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His early childhood days were like most other Singaporeans.
But Shalom Lim, 27, isn’t like most Singaporeans.
Diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) when he was three months old, Shalom spent his early childhood playing with other children, still yet unaffected by the progressive muscle degeneration disease.
But when he was six, he started losing his ability to walk.
He used a manual wheelchair till he was nine, after which he got a motorised model.
Shalom’s life has been a story of overcoming personal hardship, but he also wants to advocate for a more inclusive society.
When he was six, he began taking art lessons, specialising in contemporary Chinese painting. He participated in events and competitions hosted by ART: DIS, previously known as Very Special Arts.
Realising that there are many less-privileged people with muscular dystrophy conditions, Shalom, his brother Isaac (who also had DMD and high-functioning autism) and their mother raised funds for Muscular Dystrophy Association Singapore (MDAS) in 2007.
They raised $120,000 through two artbooks — titled “Live Your Dreams” and “Not a Wasteland” — which helped pay for MDAS’ transport operation costs for three years.
“I realised that not everyone was as fortunate as me, some individuals with muscular dystrophy stay home a lot because their family don’t own a car, making it inconvenient for them to leave their house,” Shalom explains.
Today, he works as a community partnerships executive at K9Assistance, a charity that promotes the use and acceptance of assistance dogs in Singapore.
More than one kind of guide dog
“Did you know that there are different kinds of assistance dogs?”
Shalom gets animated when he talks about his passion project.
Being an animal lover and needing mobility assistance, he became excited when he first found out about assistance dogs in Singapore.
Among the most common breeds of assistance dogs are golden and labrador retrievers, due to their temperament and ease of training.
When people think of guide dogs, they usually think of seeing-eye dogs. But Shalom explains that there are three other types of assistance dogs for different purposes: autism, hard-of-hearing, and mobility.
He applied in early 2021 through K9Assistance and expects to meet his assistance dog in 2024.
Waiting periods are often long because it takes about six months to a year to train an assistance dog. On top of that, agencies have to match a suitable dog with their handler, not to mention the paperwork that comes along with it.
In fact, it was after signing up for an assistance dog that Shalom took up the job at K9Assistance in June.
He decided to apply for the job not just out of his love for dogs, but also because he wanted to help make Singapore more inclusive for assistance dogs and their handlers.
On Nov 18, a parent wrote to citizen journalism portal Stomp about how she was worried about her child’s safety on an MRT train when she saw a passenger with a seeing-eye dog.
The passenger in question, Sophie Soon, a Singaporean Paralympian who has a visual impairment, explained in a TikTok response to the article that assistance dogs receive extensive training before they are allowed to be paired with a handler.
@sophsoon Whether you’ve seen this article or not, I hope this vid gave you some basic info on guide dogs! Do leave any more questions you have for me. 😊 #sgtiktok #guidedog #accessibility ♬ original sound – sophsoon – Sophie 🏊🏼♀️🦮💙
It is situations like these that spur Shalom to push for a society that is more inclusive of assistance dogs and for persons with disabilities (PWDs) in general.
Talking about the MRT incident, he says: “I understand the mother’s worry for her child’s safety. However, I think it would have been better if she engaged Sophie directly instead of writing about it online. PWDs are not aliens or animals (that you should be afraid to approach us).”
While assistance dogs for PWDs are allowed in Singapore, they are not yet welcome at all business establishments, and the only type of assistance dogs allowed in all public spaces are seeing-eye dogs.
“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about assistance dogs because people think of them as pets instead of working dogs. On top of that, there are only eight such assistance dogs in Singapore, so people rarely get to see them in action,” says Shalom.
At K9Assistance, Shalom reaches out to businesses to encourage them to pledge support towards assistance dogs and their handlers. Through this, K9Assistance aims to get more people used to the idea of sharing a public space with assistance dogs.
There are already multiple establishments, including JustCo, Projector X, Metta Café and Steeple’s Deli, that welcome assistance dogs in Singapore.
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Recently, Shalom managed to land a coup for K9Assistance – getting Downtown East, run by NTUC Club, to pledge its support for assistance dogs. It is the first mall in Singapore to allow all types of assistance dogs within the premises.
“It definitely is an arduous journey to get establishments to pledge their support because the stakes are high, but at the same time as long as one person says their willing to accept assistance dogs in public, it would already bring me a lot of joy,” says Shalom.
Shalom now looks forward to normalising the use of assistance dogs in more places that people frequently visit, such as entertainment places, banks, and even the supermarket.
He attributes his passion to advocate for a more inclusive society to Isaac, his older brother, who died in 2019 at 28 from DMD. Most patients with DMD don’t survive pass their twenties, but with recent medical advancements, their life expectancy has increased.
Shalom explains: “My brother was born ahead of his time and didn’t receive as much support as PWDs are receiving today. So, I really want to help create a more inclusive society because though he may no longer enjoy the support, I know he would be happy to see me doing this.”
“No matter how long it takes, as long as my health permits, I will definitely be around to support assistance dogs and handlers,” Shalom adds.