YMCA Strong Ambassador with Cerebral Palsy to Challenge Mt Fuji
Never Chickening Out
With cerebral palsy, Oh Siew May has physical and speech impairments. She faced social isolation and bullying growing up, with people shunning her for her “alien”-like looks and manner of speaking. Her life was further complicated by the onset of a mental disability for her sister, family problems, and the eventual passing of her parents. She shares the story of how she surmounted the obstacles in her life, finding employment, acceptance and even climbed Mt Kinabalu.
Siew May, after having climbed 57 storeys in a vertical marathon at Marina Bay Sands.
“The chicks were my best friends.”
She grew up in an attap house in a kampong. People shunned her for the way she looked and spoke, mocking her for falling over “like Humpty Dumpty”. Even though she had three sisters and a brother, they were all busy with their personal lives and paid little attention to her. Yet, despite physical impairments that led to difficulties walking, Siew May was an active and adventurous child.
Despite disapproval from her family, Siew May was determined to explore the world around her. The children from the kampong isolated her, so she found entertainment embarking on challenges that sent adrenaline pumping through her veins alone. She enjoyed climbing fruit trees and reaching for its highest treasures and sneaking out to play in the farms. She described the chicks and geese in neighbouring farms as her “best friends” who never judged her the way other children did.
Occasionally, she would sustain injuries from her adventures. She would attempt to hide them from her family to avoid being reprimanded. For her, the pain was well worth it if she could spend time with her chirpy friends, enjoying the simple pleasures of a “carefree” kampong life.
“They called me an alien.”
Siew May sharing her life and experiences with students.
Siew May’s courage and never-say-die attitude fuelled her. Even though she was placed into a special education school where she felt “safe and accepted” by her friends with various disabilities, she desired something more. She yearned to enter “normal” society and jumped at the opportunity to take the Primary School Leaving Examinations. She eventually placed in the “Express” stream of St. Hilda’s Secondary School.
It was massively disappointing and hurtful for her when she entered mainstream education only to be outcasted and bullied by her peers. They called her names and shunned her, giving her “a cutting pain in the heart”.
Even so, she struggled on. A teacher’s kindness and friendship supported her as she took part in “normal” activities and even joined the Track & Field team. She said, “It was a great experience for me. I used to be protected in the special school, but in this environment, I was treated like a normal pupil. That was what I wanted.”.
“I felt so heavily burdened and so terribly unloved.”
Siew May bravely confronted the realities of living with cerebral palsy each day. She fought to enter mainstream education and eventually continued the battle in search of employment.
Yet, the world seemed bent on testing her limits, with her sister developing a mental disability, her mother developing a skin disease and her brother leaving the family due to a conflict arising from gambling issues. Even with her positivity, she had moments when she crumbled, wondering why she had to go through it all.
“My sister and mother slept in the same room. Sometimes, they would make a din the whole night, with one singing and clapping very loudly and the other, crying and moaning. Some days, my sister would be very violent, pulling the tube out from my mum’s nose or slapping her. It was very frustrating and my dad and I would be at a loss when this happened,” she said.
“I would ask, ‘Why me? Why must I be in this home?’. Sometimes, I felt like beating my sister. I would hate myself for having such evil thoughts after that. I kept all my feelings to myself, as I didn’t want to add to my family’s troubles.”
“I felt very pessimistic and wished I could end my life there and then.”
Things took yet another turn for the worse when her father got stricken with cancer. His health problems and the pressure of caregiving led to a “mental breakdown”.
“He went to the kitchen and tried to take a knife from the drawer to kill himself. He said ‘Let me die! I don’t want to be a burden!’. We were all very shocked. Luckily, my brother-in-law acted quickly and snatched the knife away,” she shares.
She admits that the accumulation of obstacles in her life had planted suicidal thoughts in her mind as well. “But each time I thought of committing suicide, everyone that I loved and cared about came to my mind,” she said.
Staying true to the fighter that she is, she focused on living for the happy moments and soldiered on.
“They brought light into my life.”
Her determination landed her various jobs thus far. When she worked at a supermarket, her friendliness made her an approachable staff. Her customers became her friends, some remaining so even after she had left her position.
One of Siew May’s best friends was Ming and her daughter, Aurora. They encouraged her to pursue her dreams, including starting her own push-cart business. She also joined a motivational, self-discovery training course. There, she made even more friends who inspired her to live courageously.
She shares, “Ming told me, ‘If you think you’re useless, you’re useless. I can see that you actually have a lot of passion and you’ve got a lot of things that you want to do but it’s all hidden by fear.’ She brought me hope and life.”. One day, Ming and her newfound friends gave her a challenge – to climb Mt Kinabalu.
“When we reached the top, it felt like I was in heaven. It was the greatest satisfaction in my life. I couldn’t believe it, but it was real. I made it!”
“I thought they were joking. ‘Count me out!’ I said to them, laughing. But then, they insisted that I was going. Ming moved me with her absolute belief in me. ‘You can do it! I know you. Come on, don’t be a coward!’ she said.”
Siew May trained with her friends for two weeks by climbing stairs of apartment buildings. She even made additional training sessions for herself and climbed 25 floors three times per session, thrice a week.
Even so, the trip was difficult. It was freezing cold, and there were parts of the mountain they had to climb in the early morning, in the darkness.
She shares, “Many times, I hurt myself but I kept it to myself. I fell and got up. I pushed myself all the way, I wanted to see the view at the top. I climbed as though I was drunk. I told myself not to stop or I would slow my friends down.”.
“At the top, the spectacular sunrise made the climb well worth the effort. Ming and Aurora were at the gates waiting for me and cheering me on. I was very happy that I finally made it. I hugged them both and cried tears of joy.”
“Disabled does not mean unable.”
Siew May advocates with her personal life mantra, “disabled does not mean unable”. Through the various challenges she faced in her life, she refused to let anything get her down and reminded herself that even with her disability, she can contribute significantly to the lives of others. She wrote a book, “Scaling Walls – My Story” which is available for purchase at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This August, she will be part of a team of 10 special needs climbers attempting to conquer Mt Fuji in the YMCA Inclusive Climb 2019. Find out more about it and how you can contribute here!
Contributed by Sim Yu Xiang.