Cassandra Chiu seems to attract controversy wherever she goes. Perhaps it began when Class95’s Joe Augustin called her an ‘a-hole’ on air in 2014; Chiu had stated on her Facebook page that she was the only person turned away from McDonalds’ free McMuffin day because it was ‘too crowded’ to accommodate her guide dog Esme.
Then there was the ‘Zara incident’. Chiu found herself in the middle of another online controversy a year later after a security guard had refused the duo into the store.
When Chiu approached a police station to make a report, she was turned away again, ostensibly for the same reason.
She’s even been called out on sites like STOMP for having the audacity to venture into a Tiffany’s to buy a gift for her mother—as if the blind weren’t allowed to buy pretty jewellery for themselves or otherwise.
Chiu’s advocacy for equal treatment of the disabled has drawn a harsh spotlight on her. People deride her for being entitled, for using her guide dog as a way to muscle in on places where she shouldn’t be. But Chiu thinks that the disquisition that surrounds her is hardly about Esme.
“I get a lot flak for speaking out, for bringing Esme with me everywhere, but that’s not the real issue,” she says.
“The real issue is that people just aren’t comfortable when they see a disabled person going out and living their own lives.”
In their minds, the disabled must be mollycoddled, says Chiu, a certified psychotherapist who runs The Safe Harbour Counselling Centre. Those people think the disabled should be kept somewhere safe. More importantly, they should be kept quiet.
“Some people who help the disabled simply want us to shut up and take the good will that comes, and not to have a voice and opinion on what’s good for us,” she adds. “But I am most certainly not ornamental.”
In Chiu’s newly published memoirs, A Place for Us, she talks about the numerous setbacks and slights that she’s endured while advocating for the equal treatment of the disabled.
She notes that just 5 in 100 people with disabilities in Singapore are employed. And that’s not even to say what kind of employment they hold.
“The attitude that many employers have is that the disabled should just be thankful to have a job, whatever that job may be,” she says.
But while Singapore’s day-to-day treatment of the disabled is largely perfunctory, their inherent attitudes towards them remain dismal.
At 8, Chiu received the news that she was losing her sight to Stargardt disease. Nurses and doctors surrounded her, comforting the crying girl with platitudes. Don’t worry, girl, blind people can still be useful. They can still be masseuses, telephone operators, piano tuners. So many choices. But try telling that to an eight-year-old girl who had someday dreamt of becoming a supermodel or air stewardess.
For Chiu, she was determined not to let the disease get her down. She grew up with a full, storied adolescence, experimenting with makeup and fashion through trial-and-error, and sneaking out on the weekends to slink into the old Fire disco at Orchard Plaza with friends, memories that she recalls with giddy excitement in her memoirs. She would later put herself through university by busking. And when she learned that her graduate peers were earning twice as much as she was at their first jobs, she quit and set up her own counselling centre.
But Chiu knows that not everyone would react to such a diagnosis the way she did. Her book—which is also available in braille—does the dual job of educating everyday Singaporeans on how to be better allies, as well as empowering the disabled to lead full and happy lives.
“For starters, if we had better employment opportunities for the disabled, a lot of things would change,” she says. Earning a substantial keep would empower the disabled, give them independence. Eventually, Chiu hopes that it changes the way they are viewed by the public: from burdens to truly equal members of society.
“Many of the things that blind or disabled people want to do are possible,” says Chiu. “I mean, I could never be a surgeon, but for almost everything else!”
And that’s the message that Chiu and her four-legged messenger Elke (Esme’s new successor who has, in the course of the conversation, contented herself with gnawing on a worn bone before drifting into a pleasant slumber at Chiu’s feet) want to deliver to as many people as they can.