An Editor’s Learning Points—Working With A Blind Author


This Instagram post happened in November 2018. But I stopped short of recording it long-form because life. Nonetheless, I reflexively continued to jot down each brief learning point every time I met one in the course of working on A Place For Us with Cassandra Chiu.

Fast forward to the new year, and when we were brainstorming ways to bring out A Place For Us, or APFU (adorkable when pronounced)—the more we talked about the message of the book, the more I realised that perhaps what I’d learnt as editor on this journey could actually be worth sharing? Peiying’s eyes then lighted up, and so this little thought has sprouted to life.


I present, an editor’s learning points:

Very early on, after Cassandra, together with Esme, had arrived in our Midview office to sign the publishing agreement in early 2018 and I had naturally delved into the editing and production stages of the project, foreseeing the work ahead—it dawned on me that our hard work on the print book would ultimately be a thing that was practically useless to her—and to realise that right at the beginning was kind of sobering, already.

Enter editing stage.

As editors, we rely a lot on the ‘comments’ and ‘track changes’ functions in Word so that authors can see what edits and suggestions were made and at where, and vice versa. However, in APFU’s case, I discovered, quite mind-blowingly, that Cassandra wouldn’t be able to see all of that at all, and even with the help of her text-to-speech software, it would have been a dictation of sheer chaos on her ears. This was the revelation: that Cassandra had to simply trust that everything I’d edited was done in a judicious way. I was truly humbled when I had to call to ask, and she, all cool and blasé, affirms me like it’s no big deal. What?! 😭

So editing away I went, with the superb help of interns Vanessa Teo and Teo Xiao Ting. We discover Cassandra’s amazing memory, heart for advocacy, and generous trust. There was more than the usual percentage of typos because of Cassandra’s use of speech-to-text and her poor spelling (she say one), and these were usually malapropisms, which on a few occasions made me guffawed out loud in office. I share two choice quotes with Cassandra’s blessings and sense of humour:

" discuss what could be done to elevate the challenges Esme and future guide dogs faced in gaining access into public places."

"I want to assure people who are disabled, their partners and their families that we are quite capable of razing a child should we be given the opportunity and the tools."

Cassandra and I also worked out a convention where either of us could employ two asterisks in-text to indicate comments. This turned out to be another facepalm occasion for me when at a round of edits, Cassandra returned to say she couldn’t read my comments at some parts of the script. Bumbling me would realise only later that I’d continued using asterisks in the manuscript also to denote section breaks, and as a result had confused her.

When the time came to put forth cover design options, I did my first image description over WhatsApp (but a biased one in winning-ad language). And when we talked about audiobooks and I was so excited to have her narrate because she’s got a clear, assertive voice, it had not even crossed my mind that it‘d be tremendously difficult as she would then have to memorise her manuscript, and even then, that would make the recording really stilted—she knew, cause she’d tried. (We also asked really daft questions sometimes, like I asked if she could drive... and Peiying asked if she’d watched any films at a recent film festival... our faces recoil in horror after but are secretly grateful she cannot see them.)

Thankfully, along the way, we learn and apply some too: when we met her to discuss our marketing campaign, and once, there was a collective silence at the table as we pondered on a suggestion, we described our colleagues’ facial expressions so she didn’t think we all gassed out suddenly. And when it came to the day the books arrived from the printers and Cassandra came over to sign copies—Alvin, our in-house craftmaster, handmade a die cut stencil for her signing purposes, so she knew exactly where the blank spaces were on the title page.

Photo of "A Place For Us" by Cassandra Chiu and the signing stencil that Ethos Books made to help guide her on where to sign
Signing template for Cassandra's use

There are many more facepalm and laugh-out-loud moments in this unique working relationship yet time and again, grace is extended, and we all learn, we all become that much closer to seeing each other as equals.

About a month has passed since we launched Cassandra’s memoir. We worked with The Finger Players, who was at the same time launching their all-inclusive production Not In My Lifetime?, a play written by Special Education (SPED) teacher Alvan Yap (and alumnus of Pagesetters, our parent company!), about SPED in Singapore, its teachers and students, their challenges and hopes. (Did you know that SPED schools are not under MOE?)
They too, shared how steep the learning curve was for the able-bodied, as we learn to speak the language of our differently abled friends.

We launched APFU at Gateway Theatre, and in conjunction, put out an e-book and soft and hard braille formats to drive home the point about accessibility—making options available, with low to zero barriers to entry, for all. We are currently exploring its audiobook equivalent, and hope to bring that out very soon (if you can help, please holler!). The book launch was also a sort of retirement party for Esme, who has served faithfully for the past 7 years, and we remember Cassandra almost choking up as she thanks her guide dog—this being likeliest the pinnacle of trust between a dog and its master, a reversal of roles.

Presentation of Braille version of A Place For Us at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) library on 4 April 2019. 

Esme getting a belly rub from Suning

Esme taking a break and getting a belly rub from Suning at SAVH

It’s been such a privilege and experience, and because we learn from each title we bring out, each author we cherish—Ethos will start offering the options of sign language interpreters and note-taking services for all our events when requested.

In Cassandra’s book, which recounts her navigating of everyday life with her guide dog Esme and her recommendations for how society can be a better place for persons with disabilities, Cassandra has a hope. Hope that overcomes darkness: that as we approach 2020, such considerations and efforts will become commonplace, that special needs will not be strange or distant, and in Cassandra’s hard-won words, that this place will truly be a place for all of us.

With my best,

Cassandra Chiu, Esme with Ethos teamIn the Ethos office with the Ethos team ❤️