While others who venture to the malls are free to take the escalators or lifts as they wish, Khairul Asraf often waits for the cargo lift instead.
That is because Asraf doesn’t go anywhere without his wheelchair. And while he’s able to get around independently enough, there are challenges he encounters in the day-to-day that others may not notice.
“The only problem I face daily is when I’m taking the lift,” he explained.
“I would say people like to compete with me; it’s like being in a 100-metre dash,” he laughed. “Since I can’t really compete, I have no choice but to give way.
“When the (passenger) lift doors open, everyone just rushes in. I have been sandwiched before, and it is not a nice feeling.”
He has little choice other than to be patient
As taking the lift is the only way Asraf is able to move from one floor to the next, he has little choice other than to be patient. Nonetheless, the easy-going 33-year-old does not insist on entering the lift first.
He even makes it a point to give way to mothers with prams, pregnant women and the elderly because he understands how it feels to be in their position.
“I have learnt that in life, we must learn how to give and take,” he said.
“Yes, it would make my life easier if people give way, but I wouldn’t want to be entitled like that. Waiting for the next lift is fine by me. I don’t want to have the mindset that just because I’m disabled, I’m entitled to the lift.”
He once thought disabled people simply rotted away at home
As much as he is self-reliant and optimistic today, Asraf once struggled to accept his condition.
As a child, he suffered from scoliosis and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a hereditary genetic condition that causes deterioration in muscle mass. As he grew older, Ashraf also began to lose coordination in his lower limbs.
At 17, he went for surgery to rectify his scoliosis. However, he failed to recover and barely a year later, Asraf completely lost his ability to walk and had to get his first wheelchair.
“It was awful,” Asraf recalled. “Within a year, I went from walking with a limp, to needing crutches, to suddenly losing my ability to hold myself up.”
Today, he can only move his arms, and finds it difficult to grip objects firmly.
“At first, I couldn’t accept how my life changed after using a wheelchair,” he recalled. As a result, Asraf suffered from clinical depression for two years after he lost the use of his legs. He stopped talking to his friends and his relationship with his family began to suffer.
“The worst part of it was how ashamed of myself I felt,” he said. “I thought that as someone with disabilities, my life was over.”
“I thought disabled people simply rotted away at home,” he explained.
He relearnt everything
Positive change arrived in 2007 when mountaineer Mark Inglis came to Singapore to give a talk. Inglis is the first double-leg amputee in the world to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
“I learnt a lot from him about being someone with disabilities,” Asraf said.
That prompted Asraf to begin therapy, where he relearnt everything, from taking public transport to doing day-to-day activities.
Determined not to squander his life away, Asraf worked to maintain his independence, take joy in his favourite activities such as cafe hopping and sneaker collecting, and, above all, stay upbeat and cheerful.
Today, Asraf does not ask others to push him around, and takes public transport on his own.
Thanks to wheelchair-friendly buses, he is able to commute to work by himself. In Singapore, over 99 per cent of public buses are wheelchair-friendly.
Whenever bus drivers fail to notice that he needs assistance, considerate passengers always step in to help Asraf out.
“Other passengers have been really kind to me,” he said. “Sometimes, when I go to alight from the bus, regular passengers will help the driver bring down the ramp. And sometimes if the driver forgets to let me off, other passengers will speak up to alert him.”
Despite having spent almost half his life on a wheelchair, Asraf takes pride in being independent and leading a normal life like other regular folks.
Before the circuit-breaker measures kicked in, he went to work on his own, carried his own belongings and was able to run errands independently. He used to join his colleagues for lunch outings often, and did not require them to push him around.
He now finds purpose in helping others like him
Today, Asraf works to advocate for kindness and understanding towards Singapore’s wheelchair users at AWWA.
AWWA is a social-service agency that advocates for the social inclusion of disadvantaged persons across life stages, from persons with disabilities to families and vulnerable seniors.
Asraf works as a Programme Coordinator with AWWA, and meets clients on their behalf.
Currently, amid Covid-19 concerns, Asraf works from home.
“The main form of discrimination we face is in employment,” Asraf said. “Wheelchair users are less likely to be, and remain, employed. This is despite the fact that we may have the same credentials and abilities.”
In Singapore, only three in 10 people with disabilities who are of working age are employed.
Asraf believes it is because employers may struggle with ensuring that the workplace is more accessible.
“Changing the infrastructure costs a lot,” he said. “It can’t be helped.”
Nonetheless, Asraf remains optimistic that with education and empathy, Singapore will eventually become a more inclusive and compassionate society.
“Once others realise we’re exactly like them, (except we’re) just in a wheelchair, they understand,” he said. “When they understand, they care.
“It’s simple,” he said. “Caring for a person regardless of his ability is what makes one human.”