Minds film festival features those who swim against the odds

The story of Mr Benson Tan and his mother, Madam Mimi Tan, is echoed in the film Swim Team, about how the parents of an autistic boy formed a competitive swim team made up of swimmers with autism in the United States.
The story of Mr Benson Tan and his mother, Madam Mimi Tan, is echoed in the film Swim Team, about how the parents of an autistic boy formed a competitive swim team made up of swimmers with autism in the United States.PHOTO: MINDS

Madam Mimi Tan did not take no for an answer when she was told that her son, who has special needs, could not compete alongside "normal" swimmers.

That was 10 years ago, in 2008, when her son, Benson Tan, wanted to take part in the national inter-school swimming championships alongside peers from mainstream schools.

So Madam Tan appealed multiple times to the Ministry of Education for the 17-year-old, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and intellectual disability, to be given a chance to participate in the championships.

After she showed the ministry that her son's swim lap timing qualified him for the 100m backstroke event, he was allowed to join the competition.

"I cried upon learning of the approval. The barrier had finally lifted and he was the only special needs swimmer in those swimming lanes," said the 68-year-old.

Madam Tan's belief in her son and relentless efforts to fight for the needs of persons with mental disability have paid off.

BREAKTHROUGH

I cried upon learning of the approval. The barrier had finally lifted and he was the only special needs swimmer in those swimming lanes.

MADAM MIMI TAN, mother of Benson Tan, a swimmer with ADHD and intellectual disability who was initially not allowed to take part in a swimming event alongside peers from mainstream schools.

Mr Tan is now 27 and an accomplished swimmer who has won 14 Asean Para Games medals, eight of them gold, as well as a gold from the 2011 Special Olympics.

Yesterday, the mother and son duo watched a film that echoed their story at a cinema in VivoCity. Called Swim Team, it was about how the parents of an autistic boy formed a competitive swim team made up of swimmers with autism in the United States.

It is part of this year's Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds) film festival. Held for the third year, it aims to screen movies to create awareness of intellectual disability and autism.

"Swim Team was selected as the festival's opening feature film for its stark similarity to the life story of Benson Tan. We want the audience to see the person, instead of their disability, and unveil their abilities," said Ms Sally May Tan, chief executive of Minds.

Besides films from Hong Kong, Korea, Australia and Ireland, the festival showcases two locally commissioned works, produced by well-known filmmaker Royston Tan and featuring a cast with special needs. One of them is about a Minds client whose brother had to learn to take care of him after their mother died.

Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran, guest-of-honour at the festival yesterday, teared up when he talked about that film and the love of the caregivers in looking after those with disabilities in his speech.

"Madam Mimi Tan and her son, Benson, exemplify this resilience of spirit," he said, noting how she worked tirelessly with his coaches and teachers to channel his attention deficiency and hyperactivity into sports.

Madam Tan also cried when she watched Swim Team because it reminded her of her experiences with her son.

But Mr Tan, now a part-time sales assistant at retail company Uniqlo, found himself laughing with fondness at the endearing expressions and antics of the swimmers with autism. "I like the show because it makes me happy to see others swimming," he said.

Before, his hyperactivity meant he could not sit still long enough to read even one page of a book. He would run around, and his parents often lost him in shopping malls.

But swimming helped him to calm down. Initially, he could not focus hard enough to complete a lap in the pool but he later found that he was good at it and began competing. It gave him a sense of purpose and achievement.

Said Madam Tan: "I hope the films will encourage others like him to discover what they can do and to find their motivation in life."

• The Minds film festival is on from today to Oct 7 at selected GV cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 16, 2018, with the headline 'Minds film festival features those who swim against the odds'. Print Edition | Subscribe