Singapore’s main disability awareness movement has gained more prominence of late, which is a welcome development. A national conversation on the way we treat our disabled compatriots has been long overdue.
Empathy is predicated on an understanding of the circumstances that people with different realities face. But often, we are not very good at putting ourselves in the shoes of others. This is okay—it is better to profess ignorance than to be performatively virtuous, which is behaviour the disabled, and the rest of us, are frankly better off without.
Disabled Singaporeans would be helped best if we could focus on the psychological baggage they are saddled with. The disabled already have access to the prostheses and resources they need. It is the damage beneath the surface, and the cause of that damage, that needs to be urgently addressed.
Disabilities and psychological issues are often joined at the hip. The disabled live both realities: the mistreatment and ostracism they face serves as an incubator for things that are worse than the nature of the disability itself, which makes the disabled some of the most crucial voices on mental health that we need.
Focusing on this particular aspect would have a knock-on effect on our society by helping us, as an American magazine put it, cross what is perhaps the final frontier for human rights: mental health.
I am reluctant to identify under the banner of disability, because the connotations of that word detract from my capabilities. But I am a profoundly deaf person, and I am a living example of why mental health is the most vital element that is lacking from mainstream discourse.
My early schooling years marked the beginning of a downward spiral that I would only arrest at a much later age. My auditory senses were progressively failing to the point where I would end up almost 100% deaf by the age of 10, and the adults who were tasked with overseeing my welfare were not equipped to handle it. That I may have had malfunctioning senses never popped up on their radar.
Children cannot self-diagnose, because one’s conception of normalcy is relative. A child is also not exactly equipped with a professional understanding of how the body works. They are wholly dependent on the grown-ups to figure these things out on their behalf.
Yet their primary hypothesis was that I was an insubordinate brat, because I never responded when they wanted me to.
I remember when a temperamental teacher shredded my homework and threw it into the dustbin in front of my entire class because I misheard her very specific instructions. That same teacher would hover over me during listening comprehension exams, and I remember anxiously using my other hand to cover the gibberish that I wrote.
I remember when I was singled out and excluded from the class yearbook photo by a vindictive teacher. She barred me from entering the hall because I had no idea we were to report to the photoshoot 5 minutes before the end of recess. I threw the yearbook away because I did not want to be reminded of it every time I opened it.
By the age of 10, I had deteriorated enough for someone to manage to put two and two together, and get me to an otolaryngologist. But my diagnosis changed little.
The ones in charge were ashamed to admit they had been wrong about me all along. It was easier for them to continue treating me the way they did instead of finding the humility to mend their ways.
I remember when my mother tongue teacher—who had a penchant for manhandling her students—grabbed my ears, ripped out my hearing aids, and slammed them on the table. That was my breaking point. I felt as if I had been emotionally amputated, and I remember suppressing the urge to sob as I picked up my hearing aids and put them back in.
Once, my school’s dictatorial discipline master publicly accused me of fabricating my disability as a ruse. I needed half the day off to visit my audiologist, and he thought I was trying to shirk my academic responsibilities. The man regularly ran his mouth off, but the sheer insensitivity of this one incident left me dumbstruck.
I remember the exact way he mouthed it: “Are you using it as a ruse?”
These are just some of the standout incidences. With every successive day came a new battle, and I was rapidly wearing out.
If you keep pushing children into a box that you created for them, it will be a matter of time before they succumb to your preconceived notions of them.
The tremendous discrepancy between my own potential and the reality I lived led to the belief that there was genuinely something wrong with my psyche. I internalised all the spite that had been levelled at me, which translated into a defeatist outlook on life.
This was by far the most deleterious consequence of my disability.
After several years of being stuck in a depressive rut, I could not recognise the person I had become. I decided I was not going to let my self-destructive behaviour get the better of me. I pulled myself out of the pit I found myself in through sheer force of will. It is the toughest thing I have ever had to do in my life, considering my store of willpower had been thoroughly depleted.
I had to unlearn all that I had internalised. I had to learn how to start from rock bottom. I had to teach myself to let go of my pent-up anger, because clinging to past grievances and expecting retribution to give you cathartic relief does not work. The only way you can shut the chapter is to find purpose by preventing the same injustice from being meted to others.
I have had innumerable conversations with people like me, and many of their experiences mirror mine. More often than not, these struggles have little to do with endogenous factors like our actual disabilities. We do not struggle with our limitations. We come to terms with it, and we move on.
Exogenous factors, such as the way others perceive and treat us, are what warps our self-image.
I have spoken at conferences full of parents of young children who are prospective candidates for cochlear implantation, and the most common questions I have been posed have always been in relation to the mental and emotional wellbeing of their children. That has always been their overarching concern. I tell them their kids are better off because they are receiving early intervention and have access to modern assistive technologies, but that is still not a panacea.
Discriminatory attitudes have continued to persist for so long because until now, people have not been incentivised to change. The only way to break the cycle of abuse would be for them to see how the repercussions we face will ultimately come knocking on their own doors.
The uncharted terrain that we are navigating today will exacerbate psychological issues on a scale never witnessed before. That uncharted terrain is the increasingly virtual nature of our lives, and in due time, the economic disruption wreaked by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will only serve as a force multiplier for the pathologies of the mind. We stand on the cusp of a new phase in human civilisation that will be defined by drastic change. Livelihoods will be disrupted. Qualifications will be rendered worthless. Many people will fall behind.
This is why movements that bring awareness to those with disabilities need to be centred around mental health. This is the weakest link, and it happens to be a vulnerability that we will all come to share. Making this relatable aspect of the disabled experience a microcosm of a larger issue (that everyone has a stake in) is the only thing that will bring about change that is substantial, because society at large will feel more inclined to reform stagnant attitudes if they can actually relate to the consequences of their attitudes.
The silver lining is that for once, the ubiquity of mental health issues will create a herd immunity of sorts from the forces of intolerance and stigma. No one will stand out unfairly, not anymore. It will become easier to admit that some of us struggle, and that will no longer detract from our capabilities and make us unfit to participate as well-rounded members of society.
It is thus unfortunate that our society places barriers on people that seek help. Many afflicted Singaporeans, particularly our youth, refrain from seeking adequate care out of the fear of being stigmatised, or that they may have a record that may impact their livelihoods in time to come.
The Internet is replete with questions from teenagers and young adults who need help: Will my medical records be confidential? Will I be barred from enrolling in certain university courses? What if I end up sabotaging my employment opportunities? How can I solve my issues on my own?
The general consensus was, and still appears to be yes—you will be making a gamble. There is no clear answer, because we have long had an opaque and overly procedural approach to the issue of mental health.
If we do not overhaul our attitudes, which are very much out of step with current realities, we will be condemning the people who hold the keys to our future by making them fear the very thing they need the most: a listening ear.
We need to devise comprehensive strategies at every educational stage in order to prevent irreversible damage from following our children into adulthood. We need to come to terms with the changed nature of the world, which is full of new complexities and dynamics that, if not navigated with tact, will permanently scar our children. Shielding them will not be akin to mollycoddling them. We will be investing in their futures.
As a compact country, we are better-equipped to ride out these changes than larger countries, but we will need a proactive paradigm shift, and we will need it now. Calibrating economic policy is one thing, but hardware without software is meaningless.
We need to promote wellness in schools. Holistic practices like meditation are becoming commonplace in British schools. These are gifts that our own ancestors have bequeathed us; it would be unwise to dismiss these ancient practices or refrain from merging them with our contemporary lives. These practices will help students to cope with the stresses of our education system. It will also enable the harnessing of their creative talents, which will serve us well in a future-oriented economy that will depend on creative output.
We need every child to have access to a dedicated counsellor within school premises, and this cannot be anything but mandatory. These counsellors need to be acquainted with the pitfalls that my generation (Z) faces, which are vastly different from the challenges faced by the generations preceding ours. We need to make mainstream the concept of emotional wellness; support must become an integral part of our increasingly complex world, instead of something that is reserved for the outliers of society.
We need schools to become agents of change that will positively impact not just students, but also their teachers and families. The adults need to be roped into this collective effort if we are to have a chance of overhauling our overly corporal approach to education.
I remember a teacher who gave me one of the most salient pieces of advice I have ever received. I was having a particularly rough day, and he must have noticed, for he called me aside after class, sat me down, and said, “Siddy, you may have it tough right now, but when you grow up and step out into the world, you will deal with adults that are vicious. You need to not let this get you down.”
Bullying is often made out to be the biggest social evil plaguing our kids, but it was never that much of an issue. My schoolmates were the saving grace that made school tolerable.
The ‘vicious’ adults were the most ruinous elements in my life. They were pitted against me from the very start. Under the guise of disciplinary action, they projected their own insecurities upon me and filled my mind with the poison of self-doubt. They clipped my wings.
It took me years to break out of the prison of their own dogma.
Plastering meaningless posters all over our public spaces will do little to foster a culture of empathy. Moral behaviour cannot be enforced with legislation or feel-good campaigns. The social interdependence and mutual respect we seek will come about the day we elevate the individual instead of letting the individual be lost in the drone of the unit.
We dismiss the West’s emphasis on individualism because of the self-aggrandising assumption that our ways are more conducive to the establishment of cohesive societies, while conveniently ignoring that countries like Australia and Canada exemplify community values and the principle of common courtesy far better than any country in Asia.
You cannot build strong communities without first investing in the most basic building block of society. There are ideological deficiencies in collectivist and honour-based societies that only serve to entrench discriminatory attitudes and beliefs.
We also need to question the relevance of honour-based norms, like the concept of face, and the excessive emphasis on deferential behaviour. These norms contribute to an overly hierarchical social structure that discourages those in the lower rungs from speaking up if they desperately need help. They need to be eradicated if we are to have any hope of transforming our society.
The Purple Parade should not begin and end with simplistic conversations on the disabled. If the movement wants to be a success, it will need to think beyond disability, and lay the foundation for a much larger cultural shift that focuses on the well-being of every constituent member of society.
For that to happen, honesty is the only prerequisite. It is okay to be upfront about our cultural shortcomings, and it is okay to acknowledge that we all have shared struggles to varying extents.
The disabled do not want or need special treatment. Many of the barriers that impede us were broken a long time ago. The line between disability and ability has been blurred so much that many of us do not even identify with that word.
We want wider society to hold itself to a higher moral standard, and it is imperative that the able-bodied understand that their dignity and well-being will become increasingly contingent on ours.
Only then will true solidarity be found.