“The right attitude can help us overcome life’s handicaps.”
I HAVE had encounters with strangers who approached me because they were curious about my physical condition. They couldn’t figure out why I looked so cheerful despite my disability.
Many years ago, I was approached by a gentleman while sitting in the car, waiting for my father who was running some errands. The car door was ajar. He shared a little about himself. He was a successful consultant, financially stable, had a girlfriend but he was still unhappy. Something was missing inside of him. He said that he should be happy with all that he had achieved. He was curious why I was in sitting in my dad’s car, singing to myself.
He asked: “Aren’t you depressed having a leg like that? Why do you look so happy?”
That took me by surprise. I tried to understand what he was trying to tell me. I explained that there was nothing I could do to change my disability and that I had learned to be happy with what I have. Complaining would not help me one jot. So I try to make the best of every situation. Of course, life can be difficult because I have to face all sorts of trials. As long as I am in a crowd, I would be looked at differently.
He also shared with me how strangers helped him without asking for anything in return, which surprised him. In his world, everything had a price tag. He related to me one rainy day when a woman offered to shelter him with her umbrella as he headed to a telephone booth to make a call. He was touched that she did not mind getting her clothes wet to share her umbrella with a stranger.
He began to encounter more people who were different from him. I was one of them.
That incident left an imprint on my life. I was in my early twenties then, and often wondered about the purpose of my existence. I believe that man was sent to me to help me see my worth.
He had everything going for him, and yet he was struggling to find meaning in life. He wanted to live life fully, and not just exist. He thought that by achieving material success, he would find fulfilment. But he found that it was not true. I provided an opportunity for him to look into himself.
We chatted for a while and he left with what I had said to him. He told me that he had a lot of thinking to do.
That conversation gave me a little encouragement which I needed badly at that time. I went home awed by what had happened: a physically-abled man actually came to me to seek some answers. I was glad my father took his time otherwise I would not have had the opportunity to make a difference in that man’s life.
There was another unforgettable encounter when I went to repair my braces or calipers. The man who was repairing it was a wheelchair-user. He was a drug addict who had given up on life. One day, he was so stoned that he slept on the railway track. A passing train crushed his legs.
He may have lost his legs, but he found a new lease of life. He even got married and worked among the disabled.
He spoke to me one day and said: “You know, I really admire your bravery.”
I was taken aback and asked what he meant.
He replied: “You are the only girl I know who dares to wear skirts and shorts with your calipers on. I’m sure people would stare at your leg. Most people would cover their braces.”
I looked at him and said: “I have no reason to be ashamed of my braces and my leg. I’ve never felt the need to hide my braces.”
He nodded and smiled. He told me that I was strong and encouraged me to keep up the spirit.
During a visit to Penang years ago, I dropped by a bank to withdraw some cash. As I was waiting for my number to be called, an old lady who sat next to me initiated a conversation. She asked me where I had my caliper made.
She explained that her granddaughter was also a polio victim and was told to wear leg braces but they didn’t know where to get the braces. I gave her the address and she thanked me and told me that I was a brave girl. I asked her why.
She said she had seen few disabled persons like me walking around town. Most of them would stay home as they were reluctant to come out. She was glad to have met me. She wanted to encourage her granddaughter to come out of her shell and try to live a normal life.
Today, I realise I can make a difference as a disabled person. I have survived trials and traumas, and come out stronger. I can touch lives in simple or profound ways, and contribute to society, too.
I do not want to be like a tree that stands firmly on the ground but bears no fruits, with branches that cannot give shelter to birds, and no leaves to provide shade during a hot day. Just standing there, not living. Dried up and given up. I may be broken many times over but I’m not beaten.
I can make a difference for myself and among able-bodied people when I speak up or make my way into the able-bodied world.
My existence as a disabled person does make people wonder what their own lives are all about. That gives me a new sense of purpose and puts a spring into my every step.
Published in The Star (as Shining Star)