Alden Boon

From Being Bullied to Becoming a Disability Advocate – Winston Wong’s Life as a Hard-of-hearing Person



Two of the first friends I met at orientation became my strongest pillars of support throughout my university days. One of them had many similar core and elective modules as I did, and he would readily lend me his notes whenever I could not keep up with the lecturers in class. The other would frequently ask me out for dinners and movies. It was also during this period that my confidence increased further, as my groupmates voted for me to be the group leader for various projects. It signified to me that mindsets were evolving: I was more than the hearing aids that I wore. People were noticing and even appreciating my abilities and traits. I also got out of my bubble and joined the next two years of orientation camps as an orientation group leader and then a programme director, both of which were roles that allowed me to showcase my leadership potential.

True acceptance

While throughout my young adulthood self-advocacy had become second nature, it would take twenty-five years of living before I fully came to terms with my disability. That moment came ere the fourth year of my university journey. I applied for and received the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Scholarship for Persons with Disabilities in 2013, belonging to the ninth batch of recipients. My batch was the first that had to deliver speeches, whereas previous recipients only had to attend the prize presentation and were spared the responsibility. Incidentally, Paralympic gold medallist Yip Pin Xiu was one of my batchmates, so that could have been the reason for the switch. That night, personnel from the big media companies were invited. Video cameras were set up all around the ballroom. At first it was a little daunting, but surprisingly, when giving my speech I didn’t get the butterflies and was relaxed. By the end of it, my mother and sister were in tears, as they hadn’t known about the bullying I suffered. Delivering my speech that night made me realise I derive great pleasure and satisfaction in sharing my niche experiences as a person with disability.

Being in that ballroom that day was life changing. Growing up, I was surrounded by non-disabled people who didn’t face the same physical challenges as I did. That night marked the first time I was in the company of blind and autistic people as well as wheelchair users. It made me realise I was not alone after all. And my fellow recipients were not the stereotypes so often portrayed in the media: they were inspirational figures, successes in their own right.

Winston receiving the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Scholarship for Persons with Disabilities.

The work reality for a person with disability

Like most fresh graduates, all my energy was spent on finding a job. The search was enervating. I sent out a total of seventy-five job applications. Any enthusiasm I had quickly devolved into disillusionment. My friends and I applied for the same jobs, and even though we had the same degree, and even though we graduated with similar Grade Point Averages, they were getting calls for interviews whereas I was passed over. In my résumé and cover letters, I made it a point to declare that I have a disability, as I didn’t want the hiring managers to be shocked after seeing me in person at the interview round. In bold was written ‘Recipient of Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Scholarship for Persons with Disabilities’. I was also awarded the Most Outstanding Deaf Student (Tertiary) by the Singapore Association for the Deaf. Isn’t it ironic that the prestigious scholarship and the award, which had been a great source of pride for me, would become obstructions?

Out of my seventy-five job applications, only four organisations eventually reached out to me for an interview. Even with my academic achievements and track record as an active university student, only two extended an offer. Naturally, I lapped up the first job offer. It entailed recommending disciplinary actions for errant employees who had committed offences. It’s a huge deviation from biomedical engineering, but I had realised that working in a lab, going through failed experiment after failed experiment, was not a life for me. As you can imagine, my new job required me to liaise with people from different departments. The volume of the landline phone was very soft, and the voices were often inaudible. This issue I raised to my supervisor, who told me to find a substitute. I did get a new phone with a built-in amplifier, and it worked about sixty per cent of the time. But because I couldn’t lipread a disembodied voice, I had to resort to telling the other party to drop me an email instead.

Being a junior staff member, I was of course saddled with the menial tasks, one of which was taking minutes. What would be a simple task most people could effectively accomplish was an uphill climb for me. I immediately aired my concerns to my bosses, who told me to just give it a try. Because I had to be seated at a corner, the voices of the higherups on the other end became mere mumblings. The cross talking didn’t help too. My minutes turned out to be sparse and useless. Realising their folly of asking a hard-of-hearing person to take minutes, my superiors asked what they could do to help. I suggested roping in a partner to help with the minute-taking, so he could fill in the gaps with his notes. They eventually assigned me one.

And this is an important aspect of the self-advocacy message that I share with youths today as part of my work as a special educational needs (SEN) officer (which I will come to it shortly). I left my first job within eighteen months as I felt an uneasiness that through my disciplinary recommendations I had a direct hand in ending the careers of breadwinners. After an eleven-month hiatus (during which I was a part-time tutor to students with and without disabilities), I joined Nanyang Technological University’s Accessible Education Unit, whose aim is to provide support to students with disabilities, in 2017. My then reporting officer fought for me to get the job, as she knew my lived experience made me uniquely qualified. She was a professional with more than thirty-five years of experience in the disability sector, and she patiently taught me everything that I know now, from interacting with people with disabilities to supporting students with special educational needs and teaching others to pick up assistive technologies. I am eternally grateful to her grooming and guidance, without which I wouldn’t be who I am today.

After two years, I made a switch and currently I’m working at Temasek Polytechnic in the same role. I hit the ground running, empowered by my prior experiences in Nanyang Technological University. The handover of my predecessor’s caseload was seamless. My department boss and reporting officer are fantastic people who believe in my capabilities and always let me shine through my passions and strengths, one of which is disability advocacy. For example, they supported me when I wanted to conduct disability awareness training sessions for staff and students in Temasek Polytechnic. They encouraged me when external organisations such as SG Enable, SPD and Engineering Good approached me to be their guest speaker and panellist for disability awareness and topics. They also gave their blessings when I wanted to kickstart a new interest group that provides an avenue for students to advocate for disability. As I did not have such a disability-focused CCA or support group back during my schooling days, I wanted to rally students who have empathy towards persons with disabilities. And so SENvocates was incepted in April 2021. From a mere four students, within a year SENvocates now has a membership of fifty students. My department boss and reporting officer then nominated me for the Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards (UBS Promise), in recognition of my disability advocacy efforts within and outside Temasek Polytechnic. I was humbled and honoured to receive the award from President Halimah Yacob and ESM Goh Chok Tong on 3 December 2021, during a ceremony that was held in conjunction with the International Day of Disabled Persons.

Winston receiving the Goh Chok Tong Enable Award from President Halimah Yacob and ESM Goh Tok Tong.

As a SEN officer, oftentimes, students would relate to me the problems they’re facing. ‘Could I tell my lecturer that if he doesn’t make accommodations for me, I’d fail his module? And since I’d fail anyway, I won’t bother turning up for his classes.’ But such ultimatums benefit no one. In the aforementioned minute-taking scenario, I could have easily said: ‘I cannot hear well, so I am not going to do it. You need to find somebody else to do it.’ Or I could make brazen demands such as asking my superiors to sit me in the centre of the meeting room, which is a place of honour reserved for the higherups. That, however, would only cast me in a bad light. Instead, I was the one who proposed the solution of a buddy system: I didn’t wait for or expect my superiors to come up with one. As much as we persons with disabilities require others to make accommodations for us, we too must know how we can contribute, and give back, especially when our requests are met. We need to be contributing members, be it at work or in society.

There is also a fine line between accommodations and concessions, between self-advocacy and self-entitlement. As persons with disabilities, we do need help when going about our daily routines, but we need to know the way to ask for it. When we are being demanding, others are less inclined to render help. I could say: ‘If I cannot hear what you’re saying, you need to repeat your sentences until I get it.’ ‘When talking to me, do not turn your face.’ There is a politer way to advocate for yourself. Help others understand the reason why you need them to make certain accommodations. ‘I’m hard of hearing. I would appreciate if you could accommodate me by showing me your lips, so I can lip-read you and in turn better grasp what you’re saying.’ There is a nuanced, yet effective, change in the tone here.

Read: Bankruptcy, Divorce and Loss of His Son: How Jimmy Ong Restarted His Life after Hitting Rock Bottom

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.