By Alvan Yap
I was your typical clueless seventeen-year-old recruit – with a difference.
My friends, cursed with unblemished health, had been condemned to digging holes in the ground, charging up molehills and engaging in other arcane aspects of warfare. I, on the other hand, landed a cushy post as a clerk, mingling with the flying folk and shuffling reams of paper among other not-so-adrenaline-soaked duties.
The reality, of course, wasn’t quite as rosy. In my first week with the squadron, I managed to make a name for myself.
An officer – a senior one, with crabs on his shoulders – had called me over. He said something and looked expectantly at me.
The officer frowned and, raising his voice a notch, said something.
“Pardon me sir?”
This time, his face contorted in disbelief.
He bellowed, “F*** you!”
And stomped off.
Word got around fast. The squadron comprised over 95% regulars, of which half were officer-pilots; I was one of only three full-time national servicemen (NSF) there. This meant a rather genteel atmosphere; shouting and vulgarities and stomping were uncommon occurrences, unlike, say, at boot camp. I had somehow triggered a rare meltdown.
It turned out that despite the entire squadron having been briefed on my first day of work, the chap had apparently forgotten about my deafness. Either that, or he was unwilling to accept I really could not catch what he said (my speech is considered very clear for a deaf person, which tends to throw people off) and thought I was being deliberately obtuse.
This left no bitter residue; now I can joke about it. (“Man, he sure was crabby.”) Being yelled at for something that isn’t your fault? Every NSF has been there, taken the photo of himself posing in front of the gigantic Statue of Being Tekan-ed, and worse.
At the time, though, I sweated for a while wondering if I’d get into more trouble. You’d be glad to know nothing happened in the end, after it soon became obvious I was a living, breathing, walking, talking Deaf Person – the first of my species anyone had encountered in the entire air base (and, maybe, Pulau Ubin nearby).
This incident was bookended by another, of an entirely different nature.
My fellow squadron mates, understandably, wondered who this curio was – a PES E dude with a “hearing problem” and perpetual air of all-round klutziness. As such traits were so clearly unfavourable to one’s academic prospects, I ended up polishing a script on how I had managed the feat of passing exams when I couldn’t understand what teachers say; the miracle had more prosaic origins – I got by through self studying, reading endlessly and a sprinkling of luck. (And yes, whenever I mentioned the last, I made sure to look suitably humble.)
During the final months of my military service, a new clerk, who had signed on as a full-timer, came in. We got around to chatting. When she found out I was an ‘air level’ NSF headed for university, she was extremely impressed. After my usual spiel, she had exclaimed, looking awestruck, “Wow! You’re so brave!”
I was becoming used to such reactions, but those effusive words topped them all, and toppled my equilibrium. I was aghast. In fact, I was astonished – many things I might be, but ‘brave’ definitely was the least of it. I spent quite a while brooding over it. After all, I had thought I was just getting by, sometimes barely so, and disliked the idea of what I had ‘achieved’ academically being held up as something praiseworthy, out of the norm, a circus trick. I didn’t want to be different; I just wanted, desperately, to blend in.
Now, I’m recounting these particular anecdotes for a reason. But not as case studies of how people with disabilities are often treated, misunderstood and the subject of misunderstandings (though these are true enough). Nor because they are the most exciting ones of my NSF stint – not even close. (That has to be the time my driver and I nearly got ourselves killed when our GP car… Eh, hold on, let’s not digress.)
It is, simply, this: When being showered with nice words unsettled and disturbed me so much more than being yelled at, you know something is not right.
You would think there is everything good and nothing bad with beaming the spotlight on the exceptional deeds and achievements of people with disabilities.
After all, they are role models – and heaven knows how important disabled role models are, and how few. More crucially, they are an inspiration to the disability community and beyond. They capture the imagination (and, often, affection) of mainstream society, suffuse feel-good vibes via their overcoming-the-incredible-odds stories, lead to heightened awareness and generate positive sentiments towards people with disabilities.
So I say, roll ’em on! We have our own glittering gems right here. And I’m a groupie myself. I admire Dr William Tan for his sheer guts, for all he has done and overcome. Ramesh Meyyappan’s accomplishments make me feel a surge of pride – yes, the deaf can! I’ve been a fan of Kelvin Tan (aka Chen Weilian) since I heard him sing, and even bought one of his albums. I’m the type to pass up photo-taking opportunities with celebrities because of my apathy towards being shot, but I made sure to grab one with Laurentia Tan when I had the chance. I was there waving the flag at our Paralympians’ homecoming. And I’m in awe of Aishah Samad for simply being.. herself.
I feel a sense of having a part, in an irrational way, of their achievements and salute their talent and bravery and luminosity. I say, unabashedly, that we all should celebrate and laud them.
Yet there’s something missing, and something more.
I’ve long had this nagging feeling it is not an entirely good thing when the portrayal of and exposure to disabled people comes mainly in the form of the ‘superstars’. Because it could, conceivably, lead to expectations that all people with disabilities should and could achieve that rarified level, as long as they are determined / courageous / committed / handsome / beautiful / long-suffering / Helen-Kellerish enough.
Hollywood, with its penchant for the dramatic and larger than life, doesn’t help. Movies, that most popular of media, show reality writ large and much distorted, even when ‘based on a true story’. Hardly any of us are a budding Rain Man (or woman), nor are we as impishly adorable as Leonardo DiCaprio in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, or as lovely as Marlee Matlin in “Children Of A Lesser God” and as sweet as Charlie Chaplin’s blind flower girl in “City Lights”, or quite as tragically heroic a figure as Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” or Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind”. (Incidentally, none of the thespians mentioned actually have the disability they portrayed, except Matlin.) Even in the sphere of gritty literary realism, hardly any of us will go out as heart-wrenchingly (and memorably) as Lennie in “Of Mice And Men” does.
Among people with disabilities, there are the supernovas like the aforementioned, and then there are the “less fortunate” and “less privileged” mired in poverty and other woes, or otherwise the grateful recipients of help from the benevolent masses. (Or so the mass media would have you believe.) Between the inspiring and depressing ends of the spectrum, however, lies the vast majority of those with disabilities – the ordinary and the average, seldom mentioned and oft overlooked. In short, they are the everyday men and women in the street – our Sylvesters and Sitis and Ah Sims and Shalinis – leading quiet, routine, everyday lives notwithstanding their disabilities.
They aren’t that good-looking, or possess exceptional abilities and skills, or lead lives so eventful and exciting as to warrant a book or film deal. Just like the majority of non-disabled people. Many of them are even below par in certain areas, simply because of the law of averages. Again, exactly like most non-disabled folks.
There is a special kind of burden people with disabilities have to bear (and which the non-disabled do not). They tend to be expected to live up to the ‘superstar’ ideal, to punch above their weight and more – to be more intelligent, more enterprising, more resourceful, to do things that make us go wow, and perhaps even to be more good-looking – before they are implicitly bestowed equal standing as the average non-disabled person in the mainstream world.
As the old African-American proverb goes, they have to work twice as hard to go half as far. Sometimes, even doing double the work isn’t enough for them to get past the starting point. Numerous cases of disabled graduates who, having excelled academically in the face of various obstacles, then struggled to find gainful employment, show this all too poignantly.
That is why even as we exalt and celebrate our stars and heroes and celebrities, whether disabled or otherwise, it is important to keep in mind they are not the norm. Let’s remember and appreciate the person with disability who might not be academically accomplished or specially talented or exceptional in other ways, but who deserves a chance too, whether in school or at work, who is as worthy of attention and concern and compliment, and who are people.. like you and me.
Over the years, the writer has been described in many ways, among them “hearing-impaired”, “hard of hearing”, “has bilateral severe to profound hearing loss”, “half half”, “deaf”, and “got hearing problem, must speak louder to him hor”. However, he prefers to be called “Alvan”. Besides his occasional delusions of grandeur, he considers himself an average person, positioned right in the middle of the Bell curve. He is currently an advocacy executive with DPA and can be reached at email@example.com.