Dealing with prejudices
by Peter Tan. Posted on October 26, 2013, Saturday
“YOU cannot walk?” a woman with a wide brim hat asked in Mandarin. She was seated on a bench not far away from me.
I shook my head while forcing a smile.
“What happened to you?”
I told her about the accident with a smattering of Mandarin. How I wished I had paid more attention during Chinese classes in primary school.
“How long ago was that?”
I was beginning to be piqued by the continuous probing. I was out with friends to experience the sea breeze by the promenade and was not expecting to play 20 questions with a tourist from Taiwan. That was where she told me she was from. Not wanting to appear rude, I pandered to her nosiness with short replies and hoped that she would stop.
“It is such a pity. You are so young. So nice of them to take you out for a walk.”
I could not find a response to that. A wave of sadness fell upon me when I heard those words. Was I really trapped in a hopeless situation? Was I lucky to have nice friends who took me out occasionally? Would I amount to anything in the condition I was in? She might not have meant to be offensive but what she said affected me to the core.
That incident happened 20 years ago. Times have not changed much since then. Strangers still ask me the same questions and make similar comments. “Pity” and “less fortunate” are words that are often associated with my impairments. I am considered helpless, unable to fend for myself and in need of charity.
Nowadays, the curious ones who get acquainted with me for the first time are surprised to know that I am married. Their muted expressions of disbelief reveal their prejudices. Yes, disabled persons have feelings and can fall in love too, but that is disregarded and they choose to focus on my impairments instead.
“You are so lucky. She is so nice to marry you and look after you,” they would say.
I have learnt to not take those words to heart now. Society at large still has very little understanding of disabled persons. These are situations my disabled friends and I experience every now and then.
The general impression is that impairments are impediments to fulfilling relationships. Why would a non-disabled person want to ‘sacrifice’ her life to be with someone who cannot walk? In reality, this kind of thinking is a reflection of how these people view their own self-worth. Should they be afflicted with an impairment in the future, this is the prejudiced treatment they would accept unquestioningly.
It does not help that some disabled persons’ organisations knowingly or unknowingly use sympathy to garner donations. The manipulation of emotions using images of disabled persons in wretched poses is very effective in tugging at the heartstrings to loosen the purse strings.
This further entrenches that perception of helplessness and the need for charity, not only in society but in the minds of disabled persons as well. Such techniques to raise funds must stop. They are inflicting untold damage on the dignity of the entire community.
Imagine the effects when such negativity is allowed to grow over time in the minds of disabled persons. Without guidance to manage such perceptions, a sense of worthlessness would certainly fester. It would eventually become a barrier to our psychological well-being and affect our relationships with the people around us.
There are ways to deal with the emotional aspects of these situations though. One of them is through peer counselling. This practice is employed in Independent Living programmes to reaffirm the status of disabled persons as members of society with equal standing.
The three goals of peer counselling are recovery of self-worth, rebuilding relationships and social reformation. Peer counselling is always conducted by qualified disabled counsellors as they are able to empathise with the challenges faced by another disabled person who is known as the client in this context.
The goal towards recovery of self-worth allows clients to be acutely aware of their own feelings and abilities in order for them to regain confidence. Counsellors provide space and confidentiality for clients to draw out their innermost feelings and express them freely as a way of discharging suppressed and oppressed emotions. Clients are then encouraged to identify past distresses, find solutions to overcome them, set goals to achieve Independent Living and move on.
No man is an island. Peer counselling recognises this. It encourages the rebuilding of supportive relationships, firstly with the counsellors, and then with family and friends as another move in the renewal of the self-image. This goal is crucial in ensuring that clients become socially functional and are able to forge meaningful relationships with disabled and non-disabled persons without reservations.
In social reformation, clients set goals to work with the communities that they live in to break attitudinal and environmental barriers. Peer counselling is utilised by clients to discover the ways this can be achieved. Living among the people and interacting with them on a regular basis becomes a powerful tool to demonstrate that life is more meaningful when lived with mutual support, acceptance and understanding.
Disabled persons who are confident of their own self-worth will not be affected by the negative impressions other people have of them. They have learnt to shrug off the emotional baggage caused by the imposition of societal norms on people who are ‘different’. I have achieved the first two goals of peer counselling. The third is still a work in progress.
Comments can reach the writer via email@example.com.
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by Peter Tan. Posted on October 19, 2013, Saturday
IT is incredible how friendships can be forged from conversations exchanged over the Internet between people who are hundreds or even thousands of kilometres apart. That was how Wuan and I met, in one of the channels of the Internet Relay Chat (IRC).
That was the era before broadband and the proliferation of digital cameras. We used 56k modems that emitted beeps like fax machines when dialling into the Internet. Our conversations were mostly messages typed out in text with some ASCII art thrown in.
She was in Kuala Lumpur. I was in Penang. We chatted about general topics and discovered that we had many common interests. We liked nature, durians and delicious hawker food. From chatting online, we graduated to phone conversations and then decided that we were comfortable enough with each other to finally meet face-to-face.
I took a flight down to see her. That was the first time I travelled unaccompanied after becoming a tetraplegic. It was a major challenge. I was not sure how I could move around the airport and get into the plane with my wheelchair. Fortunately, the airline staff provided all the support I needed for an uneventful journey.
It was also to be a trip to meet the other friends I got acquainted with on the same IRC channel. A couple of them came to pick me up from the airport. We had lunch together and they helped me to check into the hotel after that. We promised to meet up again before I left.
Wuan and I had made plans to have dinner together that evening. While waiting for her in the hotel, I wondered how we would react on meeting each other in real life for the first time. From the instance when we began chatting online, I never concealed the fact that I was using a wheelchair. Even so, imagining my impairments could be vastly different from actually seeing them.
As those thoughts were running through my mind, there was a knock on the door. I looked at my watch. It must be her. I opened the heavy door with some difficulty. Our eyes met. It was as if we had known each other for a long time. Our after-dinner conversation dragged into the wee hours of the morning. We had so much to share with each other.
We spent the rest of my time in the city together dining, strolling the breadth and length of shopping malls and generally enjoying each other’s company. She never once showed any discomfort or being embarrassed when we were out together. That was a good sign. She even learnt to disassemble my wheelchair and put it into the taxi boot. Needless to say, I did not get to meet my other friends from IRC again that trip.
Four days passed by too quickly. Soon it was time for me to leave. There was still so much we wanted to share with each other. I wished we had more time together. We had no inkling of when we could meet again. That aching in the heart the moment we parted told me with certainty that I was indeed in love.
Our relationship began to flourish from that point onwards. The greatest hurdle then was not the distance between us. Whenever we could, we were more than happy to make the 400km-journey to see each other. Rather, parental objections on her side made us wonder how we could take the relationship to the next level.
I understood their concerns. My impairments were not exactly attributes parents desired for in a son-in-law. No parent would want to see their child marry a disabled person. There was little else I could offer to alleviate their unease except to pledge to love their daughter with all my heart and soul. We carried on despite that, hoping against hope that they would eventually accept our relationship.
When my mother became terminally ill, Wuan took leave from work to help me look after her. The day before Wuan had to go back, my mother cried. Wuan consoled her and assured her that she would be coming to see her again the following month. Perhaps, my mother already knew that it was to be the last time she would see her.
She slipped into a coma one week later. Wuan would call at pre-arranged times and I would place the phone over my mother’s ear for Wuan to give her some words of encouragement. After one of those conversations, I asked Wuan what she said to her.
“I told her I will be going to Penang this weekend.” There was tiredness in her voice. “I told her if she could, to wait for me. But if she is suffering too much it is all right to let go. I will look after you. I asked her to please not to worry any more.”
I listened in silence, choked with emotions and trying hard to hold back my tears. Ultimately, my mother knew I was in good hands after she was gone. It was no wonder that Wuan was the only woman in my life that my mother approved of.In the end, Wuan never made it to see her for one last time. She breathed her last a few hours before Wuan arrived.
Wuan was a lifesaver during those months of profound grieving after my mother passed away. She listened patiently to my outpouring of sorrows every night and then gently consoled me. She gave me space and time to heal emotionally, which I eventually did, with a lot of encouragement and support from her.
After eight long years of being together, Wuan’s parents finally relented and gave us their blessings. Wuan arranged for us to go back to her home town to meet them. That two-hour journey was the longest I had ever made. I was full of nerves the entire way.
Her father’s first words when we met were, “Welcome to the family.”
My ears have not heard sweeter words. It was as if the overcast sky suddenly cleared up and the sun was shining brilliantly bright. The anxieties just melted away. That indication of approval was all Wuan and I had been waiting for, for so many years. They have since accepted me wholeheartedly, impairments and all.
Wuan and I have been blissfully married for six years now. She is not only my wife but my best friend and staunchest supporter as well. The very reason I am able to do what I am doing now is because she has always backed me up in every way she possibly could.
One evening, while lazing in the living room watching television together, I asked her “Why do you love me?”
“There is no why to it. I just love you for who you are.”
Nothing more needed to be said. If I am not the luckiest man on Earth, no one else is.
Comments can reach the writer via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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My principles in life
Posted on October 12, 2013, Saturday
LIFE is a great teacher, especially when one is down and out. Those times of struggling and looking for answers to the meaning of life have taught me many valuable lessons. I am still a student. I guess we all continue to learn until the day we breathe our last.
Tuesday will mark the 29th year that I am living with spinal cord injury. Along the way, I have accumulated wisdom from all over, some from reading books, some from observing people and a lot through personal experiences. These have now become the principles with which I deal with the vagaries of life.
First principle: It is all right to grieve. There is nothing wrong in showing our heartfelt emotions when facing an adversity like death or terminal illness in the family. Our first instinct invariably is to keep a strong face for our loved ones and vice versa. We take pains to suppress our feelings.
At some point in time, we will have to come to terms with the loss and the hurt. Crying during such episodes of great sadness lightens the burdens in both the heart and mind. Only God knows how many nights I cried myself to sleep after the death of my mother. The pain of losing her was unbearable. Cry I did. It was emotionally therapeutic and an effective part in the healing process for me.
Second principle: Live with no regrets. We should never let guilt dominate us. This is easier said than done. Really, there is no point in regretting past indiscretions. We cannot continue to live in remorse for situations that we can neither change nor are in control of. We should not allow it to fester and consume us from inside.
Things that have happened cannot be undone. Life is not like a video game. There is no replay button. We must move on. We must move forward. If we keep holding on to the past, we will have no free hand to touch the present and grab the future. Let the past be just that, the past.
Third principle: Live and learn. We make mistakes. We have failed one time or another. It is human to err. Mistakes and failures are good opportunities for learning and for us to become better. Those who do not learn are condemned to repeat the same mistakes again and again.
I have failed many times in my disability rights advocacy activities. With each failure, I know what does not work and move on to the next option. Success can only come when we have exhausted all possibilities that lead to failure.
Fourth principle: Persevere. Never give up. No matter how bad or hopeless the situation may seem, it will get better, eventually. It is true that every cloud has a silver lining. I learnt perseverance from my mother. She led a hard life. Even in the direst of circumstances, she never gave up. She worked hard and saved even harder to achieve her dream of becoming a tailor.
When I became paralysed and had to depend on her, she did her best to make sure that all my needs were taken care of. She stood by me even when all the odds were stacked against me. I am still here today because of that unwavering support.
Fifth principle: Be grateful. There is something to be thankful for every day. I have been fortunate to be blessed with people around me who are generous with their time, resources and support for my various endeavours.
I never expected to live this long after the spinal cord injury. The first person with a similar condition as mine whom I got acquainted with in the hospital succumbed after 13 years. That became the imaginary threshold of my lifespan. Thirteen years came and went and I was still alive! I treated every day beyond that as a bonus. It was a gift that I appreciated and tried to make the best of in whatever way possible.
Sixth principle: Expect the worse, hope for the best. This last principle sums up my attitude each time I go to the hospital. Although I know where my declining health is heading to, I am full of optimism each time I am in the clinic reviewing my condition with the doctor.
A scheduled blood test last month indicated that my renal failure has advanced. The nephrologist wants me to go through an orientation programme to prepare for the eventuality when I require haemodialysis in the near future. For now, I am even more thankful for each little bit of health that I have left.
The principles above form the basic framework on how I approach difficult situations that may come my way. Our life is what we make of it. We have a choice to be contented or be miserable. Instead of brooding over the problems, I choose to deal with them in positive ways. I choose to be happy. That is what matters most.
Comments can reach the writer via email@example.com.