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Swinburne alum inspiring change together with her guide dog Elke

Chiu with her guide dog, Elke. 
Photo: Swinburne

Following a Master of Social Science (Professional Counselling) at Swinburne’s partnering institution in Singapore, the Executive Counselling and Training Academy (ECTA), Cassandra Chiu has become a leading psychotherapist and international social advocate for people with disabilities.

Based in Singapore, Ms Chiu runs her counselling practice The Safe Harbour and assistance dog organisation Canine Assistance while advocating for a more equal and sustainable future for people with disabilities.

Ms Chiu remembers her trip to Melbourne to meet her first guide dog in 2011 as the turning point for her strong social advocacy work back home in Singapore.

“I was diagnosed with a rare genetic eye disease in the 1980s called Stargardt disease, which caused progressive vision loss. When I came over to Melbourne to train with my guide dog in 2011, I felt like life was really starting – a new master’s degree from Swinburne, a new guide dog to get around – so much freedom was in my hands. However, it all became nothing when I came home and was subjected to the prejudice [towards having a guide dog],” Ms Chiu said.

“People were horrified by my guide dog and always jumping out of the way. I thought to myself, ‘was it the dog? Or was it the fact that someone was actually using a guide dog?’ From that experience, I realised I wanted to give back, leave this world better and make the world a more equitable place to live. That was the beginning of the journey to bring awareness to society and get deep into the heart of advocacy,” she said.

Today, Ms Chiu is the first woman to be a guide dog handler in Singapore, the first Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum in Southeast Asia, who happens to be blind, and her advocacy work for people with disabilities continues.

“I regularly engage with organisations and the media to talk on an array of topics, especially on inclusivity for people with disabilities. I also set up Canine Assistance to promote the different types of working dogs which assist people with different disabilities; it could be vision impairment, Autism, physical disabilities, or the Deaf and hard of hearing,” she said.

Ms Chiu hopes to increase awareness around disability and avenues of aid with the support of her guide dog, Elke.

“Today in Singapore, people are much more accepting of guide dogs, and it means the message is getting out there.

“I just love doing advocacy work. I feel like I have been given an opportunity to give back to society with my education. Making life better for people with a disability, being a role model and reminding people that everything is possible, and nothing should be a hindrance.

“I also want to be a strong role model for my daughter – like my mum has inspired me. My mum was the one that pushed me to see that my disability was not a problem – I still had to wash the plates and do all my chores. No discounts or exceptions made,” Ms Chiu said.

Since studying at Swinburne, Ms Chiu has gone on to study courses at Harvard and Oxford, but said Swinburne is the university that has given her the foundation to be who she is today.

“After Swinburne, everything just fell into place. The university’s belief in me gave me the confidence I have in myself today.

“I have been lucky to have the opportunity to set up my own business, and the client pool continues to grow steadily. I manage to run the entire business on my own – thanks to text to speech on my Apple phone and apps to help generate invoices. There is no need for a secretary!

“The advice I would share to others, especially to anyone with a disability, would be in true Singapore style ‘Never say Die.’ (Singlish – Singapore slang): Opportunities might not appear to be available, but if you push hard enough, something will pop up and you just go with it. If you sit back and wait for luck to come to you, you might be waiting forever.”

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