April 12, 2015, Sunday Peter Tan
“I WAS born in Teluk Intan. That night when I was just one hour old, my dad drove me all the way to Hospital Kuala Lumpur because there was an opening in my back. The doctors had to do a skin graft to close it back.”
That was to be the first of many surgeries Harmesh Singh, who is 37 now, had to endure. He was born with spina bidifa, a condition where the backbone does not develop properly and consequently damages the nervous system. He is totally paralysed from the waist down.
“When I was two years old, I underwent a second operation. Because the cerebrospinal fluid was being pushed up to my head, I had hydrocephalus (an abnormal accumulation of fluid around the brain). A shunt was inserted from the head through the neck and into my abdomen to drain the excess fluid.
“Next was my hip. Both sides were dislocated. The doctor actually used a hammer to knock them back into place.” All those corrective procedures were done before he turned five. There was a great possibility the complications could go from bad to worse the longer the treatments were delayed.
He wore a pair of calipers and used a wheelchair until he was 13. After that, he moved around with a pair of crutches.
Over the years, he was afflicted with other complications like urinary tract infections and meningitis but the one that caused the most problems was the shunt. A few months before he was to sit for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, he went under the scalpel twice to have the shunts replaced because of blockage.
Harmesh and I attended the same training course earlier this year. We caught up with each other again recently for this interview. My deepest impression of him was the perpetual smile on his face. As we talked, it was difficult to imagine a man who had gone through so much trauma could still look so placid. His father is a paediatrician while his mother is a teacher. He is the eldest of three siblings. Throughout his childhood, the family moved around a lot as his father, a medical officer in government service then, was posted to various towns in the peninsula.
“My good fortune is that I was born into a family where my father happens to be a doctor. My condition actually helped him to decide his speciality. Once I was born, he knew that he wanted to go into paediatrics.” I asked if he was ever pampered by his parents because of his condition, Harmesh’s response was a firm “No”.
“They treated me no different from my bothers. If I fell down because I did not see the water puddle, I would be reprimanded all the same.” His parents made sure that he got an education despite the inaccessibility of the schools and education system.
“They would go up to the headmaster, tell him my situation and ask him what he was going to do about it.”
It was through his parent’s persistence and his own effort that Harmesh completed his secondary education and went on to study law. Upon graduation, he was faced with another set of problems. He applied for one job after another for one whole year without success. When he finally landed one as a legal executive with a major insurance company, he did not make it through the six-month probation period as the managers deemed his performance was not up to their expectations.
Not one to give up easily, he continued to submit resumes while helping out at his former college mates’ law firm.
He recounted an especially frustrating job interview for the position of legal executive with an airline.
“After asking all the relevant questions, they asked me if I need to use crutches.”
“I said, ‘Yes’.”
“They then asked if I could walk without crutches because the office is on the second floor and there are no lifts.
“Before I left, I told them to please read the resume properly next time. I had put there in bold and capitalised that I am a disabled person with spina bifida and I use crutches to walk.”
Needless to say, he did not get the job. Harmesh is currently working as an assistant case manager with the Social Security Organisation’s Return To Work Department. His responsibilities include finding jobs for the organisation’s members who are unemployed due to injuries acquired from accidents in the workplace or because of diseases. He has been with the organisation since November 2013, first starting off in a temporary clerical position.
He said his experience as a disabled person makes it easier to understand where his clients are coming from, the frustrations they go through, especially when they go for interviews with potential employers after their rehabilitation and recovery.
When I asked him about his view on disability and disabled people, this was what he had to say: “People need to realise that regardless of disability, whether the person is in a wheelchair or using crutches, he is still a person. So please treat us accordingly like how you want to be treated. That is all we are asking for.”
If there is anything that he does not like, it is to be labelled as an inspiration to others. He cringes every time he is told that.
“I am trying to live from one day to another. I am not a superhero. I have done everything. I have done all the crying. After all that, the spina bifida did not disappear. It is still here. There is nothing inspiring about me.
“The reason I am who I am today is because of my parents. Plain and simple,” he added. Before we parted, he shared with me his philosophy of life.
“There is a saying that my friends gave to me once: ‘Faith manages’.”
That, he told me, was a phrase from ‘Babylon 5’, one of his favourite space television series.
“Have faith in everything. Have faith in yourself. Have faith in God. Whenever I hit a roadblock, I tell myself somehow or other I will manage.” Seeing how far he has come, I cannot but believe, in time, faith will take him to even greater heights.
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