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Photo credit: YOUTHOPIA/NAREN SANKAR

MY 2020: Rising above the challenges of living with a disability

2020 has been an especially difficult year for persons with disabilities.

Naren Lee Sankar

Nostalgic man, never giving up. Loves cartoons


Published: 20 December 2020, 1:08 AM

In this MY 2020 series, Youthopia writers explore everything that happened in the past year – the good, the bad, the ugly – and also share their hopes and dreams for 2021. What’s yours?

Living with Cerebral Palsy, a condition brought on by a hole in my brain at birth, has not been particularly easy for me even before COVID-19.

I get around using a mobility device called a Kaye Walker, which allows me the independence to walk wherever I want using ramps and lifts. Mine even has an added seat so that I can rest when I need, and I am able to take buses and the MRT too.

I have been using a walker since I was around four years old. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/NAREN SANKAR

 

Although I am used to doing things for myself, the COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately filled my life with new “inaccessible entrances” to handle, both literally and figuratively.

Facing difficult closed doors

To control the crowds during this COVID-19 pandemic, many places in Singapore closed multiple entrances, leaving only one or two for SafeEntry. This became a problem for me because some shopping malls and shops have only left their entrances with steps open.

 

Being alone at the top of a never-ending flight of stairs is one of my greatest fears. PHOTO CREDIT: RICCARDO PELATI VIA UNSPLASH

 

There was one occasion when a 7-Eleven outlet had left only their inaccessible entrance open and no one heard me knocking on the closed shutter of the accessible entrance.

As I weighed my options, I felt a slight loss of independence. Should I ask someone to help me buy my food? Or should I ask a security guard to open the closed shutter for me (which is what I usually do)? Other options included asking someone to hold my hand to walk me up the stairs or get my lunch from elsewhere.

All my options showed me to be incapable and left me feeling down at the time.

Thankfully, a passer-by saw my plight and helped me to buy what I wanted, not asking me to pay it back although I offered to. I felt glad to know that for every physical barrier I face, there are always kind Singaporeans who step forward to help.

Beyond physical barriers, I also felt a loss of some opportunities as well. As a national athlete of the Para Cycling Federation of Singapore, I have been handcycling since 2010 and won a silver medal at the ASEAN Para Games 2017.

But what was supposed to be a celebration of my tenth year as a handcyclist turned into almost a year without training because of the pandemic.

The ASEAN Para Games 2017 was held in Kuala Lumpur. PHOTO CREDIT: SPORTSG/SUKI SINGH

 

I was due to go for The International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation World Games in February before it was postponed to December. Eventually, para cycling was removed from the sports lineup altogether.

Going from training twice a week to not at all took some getting used to as my training ground closed in March due to COVID-19 restrictions.

I had the option to take my bike home and continue training in March, but I was unsure how certain variables in my life would play out because of the pandemic, and eventually chose to leave it at the training ground for this season

I felt sad to let go of cycling, even temporarily, because it was a huge part of my life. It was a blow to my confidence and my determined attitude in life to pursue things until I cannot anymore.

While 2020 did slam many doors in my face, there were also bright spots and new opportunities that eventually came my way.

Finding new doors opened for me

Another reason that I chose to leave my bike at my training ground was that I made getting a job a priority this year, promising myself to return to training when my career was properly settled.

I graduated from university in August 2019, but could not find a job despite sending out my resume to 20 companies last year. It is challenging to find employment when you have a disability, and my chances seemed to get slimmer as the pandemic came into the picture.

Then through some blessing in 2020, I landed this job in August as a writer for Youthopia, marking the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

The welcoming culture of Youthopia, especially my two main supervisors being very understanding and caring, helped me to see the value in myself. I am glad I’m now into my fourth month in this job.

It is one of the happiest milestones in my life because job security has always been a concern and I am content beyond belief that Youthopia saw potential in me.

Of course, starting a new job (especially one involving working from home due to COVID-19) came with its own set of challenges too. Aside from the isolation I felt not being able to see my friends and new colleagues at work, I also had feelings of self-doubt with every mistake that I made.

On low days, my feelings of self-doubt were worsened by memories of an ex-girlfriend who dumped me because of my disability last year.

My first relationship ended in 2019. PHOTO CREDIT: KELLY SIKKEMA VIA UNSPLASH

 

Facing up to the feelings of isolation, heartbreak and self-doubt this year, I realised that I needed to learn to love myself, disability and all.

Amidst the tough times this year, my family was a constant source of comfort for me and I was happy to grow closer to them.

Mum initiated games of chess with me during the circuit breaker, and spending time with her reminded me of the many things she sacrificed for me to live life as normally and happily as possible. These included quitting her job to take me to the hospital and physiotherapy daily when I was a kid. My dad meanwhile has worked hard all these years to provide for the family.

I also had more time to spend with my sister who had been overseas studying and working from 2011 to 2019. It was a huge stroke of luck she returned to Singapore last year before the pandemic started, and I had plenty of time to catch up with her.

Despite her busy working schedule, she still does little but sweet gestures like buying me coffee whenever she orders a cup for herself, reminding me that she cares deeply.

Being closer to my dad, mum and sister during this pandemic made me treasure family time more. My family’s love for me has always helped ease my self-doubt and worries.

My family, including my pet dog, Cotton. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/NAREN SANKAR

My hope for 2021 is to continue getting better at my job, and I look forward to finally physically meeting my caring and understanding supervisors and colleagues. That along with the resumption of handcycling training.

This pandemic has also shown me that while things sometimes seem bleak for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs), Singaporeans are also growing in their awareness of the struggles PwDs face. I hope this awareness continues to increase in the years to come so that Singapore may become an even more inclusive society.

Most importantly, I hope my family will be happier next year when more activities resume, because nothing means more to me than seeing them happy.


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