Billy Yau, Hong Kong's Only Blind Teacher, Fights Misconceptions and Gets Kids Top Grades
Reputedly Hong Kong’s only blind teacher, Billy Yau Wai-lok teaches at the Chinese YMCA Secondary School in Tin Shui Wai.
Tell us a little about yourself. How and when did you lose your sight? I lost my eyesight at the age of 2 due to optic nerve atrophy. Doctors couldn’t identify the reason for the disease and, despite advanced technology today, it’s still impossible to repair one’s optic nerve. I went to Ebenezer School for the Visually Impaired until Form 1, when I entered St. Paul’s College. I studied English Language Education at HKU and graduated in 2008. I’ve been teaching ever since.
Why did you want to become a teacher? I was inspired by two of my primary school teachers. My P.5 Chinese teacher would ask us to write a weekly journal every week and she’d write back long and detailed replies, which sparked my love for Chinese. The other was my class teacher in P.6. She always spent time chatting with us about anything from friendship to social issues. Once I was upset and wrote her a letter. To my surprise, she called me after dinner, chatting to me and comforting me. I was moved to tears. I realized the role of teachers is to accompany adolescents and guide them when they face difficulties.
How does being blind affect your teaching methods—and how you keep the kids in line? I carry out most of my teaching duties on the computer. For example, I have my students turn in their assignments via email and in the classroom, I type on my notebook computer and connect it to the projector while teaching. As for discipline, I have my students work on their computers and send their work to me via instant messenger to ensure they’re on task.
What materials do you use to teach your students? Most of my materials come from the internet. With younger students, I use YouTube clips a lot as they are effective in catching students’ attention and serve as useful prompts for writing. With students in senior forms, I make use of articles available online and adapt them into grammar exercises as well as reading, writing and speaking tasks. If it weren’t for the computer, it would be difficult for me to find teaching resources.
How is technology evolving to help the blind? In the past, everything had to be translated into Braille or read aloud and recorded for the visually impaired to read. It was time-consuming, so blind people had very limited access to information.
Now, more than nine Hong Kong newspapers are uploaded to a site for the visually impaired every day. I can also read e-books and e-journals. Another useful technology is smartphones. It’s difficult for us to grasp the environment around us—for example, which street we are on and what shops are around us. But a smartphone gives us all this information. Some apps even allow us to take photos of an object and tell us what color it is—or even what it is. Isn’t that incredible?
How does Hong Kong compare to other cities when it comes to accessibility for the blind? Hong Kong is doing a great job in the sense that we have guided paths almost everywhere in public places and most traffic lights are installed with audible signals. When I visited Australia I found that there weren’t as many facilities for the visually impaired. But in terms of human resources, countries like the US and Australia seem to be more helpful for people with disabilities. In Australia, the government pays people to be “readers” for visually impaired people to assist them with their studies and work, which is something we don’t have in Hong Kong.
What are some misconceptions you’ve faced? Some people think that blind people can walk around smoothly because we remember the number of steps we take from one place to another. In fact, we never do this and it’s impossible to remember! What we do is, we have a map in our minds and we walk according to how we perceive the environment through our other senses. When I’m walking with my cane, sometimes I have to detect where an object is so I can avoid it, or I have to walk along the side of a wall. But people always think that I will bump into it: They shout out warnings or even grab me from behind!
Sounds pretty annoying! Some people try to avoid the words “see” and “watch” when they talk to a blind person. They’ll say, “Did you listen to the TV program last night?” It’s weird, isn’t it? Actually, we don’t mind hearing such words—but what we do mind is being talked to as if we were a special type of people.