Generation Grit: At 17, she went blind. Now 25, she is working to improve lives for people with disabilities

The thought of losing one's sight completely is terrifying for many people. But Amanda Chong discovered it was nowhere near the end of the world. This is the latest in a series of millennials who inspire us.

Ms Amanda Chong was born with congenital cataracts. At 17, she became blind and had to relearn everyday tasks. Today, she works at the Ministry of Social and Family Development and leads an active social life.

SINGAPORE - When Ms Amanda Chong suddenly went blind at the age of 17, it felt like a cruel April Fool's joke.

On April 1, 2011, the Pioneer Junior College student was in class when she suffered a terrible migraine that left her dizzy and wanting to throw up. Then the world went pitch black.

Though she had suffered from eye disorders all her life, she had never expected to lose all sight so suddenly.

"It was very frightening," she said.

"I thought the universe was playing a joke on me. I had a naive hope that my sight would come back at first. After several months, I realised my sight was gone. I was devastated. Why did this happen to me?"

Her total and sudden loss of sight to glaucoma was a heavy blow, and it took her about a year to come to terms with it.

"I felt I should snap out of it. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life not doing anything or feeling sorry for myself," she said.

Instead, Ms Chong, now 25, attended orientation and mobility classes at charity Guide Dogs Singapore to learn how to get around on her own using a white cane. She also went back to school and got a degree in social work.

She is now a senior executive at the strategic planning branch of the Disability Office at the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), reviewing and administering policies and programmes for people with disabilities.



When Ms Amanda Chong suddenly went blind at the age of 17, it felt like a cruel April Fool's joke. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

She feels her experience puts her in good stead to improve things for people with disabilities.

Ms Chong was born with congenital cataracts, a clouding of the lens of the eye. At the tender age of six months, she had surgery to correct the cataracts.

It was the first of over 20 operations to fix her vision before she went totally blind, including four failed cornea transplants.

In primary school, she also developed secondary glaucoma. The build-up of pressure in the eye from glaucoma, causing damage to the optic nerve, can lead to blindness.

At the age of nine, she lost the sight in her right eye after her retina detached.

But none of this could keep the plucky student of Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School down, until that fateful April Fool's Day when her sight went.

In its immediate aftermath, she hid in her room, shutting herself from the world.

But with time and love and support from her family and friends, she realised she still had much to look forward to.

Crucially, she met other blind individuals who were leading meaningful lives. And her father, who is semi-retired, her mother, a personal assistant, and her younger brother were behind her all the way.

"When we are faced with obstacles, we still have the freedom to choose how to react. It does not help to be negative," she said. "The lack of sight doesn't mean I can't do anything at all and it should not hold me back. It just means I have to do things in a different way."

She is also able to do simple household chores on her own, like washing clothes and vacuuming the floor although she does not know how to cook. Assistive technology enables her to use her phone and computer.

Ms Chong learnt - and is constantly learning - what it means not to let a major disability stop her from living her dreams.

A major asset, she said, is her positive attitude. She doesn't shy away from challenges.

Though she had to repeat her first year in junior college because of her vision woes, she got through the A Level examination with three As and two Bs.

She also snagged a scholarship from the MSF to study social work at the National University of Singapore.

She said of her chosen field: "I wanted to give back as I have been on the receiving end of a lot of kindness."

Her boss, Mr Alvin Tan, director of the disability office at the MSF, said she is an energetic colleague who is also thoughtful and considerate.

He said: "As a member of the Disability Office team, Amanda pulls her own weight, as expectations of her to deliver are the same as for other members. Her own experience with a disability allows her to directly provide additional insights into how disability policies, programmes and support can be made better. This is especially valuable and Amanda is clearly an asset to the team."

Ms Chong is one of the over 30 officers with disabilities employed by the MSF, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) and SG Enable. The NCSS is a statutory board under the MSF, while SG Enable is an agency set up by the MSF to support people with disabilities.

When she is not working, Ms Chong listens to audio books and she can go through more than 100 in a year. She also jogs three to four times a week, sometimes with the Running Hour, an inclusive running club that pairs sighted runners with runners with various disabilities.

She is also learning the salsa with a sighted partner who guides her through the Latin dance moves.

Yet despite her active life, strangers often shower her with pity - which frustrates her.

"People find it surprising that I work in a professional job. They think blind people are limited to certain jobs, like masseurs and receptionists," she said. "The most frustrating thing about being blind is the incorrect and negative stereotypes that the public has that we need charity. They doubt that we can work."

For example, strangers try to give her money, simply because she is blind.

"Sometimes, members of the public will force money into my hands and walk away. This even though I'm well-dressed and I don't look like a vagabond. So I donate it to charity," she said.

Her goal in sharing her life experiences in interviews like this is to debunk stereotypes and encourage others who are struggling with a disability.

"Disability is a part of my life. We just have to carry on as best as we can," she said. "I'm happy where I'm now (referring to her job) as I feel I'm contributing (to society)."