So You Think You Can Paddle (Without Seeing and Hearing?)

Ruby Tan

Ruby Tan found out how it feels to be a dragon boater with a visual or hearing impairment and raised funds for Society for the Physically Disabled in the process.

Dragon boating is hard right? But what about when you're blind or deaf? While most of us might never know what it's like to lose one of our senses and have to participate in a sport (in fact, they make you race with a partner!).

Paddle for good - Asia For Good

How it works

First you choose the impairment you want to experience – loss of hearing or sight? For the former, you'll be given a blindfold, and the latter, a set of ear plugs and mufflers. I chose the blindfold.

Upon slipping them on, I immediately felt a little wary and fearful of moving around lest I hit something, or someone. Co-founder of Society Staples, Debra Lam, was my guide and she instructed me to put my hand on her shoulder so that I could follow her..

We were led to the pre-race “warm-up session” facilitated by a pre-recorded video, where I could not see the stretches, only listen to instructions. A video of me was taken, and at one point I was doing something completely different to the exercise in the warm-up video – super #fail.  

After that, I was seated to queue up for the ergometer – blindfold still on. My guide Debra came by to tell me that she had to pop off somewhere else but that her colleague Nicholas would take over. Through this little exchange, I realised that, without the normal visual cue of someone making eye contact with me, it took me a micro-second to figure out that someone was actually talking to me. Note to self: Address a visually-impaired person by name first if you are talking to him/her.

Paddle for good - Asia For Good

Being led to the ergometer and having to get on was another challenge – I had to feel out the seat, then raise my leg high enough to swing it over in order to sit. I banged my shin a little bit while trying to gauge the height of the machine. Ouch. Another note to self: feel with your hands, not with your shin. It also took me several attempts to emulate the paddle stroke which the volunteers guided me through as I couldn't see what they were doing.

When the “race” started, I had no idea how I was doing and had to rely on the volunteers as well to let me know whether I was behind or ahead of my partner participant. My competitive streak took over when I found out I was lagging behind, and even with my attempted paddling (ie. flailing), I won. (Yessss!).

The whole experience was eye-opening for me – no pun intended. I once wrote an article on etiquette advice for communicating with the visually-impaired, and this simulation brought those to life. Those tips I wrote about weren't just polite – they were an absolute necessity for the physically-disabled to function and feel included.

Paddle for good - Asia For Good

A better understanding

Like myself, most participants say they gained more empathy and an understanding of what it's like to have a physical disability.

Xavier Chan, 28, an able-bodied paddler competing at the DBS Marina Regatta and scientist at the Health Sciences Authority, said, “I have adaptive paddler friends and I was always curious about how they prepared for races and competed. The experience was much harder than I thought it might be – I made a mess of myself at the warm up station. My adaptive paddler friends definitely have my respect.”

Experience for a good cause!

And of course, not only do you get to deepen your awareness and understanding, but for every person that participates in Paddle For Good, DBS will donate $50 towards Society for the Physically Disabled, a volunteer welfare organisation that supports persons with disabilities in Singapore. What a great way to become more conscious about the requirements of our fellow physically-disabled community members, and raise money! Two birds with one paddle – a worthy way to spend a weekend afternoon.

Paddle For Good will be at the DBS Marina Regatta June 4 and 5.

 Paddle for good - Asia For Good


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