainings

Massage therapy services provided at the SNH Wellness Centre.

Since 2016 SNH is recognised as a centre for the National Dual Training System for massage therapy under the Department of Skills Development ( JPK). It provides accreditation and validation for trainees to pursue higher level courses in massage therapy, and to be recognised as professional masseurs. “However, trainees under the programme must first strengthen their muscles by attending qigong classes every Monday morning. They are also advised to hand-wash their clothes to improve their grip,” explains Chiang. Interested customers are invited to visit the SNH Wellness Centre, which operates fromTuesday to Sunday, to review promotional packages. Prices range according to the types of massages offered.

Other trainings like pastry-making and basketry are also available for BVI students to take up, guided by skilled SNH trainers. Basketry products are displayed at the Wellings Pharmacy and at craft events. SNH also plans to introduce a cafe this year to further enhance the current pastry-making training. “The main goal of these vocational trainings is to ensure the BVIs’ independence and ultimately, for them to become financially self-sustained,” says Chiang.

SNH welcomes donations from the public to support the welfare of the BVI residents during this difficult period. Visit snh.org.my/how-you-can-help or facebook.com/stnicholaspenang for more information.

Aliya Abd Rahim is (racially) a fusion of "sambal belacan" and "tandoori". She enjoys photography and is a Star Wars enthusiast. Like any other final year student, she hopes to attend the (hopefully not called off) USM 58th convocation this year.

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