For these three women, it means overcoming the odds even though life dealt them a bad hand. Here’s how they played their cards.
MEL KAUR, 30
Mel knows a thing or two about being different—she’s had spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) since she was four.
“I used to be able to walk—just differently from those around me,” she says. “But I had a fall when I was 12 and my condition worsened during the recovery period. This resulted in me having to use a wheelchair to get around.”
“My parents would take me to many doctors and experts to find a cure for me. But when I was 18, I realised that instead of trying to find a cure, I needed to accept my disability.”
After school, she worked as a customer service operator and telemarketer before realising it was healthier for her to get a job that can accommodate her needs.
“Both office jobs made me realise it was indeed tough for me to work a nine-hour shift without troubling one of my family members to assist me with going to the loo,” she explains. “Plus, my motorised wheelchair had spoilt at the time. I needed a new one but could not afford it.”
She eventually managed to secure a job with Daughters of Tomorrow, a charity that supports underprivileged women. Her current responsibilities include digital marketing and video editing and she gets to work from home on most days. But the best part about the job is it has kept her inspired.
“I get to meet people from all walks of life,” she says. “I meet our beneficiaries and realise I have taken so much for granted. I meet our corporate partners and realise I have yet to achieve a lot of things. I meet my colleagues and realise I’m at the right place.”
Mel has also learnt to accept some of the unpleasantries that come along with her disability. She used to get upset when people stared at her because it made her feel inferior. But now, she understands that most of the time, people are just curious.
“The first thing you’d notice when you see me is my pink wheelchair. But there is so much more to me than my disability,” she says. “I love shopping, makeup, tattoos, travelling and memes. I get sad when a dog dies in a movie too. I’m just a woman who brings her chair around.”
For others in a similar situation, Mel has a few words of advice: “There will be times when you’ll doubt yourself, but think of all the things you have accomplished, and how you got there. Take one step at a time. If you feel that you want to try something new, go for it! Whether it works out or not, at least you know you tried.”
Mel may be in a wheelchair, but she doesn’t let it get in the way of her passion for travelling.
“THERE WILL BE TIMES WHEN YOU’LL DOUBT YOURSELF, BUT THINK OF ALL THE THINGS YOU HAVE ACCOMPLISHED, AND HOW YOU GOT THERE.”
DHANIAH SUHANA, 32
Dhaniah was 10 when she lost her mum to cancer. But she didn’t just have to deal with the grief of losing a parent— as the eldest of four kids, she was also forced to grow up overnight.
“My sisters were nine, eight and one. I definitely felt responsible for them,” she says. “In fact, in my mother’s last letter to me, she said it was her wish that I take care of them.”
“I was old enough to understand the gravity of the situation, but I didn’t really know how to express myself or process my feelings. I’d cry quietly in the backseat of the car without anyone noticing.”
Her father then moved her and her sisters to Malaysia so they could be looked after by their grandparents. But life didn’t necessarily become any easier.
“We had to take the school bus in the wee hours of the morning just so we could get to school in Singapore on time,” she says.
When she was 14, her father brought them back to Singapore to live with him. But he would either come home very late at night or not at all.
As a result, Dhaniah had to fulfill duties such as cooking for her sisters and picking up the youngest from school— all while trying to maintain good grades. At one point, she was under so much stress that she developed trichotillomania (a disorder where one pulls out their own hair as a coping mechanism). She still has a bald spot on her scalp to this day.
“I actually ran away from home a couple of times when the going got really tough,” she says. However, she always went back, and upon completing her O-Levels, she took it upon herself to make a sacrifice for her family.
“Even though I did well enough to go to a JC, I was expected to start working as soon as possible to ease the family finances, so I went to a polytechnic instead,” she says. “I also gave tuition, did web design and even sold books for a publishing company, among other things. And I ate mee rebus throughout poly because it costs just over a dollar.”
After she graduated, she worked at a TV production house for a while before enrolling at the National Institute of Education to become a teacher. It was after making this career switch that she decided to pursue a university degree.
“The pay gap between diploma and degree holders became apparent to me though the workload is the same,” she explains. “So I decided I wouldn’t let my education stop there and enrolled in a part-time psychology programme.”
Since she had to juggle work and studies, Dhaniah took seven years to finish her degree and only graduated last year. But she has no regrets.
“Those years were totally worth it. They were characterbuilding and taught me not to give up because there were times when I really wanted to,” she says.
She’s currently a part-time research associate working on a two-year psychology-related project and also a part-time scriptwriter/producer for children’s TV programmes. She’s also the co-founder of Interfaith Youth Circle (IYC), a non-profit organisation that aims to build bridges between different religious groups in Singapore.
Dhaniah may have had a pretty rough start in life, but she didn’t let her unfortunate circumstances get in the way of her interests and ambitions.
“It took me about a decade longer than average to get my degree. But no matter how long it takes, if that’s what you need to achieve your dream, then it’s worth it,” she declares.
“Keep putting in the work and you’ll get there in the end. Success is relative and your end goal will keep shifting, so the most important thing is your mental and emotional well-being. Enjoy the crazy ride.”
Dhaniah was in a band for over a decade. While they’ve disbanded, she says songwriting and performing helped her cope with the stress.
“SUCCESS IS RELATIVE AND YOUR END GOAL WILL KEEP SHIFTING, SO THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS YOUR MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING.”
DAWN-JOY LEONG, 53
Dawn-joy only found out that she’s autistic when she was 42. So for most of her life, she didn’t understand why she was quite unlike her peers.
“I was labelled ‘rude’, ‘stubborn’ and ‘argumentative’ from the beginning of school life,” she says. “I also found it confusing that my schoolmates enjoyed doing things in groups. I’d force myself to socialise but I don’t remember enjoying it.”
Aside from having to put up with ridicule of her social awkwardness, she also had to deal with being in a constant state of sensory overload— classroom chatter, the odour of sweaty bodies and the dragging of tables and chairs would leave her with headaches, nausea, dizziness and stress-induced mouth ulcers.
It was only when she went to university that she found her groove. “The environment was genteel and gentle, and there was a culture of acceptance of difference,” she says. However, her world came crashing down 20 years later: she was under a lot of stress from having to manage her social anxiety on top of working on her Master’s in music composition and running a real estate project when she found out that her father was dying.
“One night, I became aware that I was standing on the window sill of my ninthstorey flat, staring intently at the bright moon against a pitch black sky. I realised I was on the verge of becoming suicidal, and so I rushed myself to a psychologist the very next day,” she shares.
“After three sessions with him, which involved some exhaustive tests and questions, he diagnosed me with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is now subsumed under the wider umbrella of autism.” Dawn-joy felt a weight lifted off her shoulders after her diagnosis.
“All my life I was scolded, mocked and even punished for ‘over-reacting’ to things. I felt vindicated at last,” she says. “I finally understood why bright lights and smells that nobody else noticed would make me feel sick. I knew now why socialising would make me immensely exhausted, so much so that I needed to take painkillers after to numb myself.”
Armed with knowledge about her condition, she embarked on a journey of self-discovery and went on to pursue a PhD in autism and art. She has given a TEDx talk on autism and currently uses art and music to raise awareness about the disorder.
“Autism is a neurological function. Our brains work differently from [what is typical],” she explains. “We do not need to ‘overcome’ autism, but rather, societal stigma, discrimination and lack of respect and support.” She also advocates defining success according to your own needs—even more so for people who fall on the autism spectrum.
“Success means different things to different people. For some people, just getting out of bed in the morning or managing a small gesture of self-care are already triumphant successes,” she says.
“The ultimate success would be to pursue passions not according to the measurements of [what is regarded as ‘normal’], but according to intrinsic autistic functionality. It would be to find your ‘self’ and to be accepting and respectful of it.”
Dawn-joy gave a TEDx talk on autism last year.
“SUCCESS MEANS DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE. FOR SOME PEOPLE, JUST GETTING OUT OF BED IN THE MORNING OR MANAGING A SMALL GESTURE OF SELF-CARE ARE ALREADY TRIUMPHANT SUCCESSES.”
TEXT BY ADORA WONG.