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Being visually impaired isn’t a barrier to doing what you want in life.
That is the lesson that Ernawati Fauzana, 38, has learnt. But it took her a life-changing trip to the United Kingdom to realise that.
Ernawati, or Erna as she calls herself, has only 50% of her vision in both her eyes due to glaucoma, an eye condition that she was diagnosed with at the age of 10.
“Growing up, I had to put more effort into my job as a visually impaired worker, to show my bosses that I am capable,” says Erna.
But in 2016, after working for 12 years in four different jobs, Erna quit her customer service position in Singapore and travelled to the UK. She wanted to rediscover a sense of belonging after years of job-hopping due to her condition.
While travelling, she met a group of visually impaired people. That was a turning point in her life.
She tells The Pride: “I was amazed by how independent and open-minded the visually impaired are there (in the UK). There was a content creator, filmmaker and even a news editor. They are all visually impaired like me.”
It inspired her to do more.
Dreams take off
So when she returned to Singapore in 2016, she decided to go back to something that she has always wanted to do but didn’t because of her visual impairment.
She wanted to cook.
In an interview with Our Better World, Erna said that when she was a child, her mother got her to help out in the kitchen by cutting and peeling the ingredients.
“At first, when I was thirteen, I did not know why she wanted me to do that but, as I got older, I began to understand. All those small tasks that she gave me to do was to help me to be independent in the future and not have to depend on others.
“My mother has always told me not to use my disability as a reason not to live my life to the fullest.”
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But her dream to become a chef only began to take off after she met Aaron Yeoh.
In 2018, Aaron founded Fortitude Culina, a social enterprise that aims to empower talented and passionate visually impaired individuals in the culinary arts.
It allows members of the visually impaired community to hone their culinary skills while also inspiring others to believe that they are capable of being more than their disability.
It was Aaron’s suggestion that Erna turn her passion for cooking into a career that changed her life.
Erna says: “Cooking was always like therapy for me”.
Today, she is a chef specialising in Malay and Indonesian cuisines.
A communal space
Fortitude Culina was set up after Aaron spoke with several visually impaired friends and realised that they face a lack of career options in Singapore.
He tells The Pride: “In Singapore, those visually impaired who do not have a diploma or a degree are normally offered jobs as masseuses, telemarketers or food servers. Even those who have higher qualifications find it difficult to find a job.”
He set up the social enterprise to raise funds to build a central kitchen where visually impaired chefs can work safely and effectively. He says that with the help of technological tools, visually impaired chefs can pursue their passions.
Another visually impaired chef, Shah, 25, works part-time at Fortitude Culina, specialising in cakes and pastries.
He was introduced to the organisation by Erna, with whom he has a bond since they share a common condition. As they understand each other’s situations, they have grown to be close friends.
When the Pride arrived at Fortitude Culina’s kitchen/office at Jurong Launchpad, Shah was making kueh lapis with the help of some tools, for example, a weighing scale that reads out the weight of the ingredients.
That was just one of the few unique tech tools specially developed to help the visually impaired chefs deal with challenges that they face.
Erna tells The Pride: “I used to not know when my fish or vegetables were done boiling or cooking. I had to use my other senses like taste or smell to find out”.
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Now in the communal kitchen, bell timers are used to help other chefs know the right time by using their sense of hearing.
Talking to them, I was struck by how they could simply have used their disability as an excuse to avoid working because it is not easy to adapt.
Their passion, on the other hand, is what keeps them going. We could see on their faces how each individual in the kitchen was enjoying cooking and baking — it wasn’t just a day at work for them but a day doing what they are passionate about.
So how is it like working at Fortitude Culina? Both Erna and Shah laugh.
“It’s like working as a family. The team helps one another and works collaboratively to achieve a common goal.”
“It is important for them to feel comfortable so that they can share with me their difficulties and we can work together to solve them,” says Aaron.
During the Pride’s visit, the chefs were in the midst of preparing a large order of bakes at Palate Sensations, a kitchen they rent when they get a large wholesale order.
We had the pleasure of seeing how the whole team worked together efficiently and effectively. You can find out more about bake orders here.
Being visual impaired in Singapore
Dealing with the lack of career opportunities was just one of the struggles that those with visual impairment face.
One common misconception that Erna faces is that all visually impaired people are the same.
Erna explains: “Visually impairment is a spectrum, Every visually impaired person is different. Most people think that being visually impaired means being blind and using a white cane or wearing dark clothes and glasses but every VI (as they call themselves) does not see the same thing. Maybe I can see faces while some might see shadows or light.”
Fortitude Culina also conducts cooking and baking classes for the visually impaired. Erna and Shah want to spread the message that the VI community in Singapore is more than capable of doing tasks on their own.
“I wanted to teach them simple culinary skills so that they have more healthy food options that they can try out at home,” says Erna.
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Aaron tells The Pride that some of his friends were doubtful about his venture when it first started. They had doubts that the food prepared by the visually impaired were safe to eat — how can they prepare food when they have difficulty seeing, is the common complaint.
To that, he has only one reply: “You never know if you do not try.”
It is also this stereotype that the team at Fortitude Culina want to break.
“Most people in Singapore have a very low awareness of the visually impaired. They have sympathy for us but they do not understand,” Erna says.
It is towards changing this mindset that the team at Fortitude Culina is working towards — to foster a society where the visually impaired are being accepted for who they are and not be perceived just as their disability.
In fact, Aaron says that he hopes to start a cafe where his chefs will be able to cook and to serve their culinary creations to the public. He’s still in the process of finding a space though, he says.
“We still have a long way to go to reach our goals.”