I was recently at the malls and getting out of a crowded lift when I saw a person in a wheelchair waiting to get in.
He had to contend with the other non-disabled passengers and it made me realise that their experience is a part of society that I don’t know much about.
Based on a 2015 study conducted by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), the (self-reported) disability prevalence for those aged 50 years and above was 13.3%. That means more than one in every 10 Singaporeans above the age of 50 deals with a disability of some sort.
Recently, I spoke to disability advocate Fathima Zohra, 24, who is the programme manager for Runninghour, which is an inclusive running club that promotes integration of people with special needs through running.
Her experience as a car accident trauma survivor, as well as meeting many others living with disabilities, made her realize that she needed to do more to help.
“In the first year of my accident, I attended support groups where I met many young people living with disabilities their entire lives,” Fathima tells The Pride.
“By the end of that year, I volunteered to co-facilitate sessions… because I understand them personally, I don’t want any disabled person to feel the way I felt when I was newly injured.”
Even though we were talking over Zoom, Fathima’s strong sense of empathy, understanding and spirit of giving came across easily.
View this post on Instagram
In 2017, Fathima was in India when the car she was in crashed into a tree. The incident left her in a coma for days, and surgeons took 10 hours to reconstruct her spine. She survived, but it left her paralysed from the chest down.
Determined to get better, Fathima worked endlessly to recover and pushed her body to adapt during rehabilitation.
She wrote on the third year anniversary of her crash on Instagram: “Every year, the days following the 27th hurt me the most. My heart breaks looking at my body.
“I’m reminded of everything that I lost that day. I miss dancing my heart out. I miss running around in the rain. I miss being under water. I miss being able to run to my loved ones and hugging them. I MISS jumping and hugging the people I love the MOST.
“Life is now chronic pain, exhaustion, adverse drug effects, fatigue. And as much as I lost I can very easily say I’ve never been happier. I appreciate every minute that I live. As much as I miss my ‘old body’, I’m blessed to be alive… In the midst of all that suffering I found my real purpose. I celebrate 3 years of endless blessings, endless opportunities and 3 years of life.”
View this post on Instagram
She tells The Pride: “I’m ok (now) but not great, I have a lot of nerve pains… but I would still say that I’m privileged. I was talking to friends from other parts of the world and realised that even though everyone experienced that loneliness at home during Covid-19, it was especially hard for us. I hope society doesn’t forget about this particular community.”
Another disability advocate, Alister Ong, 27, wants to make the community a better, greater place as well.
“To me, living life to the fullest means to live my life for others, to make society and community a better place, for a greater cause and calling,” says Alister, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a young age.
Says Alister, who is also a motivational speaker: “Being in front of a 7,000-strong audience is a bit nerve-wrecking,” he recounts to The Pride. “But the audience’s responsiveness and attentiveness really helps, it’s captivating and welcoming. It’s a joy to interact with them.”
Acts of kindness, big and small
That’s not the only joy that Alister and Fathima have experienced as part of their lives.
There are many instances where they have encountered simple acts of kindness. For example, private-hire drivers who listen and offer help appropriately; strangers who hold the door, or simply a smile on a friendly face.
Another considerate behaviour, often overlooked, is not using the wheelchair-accessible toilet if you’re not disabled!
“Kindness need not be great; it can be simple… It doesn’t need to be costly,” Alister points out. “There are simple moments like when I dropped an item and a passer-by stops and helps me pick it up.”
Nonetheless, some efforts are bigger than others, he admits.
“In 2018, my friends and I were at Mount Bromo in Indonesia… they decided to piggyback me, climbing up 242 narrow steps. I remember when we reached the final lap, the crowd around us started clapping and cheering for us.”
View this post on Instagram
“With my disability, I’m unable to climb a mountain by myself. But with kindness, I’m able to.” – Alister Ong
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of ignorance surrounding people with disabilities.
Fathima remarks: “There are always two or three people who would walk up and ask me what happened… Well, you don’t walk up to just any abled person and ask about their trauma, do you?”
The lack of awareness and sensitivity in many, even well-meaning people, can be apparent, and both Fathima and Alister say that they have encountered rude behaviour too often.
Other stories you might like
How to talk to a person with a disability
“I personally don’t have a problem with being referred to as ‘disabled’, but I really don’t like the term ‘handicapped’,” says Fathima.
Fortunately, the right language can be learnt. NCSS has a handbook that outlines how best to interact with persons with disabilities.
For example, don’t say “disabled person” but “person with disabilities”. Also, don’t say that this person is “suffering from (a condition); just state that he “has (a condition)”.
Even calling a person without a disability “normal” in a conversation can inadvertently offend, as it implies that the person with the disability is somehow “abnormal”.
But talking to someone with a disability doesn’t mean that you have to tip-toe around them. Very often, they understand that it’s a learning process for everyone.
Fathima says: “There are days that I would casually answer the (insensitive) remarks of strangers, because I know it’s not easy to simply meet a person with disabilities and immediately understand them.”
Alister recounts: “There are kids who would ask their parents why they cannot sit on wheelchairs similar to mine. It is quite hilarious.”
So aside from using the correct terminology to speak with people with disabilities, how can anyone offer any support?
Financial support is critical because medical fees, caretaker expenses, medication and equipment costs are expensive.
If you would like to help, look out for organisations like Rainbow Centre, Cerebral Palsy Association of Singapore or Extra.Ordinary People, where you can find out more about what they do and donate your time or money.
There’s also a need for more support from the local community to be inclusive, educated and aware of the needs of people with disabilities.
Alister says that parents should believe that their children are still able to achieve their goals and accomplish their dreams in life.
Parents should accept that it’s okay to have children who are different and that it is not some form of shame or guilt, he adds.
Give children the opportunity to be independent, grant them the safe space to fail and make mistakes, while providing a safety net. It is important that the home should be that safe space, says Alister.
Empower children with disabilities with choice, encourage them to develop their talents and strengths.
View this post on Instagram
“My parents suggested that I get a desk job or be a private tutor, basically stay indoors. Turns out that my talent is in speaking!” Alister laughs. “But I can’t possibly stay home and talk to the walls.”
For Fathima, the support from her brothers helped her immensely – from going into the pool again on her 23rd birthday, to watching the fireworks on a beach for a new year’s party.
Institutions, both public and private, play an important part in moulding the life of a person with disabilities.
Schools have a fundamental role here. One way is to teach students about different types of disabilities, but to emphasise that we may be different but we are all part of humanity.
Secondly, teach children how to interact with people with disabilities. Often, children are more curious than malicious and they may not know that their inquisitive nature can cause discomfort.
Nevertheless, instead of shushing their children and whispering hurriedly to ‘don’t point, don’t talk, don’t ask’, parents can learn how to treat others who look different or act differently, using resources like those provided by the NCSS.
Thirdly, create opportunities to play and bring students with and without disabilities together. Provide them with encouragement and positive reinforcement.
Companies can also play a big role in pushing the conversation forward, says Fathima.
For example, two months ago, Maybank launched a charity campaign in conjunction with the President’s Challenge. Although the campaign has ended, you can still donate at its giving.sg page. Alternatively, you may pick an organisation to donate to, volunteer , or pledge your inclusive support as an employer.
“The fact that Maybank is willing to do their part, to learn & help the disabled community, is very empowering. That’s doing a lot of good, by creating opportunities for disabled persons to learn & engage in activities that they enjoy.” – Fathima Zohra
In corporations, more people can educate themselves to be more aware and more inclusive in terms of hiring and training, by creating or redesigning jobs to be suitable for persons with disabilities. An inclusive culture in the workplace is important and so corporations should provide disability awareness training such as how to interact with persons with disabilities.
Nevertheless, even though there is room for improvement, both Fathima and Alister say that there is much to be lauded in Singapore for people with disabilities.
“I must say that Singapore is highly accessible,” says Fathima. Over 85% of Singapore’s buses are wheelchair-accessible, and over 95% of pedestrian walkways, taxi stands and bus shelters in Singapore are barrier-free.
And where infrastructure falls short, very often, a person fills the gap.
Says Alister: “It was raining heavily one time, and a stranger came by to shelter me all the way across the road. These kindness moments really stand out for me.”