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Singapore, February 22, 2019 – Earlier this year, we at Empire Code opened the doors to our new coding campus at Tanglin. A crowd of more than 300 people swarmed to see our tech showcases. And that day, there I was, manning the booth demonstrating coding on the BBC micro:bit.

But out of those 300 plus people there that day, I’d bet good money that only about half of  them realized I couldn’t see in the slightest, let alone all the electronics I was handling. My name is Joshua Tseng, and my responsibilities at Empire Code include marketing, R&D and frontend web development. In May 2018, I was roped into the Empire Code family as an intern. Now, I’ve been upgraded to a temporary full-time role till I resume my studies on scholarship at the Singapore Management University later in the year.

Me (far left), showcasing the BBC micro:bit on launch day

I am also a young adult with a vision impairment, diagnosed with congenital glaucoma at the age of 7. Over the years, my eyesight has deteriorated. My vision from my left eye is like “looking through a camera lens slathered in Vaseline”, and my right eye vision is like “looking through fully frosted glass”. I’m basically as blind as a bat. Actually, bats have much better eyesight than I do, but let’s just go with the figure of speech.

I’ve often been asked, “How on earth do you find your way to the office?” Even the team at Empire Code couldn’t resist finding out the answer. Lucky for us, I am happy to share. So here’s what a day in my life commuting to work is like.

***

The commute starts with me getting to the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), the train system in Singapore. I only have one thing stopping me from getting there – I am NOT a morning person. But even while battling the desire to keel over and just take a nap on the streets, it only takes me and my trusty white cane a tidy 15 to 20 minutes to walk to the nearest MRT station. And not only do I blessedly live near an MRT station, I have several routes I can take to get there. That is IF the path I take on the day is not blocked by the ever-present Singaporean construction sites…

On a typical day, the route I use has me making a right once I exit the elevators, then making another right once I hit the streets. My white cane is held out in front of me, always touching the floor so I can “feel” what is in front of me. The rougher texture of the concrete streets, for example, is a sharp contrast to the smooth tiled floor of the apartment block’s void deck, indicating the shift in areas to me.

Using my cane also comes with technique. Sweep the cane towards the right when your left foot steps forward, sweep back to the left when your right foot takes the next step. It may sound like a dance routine, but this pattern ensures I am aware, as much as possible, about what is in front of me when I’m taking my next step; the cane bumping into objects is what will save me if I veer off-course and am headed into a trajectory that would otherwise have my face plastered into the wall.

Finally, the sounds tip me off to my surroundings as well. The lack of walls and a ceiling as I exit the apartment block opens up the sounds of the environment around me, further indicating to me when I’ve stepped out into the open. But all this has long since become second nature to me, and I usually walk briskly out onto the streets without giving any of this a second thought.  There are a few traffic lights to get where I need to go, and here comes another issue people often feel puzzled by when they consider the possibility of me walking out on my own unassisted: How do traffic crossings work for the blind? There are 3 important rules when it comes to crossing roads for the blind:

1) Never, ever, follow the sound of people walking. You never know if they’re about to sacrifice themselves via jaywalking to be the latest offering for the roadkill deities.

2)  Listen to the sound of traffic flow. For example, in an X-intersection, if cars are whooshing from your right to your left, hold still. If the cars beside and behind you are blazing ahead, it’s time to go!

3)  If you find yourself at a traffic light but you don’t know how long it’s been going for, never dash ahead. You’ll never know how much (or how little) time the lights have left before they turn red. Once again, the roadkill deities are watching…

Keeping these rules in mind, it only takes me 3 traffic crossings to arrive at the MRT, usually with a good Samaritan offering to help me along the way. While I don’t usually need the help, it’s nice to know friendly neighbours are around despite the busy bustling lifestyle of most Singaporeans. And viola, before you know it, I’ve been following my memory of the route and the feeling of the different pavements using my cane to reach the third and final traffic crossing which takes me to the MRT station.

***

There’s plenty of tantalising sounds and smells at the station. Blenders cranking out cup after cup of fruit smoothies at Boost, the sinful cloud of scents from McDonald’s as they serve their beloved breakfast meals, not to mention the ever-present queue for pastries at Paris Baguette. These stores are just waiting to tempt me away from my hard-earned money with the prospect of a yummy breakfast. But too bad for them, I always have something to eat before I head out for the day… #BreakfastFirst

Walking past these stores, I gear up to tap my card at the electronic gantries, and I follow the beeping sound of the machines as people scan their cards to make their way into the station. I bank towards the sound of people who are going in the same direction that I’m going, usually following behind someone to tap into the same gantry they’ve just entered through. This is a relatively fool-proof way to get me to the gantries that’ll let me through, since MRT gantries have specific sections that are allocated for entry or exit only.

Once I’m in, I follow the string of people heading for the escalators (I’m too impatient to wait for the slow elevators), paying attention to the sound of the churning machinery and the feel of the metal plate preceding the escalator to know where to hop on. And while a passenger on the machine, I look out for the steps flattening out to know when I’ve reached the end.

This brings me to the platform, the direction I need to go is on the right of the escalator nearest to the gantries, and I stand there on the platform waiting for the train like everyone else. When the train arrives, it’s as simple as following the whooshing sound of the opening doors to know where the entrance is, and I make my way in. Quite frequently, people will offer their seat to me (do I really look that old?), but when the train is packed, I’m more than happy to stand like the healthy youth my age are supposed to. Even better if I get one of the standing cabins with no seats. So, let’s leave the seats for the elderly aunties and uncles when we can.

***

At the City Hall station, I hop off the train, or I jostle my way out if I must. Then to make the switch, the other line is a convenient distance of 20 or so steps, and all I have to do is follow the swarm of people who are also switching lines and walk right on over to the other side where the “red” line is. Simple as pie. And pie is reminding me of that McDonald’s apple pie someone was eating outside the train station this morning. Maybe I’ll get one for myself one the way back home tonight. From City Hall, it’s a daintily short 3 more stops to the Orchard MRT station. After I get off the MRT, I turn right and walk up the stairs (my preferred method of vertical transport). Tapping out of the gantry like everyone else, I then start making my way out into the linking Ion shopping mall.

Contrary to what most people expect, Orchard is far from impossibly busy in the morning, so navigating the crowd is never an issue; if anything, the small crowd of fellow commuters gives me something to follow.  Most shopping malls have paths that are not straight, usually snaking and forking around to encourage people to lose themselves in one store after the other and explore. Standees, glass doors, and display cabinets also pepper themselves along the already narrow paths, which is why following the sound of a crowd’s footsteps can be helpful for me. As long as the people I’m tailing don’t smack their faces into glass panes or bulldoze over the displays, I’ll probably be safe following behind them.

Going up the escalators and exiting the Wheelock Place shopping mall, the path towards Tanglin is well, a walk in the park. There is only a single crossing that is almost laughably short in its length.  Still, despite the temptation to just dash across the pitiful distance (and trust me, I know people that do), our handy traffic crossing rules must still apply before I become a new piece of decoration on the tarmac.

In almost no time at all, approximately 15 minutes to be exact, I arrive at Tanglin Shopping Centre! Counting the 11 steps to the front entrance, the noisily chugging escalator is conveniently a few paces ahead and I start making my way up to the 4th floor where we at Empire Code are situated (psst… it’s #04-15 by the way).  As for me, I can’t read unit numbers, so I just have to remember to circle round once I reach the top of the escalator leading to the fourth floor, and Empire Code is the first unit after the elevators, which are usually dinging away constantly. And when I (gently) bump into a glass panel, I know I’ve arrived.

***

By the time I get to the centre, Eric, one of our bosses, is always there. After hearing his cheerful, “Morning Joshua!” we have a merry chat while I set up my laptop and prepare to get ready for another exciting day at Empire Code. And that, dear friends, is how a day in my life is like!

Me (far right), with Eric (centre) and Shi Kai (far left, who can code virtually anything & everything by the way)

As you might have figured out by now, my commute is almost no different from most. I take the same public transport everyone else does. I walk like everyone else does. I take in my surroundings like everyone else does, minus the visuals. And I even listen to music on the train like every unsociable millennial in my age group does, sans the wireless earphones and music streaming.

While I do have to use a white cane, keep a constant ear out, and put in a bit more memory work than the average person does, the fact is my commute to work likely isn’t as insurmountably difficult or dangerous as you might have imagined before reading this. Even if it takes a bit of effort, everything can be learned. Even rocket science (as one of our bosses Jasmine would say).

And finally, before the team nags at me about a missed opportunity to say this: Yes, I can code, and I’m pretty decent at it too my bosses say. I’ll write about this another day, till next time…

***

Joshua Tseng, for Empire Code

About Empire Code

Empire Code was founded in 2016 as a coding education center. As of 2018, we have expanded within the tech industry and now comprise of Empire Code Education, Empire Code Launchpad and Empire Code Loves Back. To launch in 2019, we have Empire Code Software. For Additional Information contact us on sg@empirecode.co

https://www.empirecode.co/

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