SINGAPORE: At this week's ASEAN Para Games, I plan to defend the gold medal in archery for Singapore and do my ever-supportive parents, colleagues, friends and coach proud.
In 2015, I won Singapore’s first-ever archery gold medal at the 8th ASEAN Para Games. Since transiting to competitive archery, I have not looked back.
Being the first para-archer from Singapore to compete in the Rio 2016 Paralympics has also been one of my life’s highlights.
But the journey to get there was a tough one.
Cerebral Palsy affects the lower half of my body, making it a challenge to walk.
When I was a student, the level of awareness toward people with disabilities (PWDs) was vastly different from today, and it was hard for me to fit in with the rest.
For one, my physical education teachers didn’t allow me to participate in PE classes in primary and secondary school. Though there were mandatory swimming lessons, teachers were hesitant to having PWDs like myself participate.
I remember one year, when an open house was held for students to decide which co-curriculum activity to participate in, I went to every outdoor CCA to ask if I could join, but was turned down time and again.
The struggle with daily routine was bad enough, but exclusion from PE classes and outdoor CCAs suggested to me that I’d never be able to achieve what my able-bodied peers could.
While my teachers and classmates were trying to protect me, their approach was a double-edged sword that affected me for a long time and I found myself wishing that they exercised more consideration and sensitivity.
I was frustrated and felt like I was being treated based on other people’s preconceptions of what it meant to be a PWD. My self-esteem was also affected.
FAMILY SUPPORT OPENED UP MORE OPPORTUNITIES
What made the sum difference was my family’s unwavering determination to carve out a “normal” life for me.
My mother brought me to a private swimming coach and offered my sister as a second student if he took me in.
My mother also managed to persuade the Girl Guides’ club advisor to give me a shot. Once in, I moved up the ranks quickly, also earning the most number of badges in my cohort at school.
These were pivotal moments in my life, that became a springboard for my personal growth.
In Polytechnic, I took up more student leadership roles, and even went for an exchange programme in Paris.
With this confidence, I took up recreational archery at 18, after attending a disability sports exhibition organised by the Singapore Disability Sports Council.
Archery was one of the para-sports featured and I fell in love with it, beginning a journey to reach where I am today.
Earlier this year, at the 6th Southeast Asia Archery Open Championships, I got a silver with our Compound Women’s Team. This achievement was significant, as the team included able-bodied athletes.
Competing in both able-bodied sports and para-sports has not only raised my standards as an athlete, it has also cemented my faith in my abilities.
SINGAPORE CAN BE A BETTER PLACE FOR PWDS
Over the years, Singapore has changed in many regards, with greater recognition of and opportunities for PWDs.
Schools have become friendlier and more accessible. Teachers and students are more supportive and better prepared to handle different social situations involving PWDs.
PWDs have so much to show, so much more to give - but sometimes, the greatest impediment to our success may be the lack of opportunities to prove ourselves.
Sporting triumphs or victories can only be achieved by para-athletes if there are opportunities for us to compete, for instance. We neither expect nor want help to be afforded to us for free or out of pity and we will work hard to carve out these chances for ourselves.
But as a society, we should collectively refrain from assuming what PWDs can or cannot do, never mind their condition.
PWDs can and have made our nation proud as Team Singapore athletes, but much potential and talent could have gone undiscovered.
And while we seek to protect those who live with a disability, being overprotective could limit their exposure, hindering their ability to lead a fulfilling and independent life.
It’s easy to advocate for more education to improve awareness, and there should indeed be a push for greater understanding. But more pressing is the need for all of us to adopt a mindset shift.
We need Singaporeans to believe that PWDs should be able to at least "try everything once".
If they haven’t tried something, who is to say they cannot be great at it?
So, instead of saying no, let’s ask, why not?
Why don't more activities include PWDs? Not only will including PWDs help them develop a stronger sense of self confidence, it will also teach PWDs how to manage their emotions when encountering failure in participating in sports and other activities.
If these are lessons that every other able-bodied individual should learn, why not PWDs?
As I look ahead to the future, my hope is for our society to be more inclusive, to empower and support our PWDs in Singapore to give everything their best shot.
Syahidah Alim is a Team Singapore para-archer.