The Good Fight - Wee Chong's Story
Life didn’t come easy to me and even now life isn’t easy. Even if I didn’t want to think about it, it always seems as those I’m always put at a disadvantage. I am both handicapped physically and mentally. From young, I developed ADHD and dyslexia which both affected my focus and even being able to study or read properly. Physically, I suffered from cerebral palsy, which meant that I had weakened hamstrings that affected my leg strength and thus my walking and movement were affected.
My dyslexia hindered my reading and spelling ability. The parts I was sure to remember were only the first and last letters of the words. Everything in between was just a jumbled mess. ADHD on the other hand shortened my attention span. When I was younger it was a mere 15 minutes but now it is around 26 minutes which is pretty good in my eyes.
I am different, that is something I couldn’t avoid and this difference, in turn, resulted in some segregation, whether purposefully or not. It was harder for me to fit in and I didn’t have many friends. On top of that, my secondary school is pretty infamous, to say the least. There were instances of fights, drug abuse and so on. Despite these problems, I did do decently in my upper secondary life but I was far from a good student. Having few friends, those I managed to be close with I held close. The people I was able to turn to were not the best company in society’s eyes. How this connection started was through me helping them to smuggle cigarettes for them. Seeing that I was the more studious type, I rarely looked suspicious in the eyes of the teachers and I wouldn’t be searched for possession of these, so that helped. Even though they smoked, they were good people, people that I trusted and could turn to.
Secondary 4 was a pretty defining year for my academic journey. I knew to be able to promote to secondary 5, I had to meet a certain grade of a number of subjects. I was already put at a disadvantage as I was exempted from Mother Tongue due to my dyslexia resulting in me having one less subject to pull me up and a smaller margin for error. My disabilities also limited the extra subjects I could take. I wasn’t cut out for both D&T(Design and Technology) and Home Economics. One of my only other options was A Math which my teacher recommended to me as I was doing pretty well in math. Little did I know, I would come to regret this decision. I struggled hard, it was a whole new level of mathematics that I just couldn’t wrap my head around.
This decision came back to bite me at the end of the year, the moment all students dread when receiving their End-of-Year results. I did do well in some subjects, scoring As and Bs in most of my subjects. But for my dreaded A Math, I got ungraded basically, I failed. Now I was stuck, left in limbo with two paths to take, both with their own shortfalls. I could either repeat my whole year in secondary 4, to try to pass this level again or I could head straight into ITE. It was heartbreaking to say the least, seeing everyone around me succeed and progress to sec 5, some even being able to head into poly was hard to take. ITE honestly seemed like such a daunting place and the stereotypes although false did factor into my thinking. People around me were also telling me the same thing, why waste my time at ite when I could fight for my chance and get to sec 5. But personally, I knew I wasn’t the type who could study and I knew I would once again fail A Math.
Now it was on to what course to take. There was something I was more passionate about and more inclined towards and it was to do something in the health sector. So the clear option was to try to get into nursing. My ability in the sciences was pretty good, so I felt there would be a little issue getting in. But the moment I went for the interview and they saw how I was, the way I walked, they told me that I wouldn’t cut it. They were blunt with me, telling me that it was going to be a physically taxing course, where we are trained to administer help, not receive help, which they applied I would need in the future.
This hit me hard, it was like my dream just slipped away and there was little I could do about it. I couldn’t even attempt to survive in that culture. At that same interview, I was also approached to try out for business, but I was only offered a place at ITE east while I stayed in the north. I wasn’t fully convinced to be honest. The distance wasn’t exactly attractive and the thought of finance sort of disgusted me as it reminded me of A Math. But my sister convinced me that it wasn’t all that bad and at least there, I could make people happy. Luckily enough, I was also told that I could stand a chance to be transferred to ITE west if I just waited. And luckily enough, I was able to secure a transfer within the first day.
So began my journey in ITE. I started in NITEC business management. It was interesting and although it took some getting used to, slowly I managed to get into the groove. As there were many projects for us to do, we would often have to work in teams. The team I was in was one I stuck in for my time in business. The dynamics were pretty special. Our leader was a well to do guy but he still took a lot of pride in his work and he was willing to put in his best effort for the projects he did. Me and the other guy on the team on the other hand were less well to do and we were sort of the leader’s sidekicks in the project.
His dedication to the projects was scary and that may even be an understatement. He proofread everything and there were several instances where I was called up past midnight by the leader. He would berate me on my writing and my language and in those late hours of the night made sure I corrected these mistakes. He didn’t correct my mistakes for me, to him that was my own responsibility and his own portion of the project was his. Even when I had a curfew under the ‘reign’ of a strict aunt, my fear of leader was great enough to see her curfew as worthy enough to break to complete the project. He would always use the dream of scoring a good GPA and being able to enter into Poly as a driving factor or a bargaining chip to ensure work was done well. But even in his strictness, he still stayed up with me as I corrected my mistakes. This rule by him was something I came to respect and fear at the same time.
Another instance was when we had to do a project on web design. Leader pushed us to complete it as fast as we could which ended up being done in 4 weeks, 3 months before the deadline. We were boosted by the fact that the leader bought the programme used in school for the project just so he could continue working on it at home. We did it so quickly that other people tried to steal our code and our lessons were so free that we could just spend them eating, with no work to worry about.
I guess I can say I was thankful for having him as our leader to push us as it showed in my GPA. But my time at business was to come to an end, with me changing to events management, which was an inspiration from my sister who did events management too. This was a completely new environment for me and I kind of lost my main motivator in leader. The cliques in the course were already formed and once again, I felt as though I had been left out again, with no place to be. That was far from the worse things I would experience in my time in the course.
This came in my traumatic internship as part of the course. Up till now, I still have flashbacks of this traumatic time spent at the internship. It was a whole mess and ruling over me and the other interns was our team leader who was in kind terms, a slave driver. It was as though they saw us interns as easy labour that they could just push around to do anything they wanted. I was asked to work 24 hour shifts and even come back the night after my shift ended in the morning. I wasn’t even given day offs when I clocked these long shifts. There was nothing I could do due to the contract signed with them and our team leader would always hang our GPA as an item of blackmail, using it to force us to do extra things for them. This overworking eventually resulted in me causing a major mess up, causing the company a sizable amount of money. This angered my team leader massively, which led me into a massive scolding where she even made personal attacks towards me. Her words stuck with me even to this day. She said: ‘I don’t need people like you in the industry, I don’t need people with special needs. You people should just go and be a disappointment to your family. I’ll just leave you with a passing grade but you can forget about your dreams about going to poly.’ This hit so hard, and worst of all, I still had to complete the internship. I dreaded going to work. After every shift I would just break down at the bus stop while waiting for my bus to arrive. When my friends asked me how I was during this time, I couldn’t help but just break down, that’s how bad it got. The bright side of all of this was that I began to appreciate the small things, where there was less to be appreciative of. Just a simple hot meal to welcome me home after a horrible day at work was enough to make me warm inside. Thankfully, the CEO of the company heard about the intern’s situation and forced the supervisor to back track our grades and pull them up.
I will forever be grateful for this belief and how it gave me that chance to progress into poly. My dream of going into a health-related course was still strong and I knew I wanted to try for it. I knew it wasn’t ever going to be easy. There aren’t many health courses and with no prior experience, I could already be at a disadvantage as compared to others in my cohort. And the warning I was given at the nursing interview, although harsh was true to a certain extent and I fully knew that. But to me, this is what I wanted and I wanted to prove my doubters wrong, to show that I could overcome.
I didn’t want to go back into the dark place mentally that I was placed in during that internship and I knew one way to prevent that was to do well in my course. Going in, I could already tell that people underestimated me. They simply couldn’t see someone like me performing well or do anything of note. This was my time to shine, to prove my doubters wrong. I thrived in this new environment. Starting off with Home-based Learning was a struggle. I had to have the self-discipline to keep up and there was quite a bit of self-accountability. Despite this, going into republic polytechnic was one of the smartest decisions I have made. RP valued application over mere knowledge as compared to other polys. Most of the test were open book which helped overcome my lack of memorising ability. For once, my dyslexia and ADHD worked to my advantage. These which caused me to overthink, made me overthink the explanation of processes I had to learn about and put it into extreme detail and not only that but also in my own words. I basically broke down the processes further into smaller digestible bites that I could easily draw from. It also made me be able to stretch my word count for my journals, even leading to my teachers advising me to cut down on the words, although detailed and good.
Another thing that helped keep my focus was the emphasis on one topic per day in school. This helped me to grasp the concepts better as I was not thrown from topic to topic through the day but allowed me to fully get the concepts before moving on.
In my path to prove others wrong, especially my doubters, I wanted to try things that others would think would be hard to do, things that I would have to push myself to overcome. One of this was to take a module, Exercise programming, during my Poly course. The name itself was already daunting to me, as I was someone with a physical disability, and anything related to exercise was something I was advised against most of the time. My cerebral palsy affected mostly my hamstrings and my lower body strength. The teacher for the module also advised me that this module would be a challenge to me, but she didn’t say it in a condescending way, but instead more of one of genuine concern. But I wasn’t planning to back down and in this decision, the teacher didn’t stop me. She even eased me into it, knowing that I would have difficulties in doing certain tasks very well, she told me as long as she sees me put in proper effort, my grades could be adjusted from there. I wasn’t just going to take a free pass though, I had to have some feeling of achievement in doing this. Home-based learning also helped my cause. We had one assignment where we had to film ourselves doing certain movements and exercises and explain the processes behind it. Given the nature of HBL, time wasn’t that much of a limiting factor, as I could attempt it as many times as I required. There were instances where I had to repeat the exercise multiple times just to do it to an ok standard. The one that sticks out in my mind was the step test, where we had to step constantly. Putting weight on each foot for an extended period of time to increase heart rate. I fell multiple times and even heard some cracks but I was determined, I was willing to do it to the best of my ability. It was hard, but through pure grit and tenacity, I was able to complete it.
And all this hard work was not for nothing. I managed to get an A for this module and I even topped my cohort for the first year. I’m still currently on this journey in poly but I’m not stopping, I know I can be greater and do better as I go along.
Looking back, the system doesn’t exactly favour people like me, people with disabilities and to be honest, I can’t fully blame them for that. A lot of us fall through the cracks, being left hopelessly in limbo, ending up jobless or at low-end jobs. We can’t even do the same things as other people. We can’t take subjects like PE and it’s harder to get into the gifted programmes. Even the Paralympians struggle in our current environment. Even when the system helps us, it can still bite us back. For example, taking extra time could even make us less attractive to employers.
We need the social aspect too and we need that community. We tend to be excluded and left out just because we are different. But sometimes we just need that someone to talk to, to just be friends with. My closest friends were those who were similar to me, those who are more outcast from society. They sympathised with me and really made me feel valued for they too knew what it felt like to be alone.
It may seem like the world is against me and against us but it isn’t always that bad. I am blessed to have been surrounded by people who care for me and love me. My family supported me through it all. They gave advice, although not always good to help lead me on the right path. There were also those who gave me tough love, like my leader in ITE. The small things that people do were things that I savoured so much, that I held so deary to. Even my doubters propelled me, pushing me on my journey to prove them wrong.
In life, people aren’t going to sugarcoat things for you. To me, I feel that it’s ok to cry, there will be times where you want to give up, but never do. If you’re tired just rest, this doesn’t mean you’re giving up. As long as you know you will come back to it after a while. You may not be able to do it very well but finish it, try your best, sometimes all we need is a break. You’re not giving up, you’re just resting.
To others like me, sadly, the system wouldn’t likely change that soon and it will feel as though it is against you, people included. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn against yourself. You have to accept who you are and how you are. Only then would you know that you can go against it, to a place where you would have never thought you could get too.
One thing we are all capable of is making the world just that little bit better for those around us, no matter how small that impact is. If you ever see someone like me, someone struggling with disabilities, don’t shun us, please. Come and talk to us. We may not always have the same level of social skills, but we have interests too and we have passions, but we rarely have that listening ear to talk to. As long as you’re willing to listen, we are willing to talk. Don’t follow all the stereotypes about the disabled but treat us with that respect as human beings too. For all you know, you will find this love and quirkiness that you can never find elsewhere when you speak to us.
There will always be trouble and there will be times when we feel as though we are up against the world. It is in these moments when we will see how much we want it and how much we will do to get it. We don’t always have to go all out but we can also pace ourselves. Just as long as we don’t give up the good fight.