Triumph over disability

The audacity of aspiration - and hope

Mr Tan Guan Heng, vice-president of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped, has written his fourth book, Pioneering Disabled And The Able. It is a collection of profiles documenting the experiences of people with disabilities who beat
Mr Tan Guan Heng, vice-president of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped, has written his fourth book, Pioneering Disabled And The Able. It is a collection of profiles documenting the experiences of people with disabilities who beat the odds. There are also profiles of non-disabled people who rallied behind the community.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Book profiles people with disabilities living extraordinary lives, and their supporters

Many Singaporeans know of the achievements of neuroscientist and paraplegic athlete William Tan and four-time Paralympic equestrian medallist Laurentia Tan.

But not many know of the late Nancy Chia. Born with one leg shorter than the other, she became the country's only disabled female driving instructor - and helped other people with disabilities to drive so that they could regain their freedom and independence.

Nor do many know of Ms Theresa Chan, who is deaf and blind but went to the United States in 1960 to learn how to read, write and speak English so that she could come back to teach others at the Singapore School for the Blind.

Singapore is not short of inspiring examples of people with disabilities living extraordinary lives, and some of their stories are captured in a new book written by Mr Tan Guan Heng, vice-president of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped. Pioneering Disabled And The Able will be launched by Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob on July 21.

The 119-page book is a collection of profiles documenting the experiences of people with disabilities who beat the odds to excel in various fields, including sports and the sciences. There are also profiles of non-disabled people who rallied behind the community. One of them is Ms June Tham, who spent more than 30 years serving children with special needs and helped to form, in 1992, the Rainbow Centre, a pioneer in the running of special education schools.

CRUCIAL COMMUNITY SUPPORT

It is through the support and understanding of the community that they are able to realise their aspirations.

MR TAN GUAN HENG, vice-president of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped

"The many anecdotes in the book candidly reveal how the disabled triumph over adversity, invariably through blood, sweat and tears," said Mr Tan, 78, who is blind.

"But that is not enough and it is through the support and understanding of the community that they are able to realise their aspirations," added Mr Tan, who has published three other books.

His own story is a pretty unusual one. He had an eye haemorrhage while studying at the then University of Malaya. A surgeon re-attached his retina and restored his sight.

While in hospital, he fell for a nurse who cared for him. They dated for three years before his eyesight deteriorated and he became completely blind at age 29.

She persuaded him to seek specialist treatment in the US but doctors there said there was no cure. Instead, they put him through a rehabilitation programme to learn how to adjust to being blind.

He returned to Singapore to find that his girlfriend had become engaged to a rich doctor. Deeply disappointed, he remains a bachelor today. The experience inspired his semi-autographical book, My Love Is Blind, published 20 years ago.

 

Playwright Stella Kon, known for her classic play Emily Of Emerald Hill, plans to stage it as a musical next year if they can raise the $150,000 required.

After his return, Mr Tan learnt Braille and ran a bookstore. He became the first blind member of the then Singapore Association of the Blind's executive committee.

He served for more than 30 years - 11 years as president - and started a low-vision clinic and library for the blind. In 2010, he received the President's Social Service Award, the highest accolade for volunteers.

Mr Tan said it was his old friend and Raffles Institution classmate, Professor Tommy Koh, who urged him to write about people with disabilities after his third book, 100 Inspiring Rafflesians, in 2008.

 

Prof Koh, Ambassador-at-large, writes in Mr Tan's latest book: "Many Singaporeans mistakenly think the disabled are not as intelligent, not as well educated and not as capable as able people.

"There are few employers who are prepared to employ them... This is one area in which I hope Singapore will make progress in the next 50 years."

Mr Tan agreed, adding: "It is easy to write about the achievements of the disabled but the book also aims to give a glimpse of the frustrations and challenges they face."

To buy the book or donate to the upcoming play, e-mail julianachia1973@gmail.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2015, with the headline 'Triumph over disability The audacity of aspiration - and hope'. Print Edition | Subscribe