Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at his swearing-in-ceremony: “We must also have a place in our hearts and our lives for the disabled, who are our brothers and sisters, too.”

Last Saturday, he showed what he meant in concrete terms…

…He announced that his Government would set aside $220 million over the next four years for the schooling of children with special needs.

The amount of $220 million is a lot of money. However, there will be people who will not be satisfied. They believe that the Government can do more and I think they are right if it does not have any other more important commitments. I am sure it does.

PM Lee put it best when he said: “Resources are finite and we cannot avoid hard choices as to where they are best spent.”

I believe it is also not easy to decide how the funds to help the disabled should be used. There are so many areas to cover yet so little money available.

Anyway, I am glad that priority has been given to their education. With proper education, they will be able to play a more valuable role in society.

It is also heartening to note that the Government is stepping up efforts to help the disabled integrate into mainstream schools. In this way they and their classmates can grow up together.

Growing, to me, also means learning to tolerate one another’s differences, giving a helping hand to those who are not as fortunate as us and being sensitive to the feelings of others. Otherwise some of the children with
special needs may find mainstream schools too challenging.

Let me share with you some of my experiences.

Once I was asked to wait outside a room while a teacher asked more than 50 members if they would accept me in the group which I had just joined. It was uncalled for but he did it because he thought I would be an inconvenience”. The results of the opinion poll reflected their biased
attitude. An overwhelming majority was against me being part of the group.

I knew what happened because walls have ears. The cold shoulder I got after that confirmed the feedback I received and told me it was time to leave.

While others in my shoes would take it differently, I was not sore at all. I thought it was better for me to move on and find a place where I would feel welcome.

It is, however, not always possible for me to “wheel” away from a situation. I had to learn to be independent when none of my classmates was prepared to help me.

Why? The few who helped me were labelled my servants. Therefore, they had to stop giving their service to save their dignity.

I can understand their feelings as most of them, if not all, are served by maids at home. Therefore, it will not be “cool” to be seen “to work for” a disabled person.

Unfortunately, they fail to comprehend that “the measure of a man’s greatness is not the number of servants he has but the number of people he serves”. Helping others is good for the soul although it is not evident.

When I won the school bilingual oratorical competition, some students belittled my success with snide remarks.

Among other things, they said that the judges felt sorry for me because of my handicap and awarded me the top spot. It could be painful if I allowed it to hurt me, but I didn’t.

Nevertheless, the experiences have made me a better – not a bitter – person. It has made me appreciate all the nice and wonderful people I have met so much more.

Can students in the mainstream schools learn to accept their less fortunate counterparts?

I believe most can. It is the few black sheep that will make lives difficult for them and the many who will just watch silently.

Can the disabled take the challenges thrown at them positively?

If they can, they will grow stronger and tougher. If they cannot, will they be worse off? Your guess is as good as mine.

(This journal entry can be found in TODAY on 28 September 2004)