Having a disability and being able to give. Think it’s an oxymoron?
It’s common public perception that people with disabilities cannot fend for themselves, much less have something to give. Meet Alister Ong, a 27-year-old who is born with Cerebral Palsy—a permanent, lifelong disability which compromises one’s mobility, balance and posture, whose life’s mission is exactly that: to give as much as he can. Due to his condition, he is unable to walk or run.
Affecting 17 million people worldwide, CP is the most common physical ability in childhood. The culprit? Brain injury or atypical brain development that can happen before, during and shortly after birth, causing permanent disability in movement.
1. What’s your story?
My name is Alister Ong, a 27-year old who is born with Cerebral Palsy. It began since birth. Unlike other babies, I did not cry when I was born and as a result, there was not enough oxygen flowing to my limbs. Growing up, I couldn’t walk or run. Despite having limited movements in my hands and feet, I am living a fulfilling life—on wheels.
I graduated from Singapore Management University (SMU) three years ago. I’m currently working as an assistant manager in AWWA, a social service centre. AWWA’s mission is to empower the disadvantaged to maximise their potential to lead dignified and independent lives.
In my free time, I enjoy “cycling” with my friends (zoom-ing away on my wheelchair), travelling and going on voluntary trips overseas. I have travelled to many places, including Europe, Switzerland Alps and even to the peak of Mt Bromo! Can you believe it?!
I have also been to Australia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam to give motivational talks. I am passionate to share on topics that are close to my heart, such as cultural diversity and inclusion, overcoming challenges and mental wellness.
2. What are the challenges you face?
Life is full of challenges, but I now see them as opportunities to grow and shape myself into “a better me”. There are three significant challenges that I face in my life:
- Physical challenges
- Social challenges
- My own mental barrier
Physical challenges: There are definitely practical, on-the-ground day to day problems having a physical disability. Lifts, wider fare gates in MRT stations and wheelchair-accessible buses did not exist in the past. So it was often hard for me to get around, especially with my wheelchair. Now, as lifts started being built in MRT stations, I took photos of the stations with lifts as those were the only places I could go to.
Before we had wider fare gates, my mum had to carry me across the gates as it was too narrow for my wheelchair to pass through. Thankfully, our public transport system have made changes to consider and include the needs of those people who are wheelchair-bound. Otherwise, as I grow older, no one will have enough strength to carry my motorised wheelchair and I.
There weren’t many lifts in my school as well so I could only go to places located on ground level. Going to the assembly ground, school library, computer labs were impossible tasks for me as they are located on the upper storeys.
Social challenges: I am very aware that I am different from others. I struggled through my growing up years, with feelings of rejection and low self-esteem. Being wheelchair-bound definitely did not help. Because of my disability, I was not able to join my classmates as they ran around to play during recess. Since I was always excluded from such activities, I couldn’t really interact with my peers.
Mental barriers: I regard this as the greatest challenge that I face in life, and one of the hardest to overcome. When I was growing up, I always believed that I have nothing to give. That I will never amount to anything but a burden to other people. That I am worthless.
I was so focused on seeing my disabilities and limitations so clearly, I was blind to any of my own abilities. Every time I couldn’t do something, it would only reaffirm my disability in a negative thought spiral.
I only started opening up when I found my faith in Christianity and a community who accepts me for who I am. I started seeing things differently. I may not be able to my circumstances, but I can change the lens with which I see myself. I started debunking my own self-limiting beliefs. For example, I can’t walk so I believed I couldn’t go for voluntary overseas trips. But actually, I can. And I did.
Mountains in our lives are not to pull us down, but to make us be an overcomer. How can we be an overcomer if there is nothing to overcome? How can we have victory if there is no battle?
3. What are some misconceptions you’ve heard about your disability?
Many believe that cerebral palsy is an illness that would deteriorate and get worse, but it does not. People with CP can live till a long, ripe age. Another myth is that CP affects fertility and people with that condition can’t have children. Also, some people think that the condition is genetic. This is not true — people with my condition can give birth to perfectly abled children.
4. Have you been in a situation where you felt offended by others due to your disability?
I haven’t been offended per se, but it definitely has been awkward. When I was younger, my mother would push my stroller to the market as she shopped for groceries. I was at the age when I was obviously too old for strollers. At the checkout counter, the cashier aunty turned to me and said “Ah boy, so old already still don’t want to walk?” My mum went on to explain to her that I am not able to walk, much to the embarrassment of the cashier aunty, who quickly changed the subject.
Another time I was at the mall. I was in the lift with a little boy with his family. Brimming with innocence, the little boy asked his parents why he couldn’t sit in a stroller when this older kor kor is sitting in one. His parents immediately went red in the face and hushed him.
It creates a very awkward atmosphere for me. I would much rather hear the parents educate their children the plain truth in a friendly manner: “this is a wheelchair” and “say hello to kor kor”. It would really help to avoid this awkwardness. The shushing and unwillingness of people to even have a casual conversation about it made my disability seem like a disease that could never be talked about.
I understand that the public in general are not aware of how to interact with people who are different, and hence they tend to just avoid it altogether and try to sweep it under the rug.
It is my hope that with increased awareness about the different needs of different groups of people in society, we can have a normal conversation without descending into an abyss of awkwardness for everyone.
5. What do you hope to say to others with cerebral palsy too?
That it is completely untrue that people with disability can only take, and have nothing to give.
I once believed that, too. But I’ve learnt over the years that it wouldn’t do anyone any good if we all continued to hide behind that self-limiting belief. Instead, come out from your hiding place and share who you really are. Give others the opportunity to get to know our real self. For me, my belief in God and my faith helped me transform my mindset and get out of my own mental barriers.
Because if you look at yourself with so much self-pity, how can you then fault others for looking at you the same way?
Instead of focusing on the vast (physical) differences between us and able-bodied people, being jealous of how they can walk, run and jump freely; why not focus on our similarities instead? After all, the hearts beating inside of us all are the same: one that cries out to be heard and longs to be understood.
6. What is your life’s mission?
To give as much as I can and make a difference. Because I can.
This article is written as a World Cerebral Palsy Day Special and as a part of our #CelebrateDiversity campaign. Alister Ong is a speaker and has had speaking engagements across the region in Australia, Phillippines, Vietnam and of course, his home country, Singapore. Check out his website—Overcoming Life On Wheels—to connect or learn more about his work.
Jen is a food lover who is constantly looking forward to her next foodie adventure. Hardly anything can rival her love for Wagyu beef, bubble tea and sashimi. A strong believer in faith and human connections, she spends her weekends on things that make her smile and secretly loves deep conversations.