Living with disability
Being disabled does not mean that one can’t do things, it just means changing the way one does things, as a couple of 35 years shared.
BY: Sylvia Soh
Irene Toh, 57, and Esmond Tan, 66, have lived with a disability since when they were in their childhood. Both suffered from polio due to a fever that was not properly treated and resulted in them being physically-challenged. Despite their condition and the challenges that went with it, they completed their education, entered the workforce, got married and started their own family of three children. Today, they continue to live their life as if no different from someone without a disability, and happily shared their tips on how they have achieved this.
Living with what they have
Maybe this is because they never saw themselves as any different from everyone else. It is not that the couple have suppressed or denied their condition, but rather they have come to embrace and accept who they physically are and work with what they have been ‘endowed’ with.
Shared Esmond: “I know that I am different but I never think that I am disabled. I think of what I need to do and how I can do it. I never think that I am not able. I always think that I can.” It is with this firm belief that he went ahead to establish his own business, T&T Binding Enterprise, in 1992, which sold customised photo albums.
It was tough work as both he and Irene had to travel islandwide sticking flyers at the publicity board of Cold Storage outlets so as to publicise their business to expats, who formed a large proportion of their clientele. He also learnt how to drive with his condition. And when he gradually required a wheelchair to move around for long distances when he was out of the car, he also learnt how to transfer himself from the car seat to the wheelchair. Esmond’s strong “I can” attitude and his persistence paid off as his business flourished.
Irene added, “Once you accept yourself as a disabled, you don’t despise yourself.” Like Esmond, she too empowered herself to look for ways to overcome the challenges she experienced in her life. When she had children, she knew that she had to carry out her day-to-day responsibilities as a mother. Thus, she found her own ways of caring for them in a manner that would be physically comfortable for her while still meeting the demands of the tasks. While others would carry their baby to the bathroom for a bath, Irene had to fill a portable bath tub with warm water and bathing solution, and place it on the floor before sitting herself down on the floor and lifting her baby from the bed onto her lap and into the tub to bath her baby.
A positive attitude towards life
Apart from their ability to normalise the challenges they encountered, something else that distinctively stood out was their positive outlook towards life.
Esmond has always firmly believed that “if you have brains and work hard, something can be done. If you have positive thinking, then life would not be miserable. But if you think life is very miserable and why God is so unfair, you will be negative and be forever stuck”.
Unlike Esmond, Irene opined that developing a positive attitude requires time. “You need to accept yourself, then you can think of positive things about yourself. Gradually, you would also develop a positive attitude towards life as you would start thinking about the things you want to do, you can do, and how you want to do it,” she shared.
Their positive attitude has also created a positive effect on those around them. Esmond related that his friends often forget that they are interacting with someone who is suffering a handicap because he is always filled with so much energy and more forward-looking than them. Similarly, Irene has led others at the Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD) who were also coping with disabilities and they were bewildered about how she always has a smile on her face. Her response to them? “I have to live the day whether I am happy or sad. So it would be better to live each day happily and smiling.”
Leading an active lifestyle
Both have also had to face other challenges as they age. Since 2005, Esmond is fully dependent on a wheelchair to move around; previously, he would use callipers and walking sticks for short distances. Irene went for an operation last year to remove her stomach due to gastrectomy. Nevertheless, that has not stopped them from continuing their active lifestyle.
After Esmond sold his business in 2010, he now works as a freelancer IT consultant. Apart from his work, he keeps busy with sports. Since August 2014, he has been an active table tennis paddler with the Table Tennis Association for the Disabled Singapore (TTADS) and participates in table-tennis competitions at least once a month, held by TTADS, community clubs, schools and other organisations. His most recent win was a bronze medal at the Liang Seng Table Tennis Championships 2016.
Esmond enjoys the sport as compared to other sports, table tennis challenges him to think fast while improving hand-eye coordination, thereby allowing him to increase his agility without worries of severe stress on his joints. “It is a low-injury sports,” he quipped. “When I was young, I would think of what’s the next competition to enter. But now, when I reach an older stage, I play for fun and to keep myself fit – whether playing with the younger or the older.” He also continues to find ways to improve his techniques as “you cannot simply serve, but need to find a way how to serve the ball easily”.
Similarly, Irene has made changes in her life. About 10 years ago, she decided to return to the workforce after being a homemaker for 20 years. Before doing so, she recognised the importance of computer knowledge in a knowledge-based economy and enrolled in IT and Web design courses with SPD. She felt that upgrading her skills would not only enhance her employability, but also give her the satisfaction that she could now understand the IT terms when communicating with her children and friends.
Armed with these new IT skills, she joined Fisher Bell, a safety and industrial products supplier company, as an administration executive. In 2010, she left to join the Housing & Development Board (HDB) as a customer service officer and continues working there. In 2015, she was given the five-year long service award.
To continue with her love of cooking, Irene has also modified her kitchen to be wheelchair-accessible by adjusting the height of the cabinets and the stove.
Six months ago after her operation, Irene picked up lawn bowling and roped Esmond to join her for trainings every Saturday afternoon. Despite being relatively new to the game, they have already started taking part in lawn bowl competitions. “We have two or three trainings then go for the competitions just for fun. We know that we will lose the [entrance] money. We know that we cannot win, but it is the fun. When we are very near to the gap, we are also very happy. It’s the experience,” shared Irene.
Amidst their busy schedule of work and sports, the couple also take time off to relax and recharge by travelling. They enjoy going for cruise trips as the cruise ship is one of the more wheelchair-friendly modes of transport while providing for a wide range of activities and food that they can select from. On board Esmond would be busy playing table-tennis while Irene would find an area to relax and enjoy the breeze.
All in all, their lives have defied the stereotypes that being disabled and old means that one cannot lead an active lifestyle. While being disabled meant that they had to approach their life situations in a different manner, it has clearly not shortchanged their life in any way. Rather, it has only made them stronger and more resilient.