SINGAPORE: In the world of para-athletics, Wong Meng Ee may not be a name that competes with the likes of Yip Pin Xiu and Theresa Goh. But the visually-impaired associate professor and swimmer can hold his own when it comes to personal achievements.
He owns a bronze medal won at the ASEAN Para Games in 2015, runs marathons, and currently teaches courses in special education at the National Institute of Education.
At the age of 10, he discovered that he was losing his vision due to a genetic degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa. His sight loss was progressive.
He went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about Government and community efforts at inclusivity, and his experience as a teacher and para-athlete. They spoke first about how he has come to terms with his incurable condition.
Wong Meng Ee: In the initial years, when there were reports about a new procedure, or when there are certain reports in the papers suggesting that there is a potential breakthrough, clearly your hopes rise, and you turn to further investigation. But time and again, you realise a lot of these reports are a little bit sensationalised by the time they reach the media.
I think many patients clearly have a sense of hope, but the reality is that most of these things are really clearly still quite far away in the future before they can become usable by patients. So I think you confront these things with some level of disappointment and despair and frustration because you have been waiting.
It seems like this cure is so elusive despite the medical advancements in this context. So time ticks, and whether there is a cure or not, chronologically, we are getting older and we are advancing through the school years. But the reality is that we have to get on with our lives. I think that is a real issue that we have to confront on a day-to-day basis. Given that the medical advancements are still very elusive, at some points in our lives we have to address that reality bites and we still have to deal with the here and now - school issues, thinking about employment in the future, etc.
Bharati Jagdish: Do you still hold out hope for a cure?
Wong: I have it in the back of my mind that one day there will be a breakthrough. For myself at least, I very quickly came to not chase the cure, and not chase that science or breakthrough. I think it's important not to focus on that completely. Life still goes on and we want to live a fulfilling life. I think waiting for the cure can sometimes be a hindrance; and wanting that cure to come before we live life - I think it doesn't work that way. Perhaps that reality is a concurrent sense of hope that there would be a cure available at some point, but at the same time we have to participate and try to lead a fulfilling life.
Bharati: I’m sure it was challenging for you to come to a complete acceptance of your condition.
Wong: Absolutely. I am not sure if it's an issue of complete acceptance. I am unlike very strong disability advocates out there who say that they wouldn't change their lives if they had a chance to, that they are very happy in their bodies as a disabled person. I am confronted with certain challenges that might be associated with my lack of sight. I know very well that if I have a sense of sight, there wouldn’t be challenges. If tomorrow my ophthalmologist calls me up and tells me that they have found a breakthrough and they have a procedure ready, I would be very happy to explore going through this procedure to have my sight restored.
I think this whole notion of acceptance is probably one that is cyclical. There are days we push this whole notion of impairment at the back of our heads and get on with our lives. There are days we are confronted with small challenges, big challenges, and we are frustrated with these obstacles and we go through this process of feeling frustrated, and wanting to find a solution to overcome this impairment.
THE GROWING-UP YEARS
Bharati: You say this as an adult. What were your growing-up years like though?
Wong: It was difficult because it's also an issue of trying to find one's identity, and because disability has always been framed as such a negative, hopeless, tragic context, it has tremendous impact on people who are diagnosed with incurable diseases earlier. I think that continues today, because of that history of what disability represents, what it means, and what are the implications ahead. People would respond to it with a lot of despair, fear of the unknown, how their life course might change tremendously because of this diagnosis. So identity would be one of the difficult points where young people with disability might experience.
Bharati: How did you deal with it?
Wong: I don't think I dealt with it very well. Being in school, you want to belong to the "in" crowd. There is a fundamental need not to be different. You want to be normal as it were. I think that was quite a difficult time for me. I was struggling to come to terms with it myself and how do I belong to this larger school, class context, where you have friends talking about things they can do, and I felt somewhat detached from those activities.
Bharati: You went to a mainstream school.
Wong: Yes. My being there reinforced that I was dissimilar from everyone else. After that, I went to the school for the blind in the UK and I could sense that difference quite immediately, quite tangibly. I had a visual impairment, but everyone else also had a visual impairment. That point of difference wasn't that conspicuous anymore. I think that gave me a period of time that I didn't feel different but I felt accepted and very much one of the crowd.
Bharati: You clearly preferred it.
Wong: I preferred it in some sense, but I also knew that was not real as it were, because it is such a sheltered environment. You have a community of people who are visually impaired living together. I think that's fine, but we live in the much wider society in the world, where we have a diversity of people.
Bharati: A lot of special needs advocates believe in integration in the wider society rather than isolation.
Wong: That's right. I think that's important. Otherwise there are pockets of people in the world living in silos, not being integrated into society. I think the ultimate push would be to have a more inclusive society.
GREATER INCLUSIVENESS AT SCHOOL AND WORK
Bharati: We’ll talk more about that in a moment. First, tell me what it was like going to a mainstream Singapore school? What challenges did you face at the time?
Wong: It was about my parents and myself going to the teachers, asking for the enlarged materials, reminding them that I would need additional support. We are going back 30 years ago, 40 years ago. We didn't have the Internet at that time, so what you think would be appropriate needs the school should offer, could be limited because of a lack of generalised materials available.
A lot of the time we were dependent on teachers and teachers with goodwill, teachers who remember to help, to make the enlargements, to teach in a way that is accessible to me. For example reading things on the blackboard, and articulating information on the blackboard. These are some simple steps, and you don't always get teachers who would do that, and teachers say they sometimes genuinely forget. It comes down then, to almost the goodwill of teachers, whether they remember. Many variables come into it and that can make the school experience challenging or difficult to handle for someone who is struggling to make sense of their disability.
Bharati: Today things might have improved. But some special needs advocates say that more needs to be done in terms of training teachers. Since you specialise in special education at NIE, tell us why not more is being done to make special education a larger part of every teacher’s training?
Wong: There is some disability content introduced to some of our mainstream teachers who come through our teaching curriculum and they are prepared to work with students with diverse needs. I agree that more can be done, and more should be put into the curriculum to help teachers in the mainstream to work with students with disability. We also have a course which is an elective for teachers who have already been trained as part of their professional development, and they come back and attend different courses that would work to give them the foundational knowledge to help them better work with students of specifically different needs. You have to make a conscious choice to work at that.
The curriculum already is very packed and the content is really competing with a lot of other content that needs to be rolled out for them. I think the initial support would be the allied educators who support the teachers, and this becomes an available resource for teachers in the mainstream to support these students with special needs. Clearly allied educators are not enough to be the single champion for the school. We want to have teachers to be also knowledgeable about how to work with the students within the classroom. So yes, I do recognise that.
Bharati: Why isn't it happening though?
Wong: I think efforts are now beginning to be put in place. There is a forthcoming effort to standardise the practices of teachers within Singapore. There is greater content within this effort to include work on special needs. This is in the pipeline as I understand it. Hopefully this would equip more teachers, to have greater knowledge shared with them to be able to support students with special needs.
Bharati: You mentioned earlier the challenges of everyday life – not just school, but employment too. Many people with special needs have problems getting employed even if they are competent enough to do the job. How did you manage to be successful?
Wong: Employment has always been difficult. It's a perennial problem in the world for people with disabilities and it’s no different here. For myself when I finished my studies, I came back to Singapore and I looked at sending out CVs. I was considering going into academia to build on the training that I had.
Meeting people was an important first step when I went for the interview, and I think having met them and talked to them, it helped to correct some misconceptions. They were willing to meet. I think that was very helpful to me. The initial process wasn't as smooth. They still felt that there were areas that I may not be able to execute if I were to receive the job, and how would I then overcome these challenges which might be primary, core roles and responsibilities I would have to carry out.
So the initial phase was difficult because it's a lot of convincing and putting people at ease with what I can do or how I can overcome certain challenges to do the work I have to execute. Sometimes the mindset is because they have not seen this in action. If your mind is not exposed to that kind of possibility, then most of them would close the door on you. I think that's the issue that many persons with disabilities experience if they actually make it to the interview table. I think most people may not have a chance to make it to the interview table.
Bharati: What did you do to make it happen?
Wong: I would say my first attempt at going to NIE was unsuccessful, and I think the conclusion was that I was not ready, and I did not have a lot of the prerequisite experience, and therefore I should somehow try and gather some of that experience before they would give me a chance.
So I looked elsewhere for employment given that door was closed at that point. I worked in social services for a bit, and worked on disability services, looked at some research in disability as well. That was about four years in my employment life, but always having this nagging sense that I would like to return to academia if there was an opportunity to return to that.
Thankfully another opportunity arose, and by that time, I was given quite a few opportunities in between to somewhat beef up my CV and hopefully make a stronger case for my application. That came about and I think one could say the timing was right. People were more willing to give me a chance. Together with the support within my department at NIE now, I think the collective support was tremendous and, in terms of attitudinal support, they wanted me in that department.
I think that makes a whole lot of difference - that they want you there, that they see value in what you want to contribute, so I think it has also a lot to do with the organisation. Do they want the individual. Are they prepared to welcome the person in?
Bharati: How do you think the employment prospects of people with disabilities can be increased? There are some Government initiatives in this regard, but again it requires mindset change on the ground. It requires employers to keep their minds open, to realise that just because this person has a special need, it doesn't mean he can't execute the job I need to hire him for.
Wong: I think having different pathways to achieving one's aspirations, having different pathways to be understanding what might be deemed as success is important. I think in the past we've had very fixed notions of what individuals need to satisfy, what qualifications they need to have in terms of getting them into an organisation. But I think if we are beginning to relax that a little, and see beyond very fixed notions of competence, it’s important. I am not suggesting that we hire people who are incompetent, but they may have competence in other areas, competence they can leverage to be contributing members of a particular organisation. I think we can begin to introduce, explore, a wider range of talent within an organisation.
Bharati: How to really convince people to give those with special needs a chance though?
Wong: I think continuous efforts to make that change. Maybe through early internship programmes, opportunities to work over summer breaks. It's an opportunity for them to learn about the work, but it's an opportunity for the organisation to get to know them as an individual. I think the previous impression of disabled persons, because it's been founded on very little and maybe stereotyped perspectives of what these persons are, it doesn't help them.
Bharati: Make a case for employers to do more.
Wong: I think if you strip the special needs, if you look at them based on their achievements, I dare say that their job application would be as common as anyone else's. See the application for itself and what this person brings to the table and brings to the organisation. I think they could, through their own range of experiences, bring something unique to the organisation.
Just for example’s sake – if the disabled person has not served National Service and the person without disability has, that shouldn’t become a minus point for the person with disability. Perhaps within that time frame, they had done something else that could have strengthened their application in other ways. Understandably, it's a difficult comparison. At the same time, people with disabilities need to be able to fill in those blanks very strongly in order to make their CVs as appealing as a person without a disability.
Bharati: At this stage, what would you say can be done better, bearing in mind the Government’s Enabling Masterplans?
Wong: I think maybe it's not so much about the Government putting out a masterplan or putting out policies, but on the ground, the people, the community itself. Instead of waiting for blueprints to be put out, how about people stepping forward to be immediate champions within their own communities? I think that is very much more executable within the immediate person's range of control.
Clearly, Government would still remain important in setting down some of the key policies and programmes in place and we need people to drive them, but the key drivers needs to be people within the community, your neighbours, your fellow citizens in making inclusion more executable.
MAKE YOURSELF “INCLUSION-ABLE”
Bharati: Surveys show that while people say they accept people with special needs, they are not comfortable with, for example in the classroom context, their child sitting next to a child with a disability. Or in the work environment, they are not comfortable with hiring or working with someone with special needs. Now, there’s an initiative in the works to be more inclusive at the pre-school level so that able kids get to interact with people with special needs and to grow up with them so that people with disabilities are accepted in a more organic way going forward. But to what extent do you think we need more disability awareness education in schools today at all levels instead of waiting for a whole new generation of Singaporeans to grow up in that way?
Wong: Sounds like we are hearing inclusive attitudes only when it's convenient, right? We have to eradicate that. One of the things that have already taken place is starting from young - this inclusive pre-school. I think that sounds like a perfect place to begin. But yes, I think that's absolutely important at all levels today. I have given talks in some of these modules and we tend to see familiar faces there. The people who probably need to and who could benefit from disability awareness sessions are not attending these things. I think it’s very difficult to get them to attend. We’re looking at it in too much of a "it's not happening to me, it's happening to someone else" mindset. But if all of us pause for a moment, and think about whether you have or might in the future, have a person in your family, whether immediate or extended, with a disability, I think we can slowly take disability awareness more seriously. It's an issue that could be highly likely in one's ageing years.
Bharati: Do you think disability awareness should be compulsory in schools at every level?
Wong: Certainly it can start there. I believe there is some content in the school’s character-building module, but yes, I think furthering that and getting that exposure much wider, and having disabilities seem more visible is important. That only comes with integration. The workplace is one very key thing. I think many people don't have a colleague who has disability, and because they don't think about that, it would never be an issue for them. At the end of the day it's still an issue of consolidated collective support. I always come back to myself and people with disabilities in general.
I think inclusion is not just one part in terms of whether it's a school, office environment, an organisation, but the people with disability need to be an active agent of inclusion in the sense that they should work towards helping themselves be “inclusion-able”. This is so that they are not isolated or they are not left in the margins without helping themselves contribute towards that movement of greater inclusion. I think maybe starting with a sense of humour, being able to laugh at yourself and not to see disability as always a tragedy, or a negative outcome.
I think if we can laugh at ourselves, and help people laugh along and make them feel comfortable being around a person with disability, it helps break down the barriers. Of course, don't laugh at the disability, but other things.
I am not enveloped with bitterness, but if you buy me a coffee or a beer, we can have a good laugh about some other common topic, because I am sure we have a wide range of interests that would overlap with some of the interests that you have.
PARA-ATHLETES AND PRIZE MONEY
Bharati: You’re also a para-athlete. What made you want to swim competitively?
Wong: I started to learn to swim as a young boy. We used to watch the Olympics on TV and got very excited every time our little team Singapore was in the Olympics. We had a small contingent - Ang Peng Siong, David Lim, Oon Jin Gee - these were the key swimmers when I was growing up and you would know about them. I felt absolutely proud when we were able to win medals and fly our flag high. Being already a swimmer myself I thought it would be great if I had the chance to do the same.
Bharati: One hot button issue has been the lack of parity between monetary rewards that able-bodied athletes get and those that our para-athletes get for winning medals. How do you feel about this issue?
Wong: You are absolutely right. It's a very controversial topic. I think disability sport is still maturing. There are many classifications within disability sports. There are some arguments that the International Paralympic Council’s attempt to introduce some level of parity even within the sport is in itself not a perfect science. The intention is to place a person in a category based on who fits and represents that category most appropriately. There will be detractors who would say and have a different point of view in that sense.
Bharati: Sure, there are detractors, but what do you think?
Wong: I think it's a maturing sport. The whole disability sport movement is a maturing sport in motion, and as I said earlier on whether there is disagreement even within the classifications.
Let me just give you an example. If we look at Joseph Schooling, I am not sure how tall he is, I think he's about 6’ 1’’. I was just looking at Ian Thorpe's statistics recently. He is 6’ 5’’. Many people have talked often about Ian Thorpe's feet being size 17. I am not sure about Michael Phelp's height and feet. Here we have two able-bodied swimmers who are competing against each other in the same category. Joseph Schooling doesn't swim in a category that is for his particular height group, and likewise, Ian Thorpe doesn't swim in a category for swimmers of his particular height even though physiology could play a role in a swimmer’s performance.
Bharati: While that is true, height and foot size are not taken into account in the able-bodied competition. A gold medal is a gold medal no matter the height differential. So how do you use this as a justification for able-bodied athletes getting a larger monetary reward for their gold medals than our para-athletes? Sure the para-athletes need to be sorted into categories based on the level of their disability but after that has been done, why should their achievements be worth less than their able-bodied counterparts?
Wong: I’ll put it this way. I think in the '92 Games, the basketball team of one particular country was disqualified, because most or some members, or maybe even all of their members were feigning their disability. I have witnessed in certain situations where in terms of testing for visual impairment, there are athletes who exaggerate the level of their disability in order to be placed into a different category class, in a less competitive race compared to what they might otherwise be placed in.
Bharati: A less competitive race would increase their chances of winning a medal.
Wong: So if I use a very exaggerated example, if I know that I am going to be competing with Michael Phelps vs “Joe Ordinary”, I would take “Joe Ordinary” over Michael Phelps with the idea that this would give me a much better chance at a win.
Bharati: But the fact that the basketball team was caught and disqualified shows that there are systems in place to weed out such individuals. Do you believe the system isn’t robust enough and that these incidents are still rampant?
Wong: I don’t believe that it's rampant, but there are these challenges within the system that make it very challenging for competitors to be seen to be on par, even within that particular sport or competition as well. I cannot comment if there are many cases that go unnoticed.
Systems are put in place to evaluate if athletes have a bona fide impairment. Medical tests and examinations go some way to verify the conditions. Part of the examinations will depend on individuals to respond or react to stimulus and to offer individuals a chance to express and verify their situations at that point in time. It is not unusual for conditions to fluctuate depending on environment and the condition itself. At the same time, this is where misrepresentation of a condition can also be deliberately distorted to improve one’s chance in competition. This is the grey area and can be subject to abuse especially in situations where the verification of the impairment is complex.
Bharati: You are not suggesting any of our para-athletes have done this, are you?
Wong: No, no, absolutely not. I think we do a good job locally in trying to remind our athletes to be forthcoming and they are measured in a way that best represents their respective physical attributes.
Bharati: If our athletes have integrity, why should they be penalised for others' possible lack of it?
Wong: I’m not saying that, but I think there is a sense of whether athletes are adequately and appropriately classified in certain cases. That, I think, opens up some questions to the competition and athletes. Are they competing fully within their individual class, or might that be an issue of imperfection within that system?
Bharati: By virtue of that, do you think we shouldn't take any of the medals that our para-athletes won seriously?
Wong: I am not suggesting that, but I come back to the point that the sport is still maturing. Those imperfections need to be modified and improved. Those classifications need to be narrowed or widened, or reduced in the sense that it best represents the athletes within each of their classes or classifications. I guess the devil is in the details. What is fair? The answer to that question is so elusive in the sense that there will be grey areas, and those grey areas are very difficult to iron out.
While I trust athletes do not step forward with the intention to cheat, the system nevertheless, because of its classification and how it is set up, also has the potential of pitching individuals into situations that may question the appropriateness of grouping.
One way to understand this is to consider the margins that exists between athletes and even across class categories. Some races of a more severe category may result in athletes not only winning within their own class categories, but also surpassing those in categories of lesser severity. Further, the margins by which these athletes win then raises question whether these athletes would be better classified in one or two categories higher, or in other words, a more appropriate class category in the first place?
We expect to see close finishes in races, but not by huge margins. Of course this could be argued to be the athlete’s prowess but in a sport such as disability sports, the question of appropriate classification hangs over the race. This is the challenge of disability sports: To decide on the parity of abilities amongst athletes.
Bharati: Those same questions can be asked about able-bodied athletes. As you pointed out earlier, should height be considered, should weight be considered, should shoe size be considered? Joseph Schooling won a gold medal despite being shorter than Michael Phelps, but even if he were the same height or taller, he would have been rewarded the same. I don’t think the authorities would have said that because his height advantage made it easier for him to win, they would give him less money for his gold medal. So since these things are not considered in a swimming race for able-bodied athletes, how does that relate to your argument?
Wong: The competition is far greater in the able-bodied competition there. I think the number of competitors there is much, much more intense. In terms of disability sports, the uptake is still maturing. We still don't have as many competitors compared to the able-bodied sports.
Bharati: So now you are saying that we shouldn't expect para-athletes to be rewarded in the same way as the able-bodied athletes because the competition is less intense.
Wong: I think it's a combination of factors - difficult classification issues and the competition may not be in its full potential. I think it's something which needs to grow. I think disability sport is something that is still growing and we need to iron out those issues first. There is no question that our para-athletes work hard. It takes tremendous effort to be able to go for the training, etc.
I think perhaps the reward should be in the front-end, and not at the back-end when they have competed and completed. Maybe the issue here is that instead of seeing it as a reward, why don’t we see it as an enabling push in the front, to help make that training easier, and at the same time I think that widens the range of participation going into competition. That might help to mature the sport a lot more.
Assistant Professor Wong Meng Ee (left) and his guide, Mr Lawrence Ang (right), setting the pace at the 2013 Standard Chartered Marathon.
Bharati: In terms of that type of support at least, would you like to see parity between able-bodied athletes and para-athletes?
Wong: Yes, I think that is important.
Bharati: How did you finance your sporting dreams?
Wong: That came from my own pocket. We did have some token allowances to help defray some of the costs, but by and large, again, it comes back to the individual’s desire to want to swim, or be able to compete in the sport and to take that up as something more seriously than a leisure experience.
Bharati: Convincing people to put money behind it. How to do so? There is already difficulty in convincing people to put money behind able-bodied athletes. What more para-athletes
Wong: We have a good number of paralympians, successful paralympians. I think these are clearly role models that can send out very strong signals that with commitment, we really have a chance here in Singapore to groom para-athletes and take them right up to the world stage. That is a tremendous commitment on their part, tremendous commitment on the part of their families. I think it's a wonderful testimony. I think if we can leverage on more of these opportunities to reach out to potential sponsors to demonstrate that maybe the infrastructure here is unique or the infrastructure here is able to groom and produce world-class athletes, it has potential to interest donors here.
But I think maybe beyond the sport, what else can we think about beyond just reaching that climax. What lies beyond the climax? Maybe we need to look into that and study that and understand what comes beyond that climax and how do these champions bring that back to the community. What value can they bring to the community? I don't know what Michael Phelps is bringing to the community beyond reaching that pinnacle, but I’m sure he is of great value. How are such athletes contributing in terms of inspiring others in any field? Maybe that can be the focus too and that would convince donors too.