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Blind teacher points the way
Published on Thursday, 07 Jul 2011
Billy Yau hopes to work full-time and do an MA.
Photo: Berton Chang
Billy Yau's special teaching keyboard.
Photo: Berton Chang

Billy Yau Wai-lok cannot see his students but he feels their needs. Reputedly the only blind teacher in Hong Kong, he teaches English at HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity in Lok Fu, Kowloon. Yau suffered from optic nerve atrophy and lost his sight at the age of two.  Despite this, he graduated with a degree in English Language Education from the University of Hong Kong. He believes blind people can do many things if society gives them a chance.  

How did you cope in a mainstream school after leaving Ebenezer School for the Blind?

My academic results were quite good, so my teachers suggested that I go to a mainstream school after finishing Form 1.  Like all blind students, I found it tough to get notes and textbooks in time to prepare for examinations. It took a long time to translate the materials into Braille. I remember receiving notes for Chinese language a day after I had taken the examination. But I had to stay positive and study as hard as I could.  

English was my best favourite subject and as it did not require much recitation. I did not have to memorise a lot of data so I chose to study English for my degree. The sad thing though is that I was not able to participate in science, geography and physical education lessons. I would sit and read in the library while others have had lessons for those subjects. 

What was university life like?

Life in university was much more colourful than secondary school, as I was able to participate like a normal student. I lived in student dormitories, went to orientation camps and did internships like other normal kids. Students saw me as one of them and teachers expected me to perform like other students. 

What were the obstacles you encountered?

I was required to complete 19 weeks of teaching practice spread out over three years. My former school, the Ebenezer School for the Blind, had kindly offered me a chance to practise there. The opportunities of finding a job in a mainstream school was much greater than finding work at a special school, so I had to get teaching experience in a mainstream school.

In my second teaching practice, I tried to find placement in a mainstream school which was not easy. At an interview, a principal asked me how a teacher could teach when he or she was blindfolded. There was no point arguing. He had already made up his mind that the blind could not teach.

Finally, I found placement in my old school at St Paul’s College. In class, students waved their hands assuming that I could not “see” them. But I knew very well what they were doing. In the end, my teaching skills and caring heart for students touched them and they stopped being mischievous.

I still remember a student who came up to me towards the end of my teaching practice and said: “Sir, you may not be able to see my face but you definitely see my learning needs.” Those words were very encouraging to me and I will remember them forever. 

Who inspires you?

The success story of Hong Kong Blind Union’s president, Chong Chan-yau, was a huge inspiration to me. Although he could not see, he became an administrative officer for the government and worked as executive director of Oxfam, just to name a few of his remarkable achievements.

After I joined the union as a committee member, I got to know him. He encouraged me a lot. He told me that the first blind teacher was in the United States in the 1950s and there are now more than 1,000 blind teachers around the world, teaching various subjects including biology and physical education. 

How did you get started in your teaching career?

After graduation, I found a part-time teaching job, helping students practise for their oral examinations at a secondary school. Then they let me teach in a classroom with another teacher. I really appreciated their effort to help me, but it was really unnecessary. I was not comfortable to teach in the presence of another teacher so I did not extend my contract after two years and moved on to HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity. Now I teach on my own. 

What was the biggest hardship you had to endure? 

Throughout my job search, I had to deal with endless doubts and questions from principals. The toughest thing was when employers made assumptions that blind people are less capable and need a lot of extra help.

At a job interview, a principal asked me what I would do if a student lit a fire in the classroom. Why did he assume this could only happen to a blind teacher? This could happen to any teacher. There were also concerns that students and parents would complain about a blind teacher, which I think would be due to lack of understanding. 

What are your goals?

My goal is to find full-time employment. Currently, I teach for three days. I teach regular classes and after school, remedial lessons. I also plan to study for an MA. 

How should society interact with the blind?

Please put away all assumptions of what blind people cannot do. We blind people have survived despite our handicap and we have our own way of working things out. The assumptions made by normal people do not support the blind but only deprive them of opportunities.