“Hi Stevens Chan, I’m a journalist from NST and I understand you’re overseas at the moment. I’m dropping you a message to request an interview with you. Do let me know when it’s convenient for us to meet?” And without a second thought, I click the ‘send’ button, hoping fervently that a reply would not be too long in coming.
But then, it hits me. I’d just sent a text to a blind man! But before I can even rectify my blunder, my phone pings with an incoming message: “Sure, I’m free any time after 3pm on Monday.” The reply is from Chan. Bewildered, I answer ‘ok’. This time via voice message.
Fast forward to today where I’m sat opposite the aforementioned man for our meeting in his cosy home-office located at Taman Midah, Cheras. He chuckles heartily when I recount the embarrassing moment to him. “Don’t worry, technology is so advanced now,” he reassures me before adding: “My iPhone can read out your messages for me and I can instruct it to write back to you with ease!”
As we both laugh at the accidental faux pas, I suddenly feel a slobbery nudge on my left leg. I look down only to see a large light brown Labrador intently sniffing my feet. “I’m sorry, please excuse Lashawn my guide dog,” apologises Chan, before proceeding to share with me that the loveable Labrador is currently the only guide dog in this country since 2014. He was brought back from China by Chan. “He’s harmless but very cheeky and kepoh (nosy), especially with new people. Don’t mind him,” says Chan with a nonchalant wave of his hand.
The friendly Labrador looks at me and throws the largest grin that I’ve ever seen from a dog. Fully satisfied that I’m in no way a threat to his owner, Lashawn saunters off to one corner and settles himself down for a rest.
World turns black
At 56-years-old and vision-impaired, it’s easy to assume that Chan would be quietly living his days at home. But that’s far from the truth. This ex-consultant who’s used to making things happen was not going to allow blindness to cripple him. “I wasn’t born blind. I lost my sight completely in 2007 due to glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy complications,” he confides.
It was in 2007 when Chan’s once colourful world turned dark. He was only 45 and as he puts it: “It felt like the world had been pulled from under my feet.”
Continuing, he says: “Miserable is the only English word I can use to describe how I felt then. It all felt like a big joke. One minute I was independent; a man on a mission and climbing up the ladder to success. And then, my whole world as I knew it just crumbled. Suddenly my independence and freedom were taken away from me. I couldn’t even go to the toilet by myself.”
Losing his sight as an adult was a big blow to his self-esteem and he found himself spiralling into a deep depression. “But I knew I had to make a choice. Either I continued being miserable and make everyone around me miserable, or I could choose to be happy by accepting fate,” recalls Chan.
His brows furrowing at the recollection, Chan continues: “The only other option aside from those two was to end my life. But then I realised, life isn’t always about me. The love that my wife gave me was in the end, the source of my strength and the factor that drove me to choose option 2 — to be happy and accept my fate.”
Extra pair of eyes
It was when he was introduced to the-then 2-year-old Lashawn that the colours returned to his life more vividly. He remembers that fateful day at the China Working Dogs Association in Nanjing very clearly. “Guide dogs are given to the blind for free in many countries these days, but not here yet,” says Chan.
It seems that he had attempted to find a guide dog for himself from many countries but was unsuccessful. “It wasn’t because they didn’t want to give; it was because they knew that Malaysia doesn’t have the appropriate ‘infrastructure’ for service dogs, such as on public transport and in shopping malls.”
Chan was introduced to the China Working Dogs Association by a friend and was finally able to get himself a guide dog through funds he had amassed by himself and from the generosity of others who knew about his plight.
This social activist, known for his works for the blind community in this country, is the founder of two non-profit organisations, Save One Sight Malaysia and Malaysia Glaucoma Society, as well as the successful social enterprise, Dialogue in the Dark Malaysia. These organisations were set up to provide hope, advice, and emotional support to (blind) patients and their families. It also offers aid to the underprivileged by providing free eye checks and running awareness campaigns.
In addition, he also actively advocates for the rights of the blind to own guide dogs here so that they will be able to move freely with their specially-trained canine companion. In 2014, Chan made headlines when he undertook a social experiment in several locations around the city with his guide dog.
“We got kicked out of several malls and were denied access to some public transportation. It wasn’t very pleasant but it wasn’t unexpected. After that little ‘experiment’, I never tried anything naughty again,” recollects Chan with a chuckle. “But I’m glad that it brought some awareness to the public because now I can go to three shopping malls with Lashawn safely.”
The idea of procuring an all-seeing eye dog came in 2012 when his wife (Kaye Wong) bought a DVD of the Japanese movie, Quill. The movie tells the tale of a Labrador Retriever named Quill who underwent specialised training to become a guide dog. Upon graduation, Quill was placed with an old blind man who was initially reluctant to rely on his new partner. However, as time passed, they found ever-lasting companionship in each other.
“I understand how the old man in the movie actually felt because I’m very much like him,” confides Chan, continuing: “It’s never easy to adjust to new things. We humans are pretty stubborn that way. Initially, I couldn’t quite understand how to deal with a dog by my side; more so because I’d always been afraid of dogs before!”
He proceeds to recount the day when he was bitten by a rabies-infected dog. “I think I was only five or six then. From then on, I was always afraid of dogs. It didn’t matter if they were big, small, cute or not; I never went near one after that,” he shares. However, he jokes that perhaps it’s because he’s not able to see Lashawn that he’s able to cast aside his fear for the canine today.
Having lived with each other for close to four years now, Man and dog are inseparable. “The only time we’re apart is when I sleep. Because I’m a light sleeper, Lashawn can’t be in the same room as me. But he’s never far. He knows his job and keeps alert all the time for my safety,” says Chan.
More than a friend
Guide dogs are classified as precious creatures in all the countries that allow for their presence in public. “Dogs are returned to the training school and given to another visual impaired person if they are deemed incapable of performing their job satisfactorily with their (current) owners. It could be that dog and owner aren’t compatible or it could be down to the fact that the dog cannot be fully utilised due to lack of infrastructure,” reveals Chan.
According to guidingeyes.com, a non-profit organisation in the US specialising in guide dog training and providing them to the visually-impaired, it’s estimated that USD 50,000 is needed to breed, raise, train, match a dog with an owner, as well as to provide a lifetime of follow-up services.
Furthermore, guide dogs are only allowed to work until they reach 10 years of age after which time, they must be retired and returned to the puppy-raiser family they came from. “The puppy-raiser family would be the ones who took the puppy in (in the first place) and trained them to be familiar with a home surrounding before putting them into a school for training. It’s a process that normally lasts a year,” explains Chan. Hence, the puppy-raiser family has the first say when it comes to reclaiming the guide dog.
But should the puppy-raiser decide that they’re unable to keep another dog (for various reasons), the service canine would be put up for adoption where it’ll live the remaining years of its life with a caring family as a happy pet.
“The only condition that the adopting family needs to adhere to is to allow the previous blind owner to visit the dog any time he/she wishes,” explains Chan, adding: “The whole journey is an emotional challenge, not only for the dog and blind companion, but also for the other families involved in raising and caring for the dog before and after its service to society.”
With a sigh, he shares that unfortunately, the visual-impaired owner isn’t allowed to keep the dog after its retirement. This is because once the original dog has been returned, he (owner) would be replaced with a new dog. To take back the earlier dog would mean that he’s saddled with two dogs, which would be a veritable burden in the long run.
As I allow for the information to sink in, my phone suddenly begins to ring. Flashing on the screen is my photographer’s name. Quickly I explain to Chan that we should head out for a simple photoshoot. At the slight movement from his ward, Lashawn immediately stands to attention, his eyes never leaving his owner. After having suffered a stroke early last year, Chan’s steps are slow and slightly stilted. A look of concern is discernible on his canine-companion’s face.
Although Lashawn is known as ‘Little Devil’ by his trainers back in China because of his mischievous attitude, he never forgets what he’s trained to do, especially when he has his ‘uniform’ on. “They (guide dogs) are very smart. They know when to behave and when it’s play time. But most importantly, they’re an anchor for those of us who can’t see,” shares Chan, adding that they’re also great listeners and amazing partners. Their friendship, he adds glowingly, goes beyond mobility.
As we make our slow walk towards the porch, Chan says jokingly: “When I can’t complain to my wife, I complain to him lo!” Jokes aside, Chan shares that Lashawn has enabled him to widen his social circle in the most beautiful way ever.
“Nobody can resist a handsome dog like him. He helps break any awkward barrier that may arise between me and society as a result of my blindness. I find that these days, people will freely come over and speak to me when Lashawn is around. For that, I’m most grateful,” confides Chan, his voice laced with contentment.