Celebrating their abilities

Six in 10 people with disabilities do not feel that they are socially included, accepted or given opportunities to achieve their potential, according to a study on the quality of life of vulnerable groups in Singapore last year. Launched in June 2016, "See the True Me" is a five-year public education campaign organised by the National Council of Social Service to raise awareness of the issues faced by the disabled and promote inclusion in Singapore. In line with the International Day of Disabled Persons yesterday, The Straits Times celebrates the strengths and abilities of seven persons with disabilities in their respective areas of work.

'My mother is my hero, she challenges me'

MS NUR SYAHIDAH ALIM, 32, Team Singapore compound archer

Para-archer Nur Syahidah Alim bagged two gold medals at her debut in the 2015 Asean Para Games and defended her gold at the 2017 Games. She was also the first female archer to represent Singapore at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.
Para-archer Nur Syahidah Alim bagged two gold medals at her debut in the 2015 Asean Para Games and defended her gold at the 2017 Games. She was also the first female archer to represent Singapore at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Para-archer Syahidah, who was born with cerebral palsy, says her hero is her mother.

"To many people, she's just a simple housewife, but to me, she's a strong and resilient woman who always asks me to challenge myself and prove to society that I can be on a par with it," says Ms Syahidah.

She was introduced to the sport at a disability expo when she was 18 years old.

After graduating with a Master of Science (Knowledge Management) in 2013, her mother encouraged her to try out for the national team, and she was selected in 2014.

She bagged two gold medals at her debut in the 2015 Asean Para Games in Singapore, and was also the first female archer to represent Singapore in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, where she reached the quarter-finals.

She successfully defended her gold at the 2017 Asean Para Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Unfortunately, her bid to become the first para-athlete to represent Singapore at this year's SEA Games held in Kuala Lumpur, alongside able-bodied athletes, was unsuccessful despite her meeting the qualifying criteria in her category across multiple competitions.

"The SEA Games Federation felt that me sitting on the stool posed an advantage and that the federation must be fair to able-bodied athletes and not set a precedent where para-athletes enjoy an advantage," she says.

She encourages persons with disabilities to try out a sport and for the public to contribute in terms of volunteering or being a sports assistant to para athletes.

Ms Syahidah is on a two-year sabbatical from her job in corporate strategy at Sport Singapore to train full time under the Sports Excellence Scholarship (conferred by Sport Singapore) for the 2018 Asian Para Games.

Music brings him out of his shell

MR KEN WONG, 29, Music teacher at Faith Music Centre

Mr Ken Wong, who started losing his vision at the age of nine due to macular dystrophy, teaches music at Faith Music Centre to children, adults, senior citizens and people with disabilities.
Mr Ken Wong, who started losing his vision at the age of nine due to macular dystrophy, teaches music at Faith Music Centre to children, adults, senior citizens and people with disabilities. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Although he cannot see the strings on a guitar or the keys on the keyboard, Mr Wong has been teaching music since 2015 at Faith Music Centre, located in the Paya Lebar Kovan Community Club.

Set up in mid-2008, the centre's learners include children, adults and senior citizens, as well as persons with disabilities.

Diagnosed with macular dystrophy at the age of nine years old, Mr Wong does not have central vision and has less than 20 per cent of the vision of a normal person.

Macular dystrophy is a rare genetic eye disorder that causes vision loss due to the deterioration of the inner back lining of the eye where the retina and light-sensitive cells (photoreceptors) are found.

He studied pyschology in Australia for about four years after his O-level examinations. Alone in a foreign land, he suffered from social anxiety, failed badly and came back to Singapore.

"I was always quiet and kept to myself to the point where I didn't leave the house," explains Mr Wong.

His life changed when his friends got him a keyboard for his 21st birthday. He searched for schools to learn music and forced himself to go out. Starting with the digital piano in 2010, he has also learnt to play the guitar, bass, drums and various band instruments.

He admits that being visually impaired means that he has to learn music with a lot of patience and memory work while "enduring his own lousy playing".

Now he finds a sense of fulfilment in teaching music to persons with disabilities and giving back to the society.

"Music has given me so much - helped me overcome my anxiety, forced me to go on stage to sing and perform. That kind of confidence and finding purpose in life, they came through music for me," says Mr Wong.

Dance instructor's aide has all the right moves

MS GOH YU XIANG, 24 Instructor aide at APSN Tanglin School

Ms Goh Yu Xiang, an instructor aide at APSN Tanglin School, with her colleague, Mr Hay Qing Hui. Her former teacher recognised her strength and recommended her for the job when the school was looking for an instructor aide in 2014. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

When she was still in primary school, Ms Goh would dance along to music played on the home computer with her elder sister. Little did she know that it was a sign of her future career.

She has since moved on to more complicated Latin ballroom dance moves such as the cha cha, samba, jive and, her favourite, pasodoble.

She has been working at APSN Tanglin School as an instructor aidein vocational training for the past three years. Together with colleague Hay Qing Hui, 25, her responsibilities include assisting head instructor Andy Ang, 47, during weekly dance classes and accompanying students to dance competitions and public performances.

Both alumni of the school, Ms Goh and Mr Hay have mild intellectual disability and learnt ballroom dancing from Mr Ang when they were in Secondary 3.

"I've known them for 10 years and they are more confident now than when they were students. Yu Xiang learns very fast and even manages to pick up the guys' steps within a day to be able to guide the female students," says Mr Ang.

He recognised her strength and recommended her readily to the principal when the school was seeking to fill the position of an instructor aide in 2014.

The aides cut out paper footprints and paste the steps on the floor to help students follow and remember the steps, remind them about posture, and try to get them to focus in class.

Difficult dance moves do not faze Ms Goh as she believes that practice makes perfect. "If it's very hard, I will keep trying (the moves) at home behind a locked door, or else my mum will come in," she says.

He lands job after learning the ropes about horses

MR RUEBAN SWAMINATHAN, 25, Stable hand with Equestrian Federation of Singapore

Mr Rueban Swaminathan tried various job attachments while in school but did not enjoy the work. He found his calling while undergoing equine-assisted vocational training with the Equestrian Federation Singapore. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Mr Rueban tried various job attachments while studying at the ASPN Delta Senior School (DSS) - cleaning, laundry services, petrol kiosk minimart stacker - but none of them led to full-time employment as he did not enjoy the work.

Then he underwent equine-assisted vocational training as part of a collaboration between DSS and the Equestrian Federation Singapore (EFS) and took to the specialised training.

The school works with potential employers such as EFS to provide job attachments and training to students to help them build skills for employment after graduation.

DSS offers other programmes that include a mini Uniqlo "store" at the school to help students learn retail skills.

DSS is a post-secondary school that offers vocational training to students aged 17 to 21 with mild intellectual disability.

Its programmes focus on four areas of vocational specialisation - food services, hotel and accommodation services, horticulture and retail operations.

Mr Rueban, who has mild intellectual disability and graduated from the school in 2012, joined EFS in December 2013.

He works as a stable hand, ensuring that the area around a horse's stable is kept clean and tidy.

An animal lover, he takes care of about 10 horses. His favourite is a mare named Mirabelle.

"I'm not scared of the horses because I don't go behind them. As long as you follow the rules and regulations, you won't get kicked," says Mr Rueban.

His family has a pet shih tzu dog named Angel, which they have had for almost a decade.

She helps others reach out to the deaf community

MS CHARLENE WONG, 36, Community outreach executive with Touch Community Services

Ms Charlene Wong, who was born deaf, with volunteers who are signing the words (clockwise, from bottom left) "help", "hope", "touch" and "people". Her work as a community outreach executive includes building volunteers' confidence. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Ms Wong's world is a silent but colourful one. Born deaf, she grew up in a deaf family with hearing grandparents. Her parents and brother are deaf.

She says she had a happy childhood most of the time because there was a lot of support from the family and school.

As a child, she played often with her cousins. Though she did not understand the rules of the games they played, she went along with them, depending on visual cues to learn how they played. Her cousins learnt sign language or used gestures to communicate with her.

Today, she is happily married and has two sons and one daughter, who are 12, seven, and three, respectively. Her husband, Mr Alan Wong, 38, a landscape project manager, is also deaf. They met at a charity concert in primary school and it was love at first sight, though they did not officially start dating until polytechnic. The couple's youngest child is also deaf.

As a community outreach executive with Touch Community Services, Ms Wong mainly plans programmes for clients wanting to reach out to the deaf community, manages volunteers and develops their confidence, and conducts sign language workshops.

She is also the ambassador for the National Council of Social Service's flagship disability awareness campaign, "See the True Me".

Her ideal inclusive society?

"A place where people can say greetings in sign language, where people are open to communicate with us, accept us as a part of their society, offer help, give us the chance to live our dreams and make contributions to society," she explains.

His dream is to cook for the President

MR PAUL SIMON, 26, Cook at Shangri-La's Rasa Sentosa Resort and Spa

Mr Paul Simon hopes to cook for President Halimah Yacob one day and dreams of owning his own restaurant where he will sell mutton briyani. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

As a cook, Mr Simon works the night shift in the hotel kitchen, cooking for room guests and helping to prepare the breakfast buffet.

A graduate of the APSN Delta Senior School, Mr Simon, who has mild intellectual disability, did an 18-month internship at the resort in 2011 before he was officially hired in January 2013.

He trained in every kitchen - hot, cold, pastry, Indian and butchery - before he decided that his passion was working in the hot kitchen.

Since his first stint at the resort, Mr Simon has worked closely with his mentors - senior sous chef Amresh Ramadass, 39, and sous chef Desmond Yit, 50 - and looks up to them for their experience and guidance.

"Paul is a very fast learner, adapts quickly to situations and is able to work independently," says Mr Ramadass. A guest asked for prawn curry once, which was not included in the menu, and Mr Simon was able to make it from scratch.

He hopes to cook for President Halimah Yacob one day and dreams of owning his own restaurant where he will sell his mother's much-loved mutton briyani, made from a family recipe.

Despite being able to whip up dishes like lasagne and chicken roulade, his mother is still the better cook, because he still "cannot get the wonderful taste right". "Give me six more months," he says with a laugh.

Helping to sow a love for gardening among Singaporeans

MR TAN WAI LOON, 39, Instructor assistant at APSN Centre for Adults

Mr Tan Wai Loon became interested in gardening some 10 years ago. He started out at the APSN Centre for Adults as a general worker but is now an instructor assistant, helping the centre with its horticulture and grass-cutting course. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Work starts at 8am for Mr Tan, but he makes his way every day from his home in Choa Chu Kang North to the Association for Persons with Special Needs (APSN) Centre for Adults at the Kembangan-Chai Chee Community Hub in Eunos an hour earlier, just so that he can open the doors and prepare for the day ahead.

He has worked with APSN for 20 years, starting out as a general worker before he was promoted to instructor assistant.

He received a long-service award in September.

"I love my work because I am able to earn money and help provide for the family," says Mr Tan.

The centre helps adults with mild intellectual disabilities find jobs. Every year, it trains about 150 of them in skills such as cooking and being a cashier.

Mr Tan has a mild intellectual disability, a hearing disability and speech impairment. But he is known among his colleagues for his dedication, optimism, helpfulnessand his green thumb.

He became interested in gardening about 10 years ago and has since been helping the centre with its horticulture and grass-cutting programme.

Mr Tan does jobs that are too complex for the trainees, such as maintaining the centre's vertical farm and weed area, and grass cutting.

He also guides a group of about 15 students per class to work on transplanting, germination, harvesting, weighing and packing of vegetables.

For his help in fostering a love for gardening among Singaporeans, Mr Tan was recognised in 2013 as a Community in Bloom ambassador by the National Parks Board.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2017, with the headline Celebrating their abilities. Subscribe