After a period of serving at different social service organisations without understanding her purpose, the lawyer slowly but surely started realising the impact that she could make. For one, she started listening in at meetings, and understanding how these organisations were empowering people with disabilities.
In spite of the physical challenges she faces, she also recognised that she had advantages in other aspects. Acknowledging that she had “received so much along the way”, she wanted to start giving back.
The epiphany happened when she was watching the trainees at SPD’s Sheltered Workshop, an initiative that offers employment and vocational training for people with disabilities: “As I observed them, I asked myself why they were in the sheltered workshops while I’m a lawyer. It was then I realised that it was because I had the opportunities that they didn’t have.”
She explains: “I was of the mindset that if I could make it, why couldn’t they? But when I cast my mind back to who made me the way I am, I realised that it was all the people around me who loved and gave me the open opportunities, regardless of [my] physical disability.”
Yong Yong was diagnosed with peroneal muscular atrophy at 15 years old. She had already undergone multiple surgeries before her official diagnosis, as she would often trip due to her inability to lift the front part of the foot.
There were also other signs: When she was nine, she had noticed that she was unable to fully straighten her fingers. “So it was not a bombshell [revelation],” she recalls of the diagnosis. “More like an understanding that they could finally put a name to [the condition].” Her younger sister, Leslie, also has peroneal muscular atrophy.
When I cast my mind back to who made me the way I am, I realised that it was all the people around me who loved and gave me open opportunities.
As the condition progressed over the years, her limbs grew weaker. She started using a wheelchair in 1989. “I tried to delay it because I knew that my muscles would just weaken very quickly if I were to use a wheelchair, but the risk of falling was quite real, and one of my good friends convinced me to just use one when I was tired,” she recounts, noting that when the wheelchair came into the picture, “that was when [she] became more dependent [on others]”.
Yong Yong grew up in what she describes as a “very accepting environment”, and had “supportive parents, accommodating teachers, as well as helpful friends”. Had she not grown up in such an environment, would she be where she is today? “No, I don’t think so,” she says after a pause.
Her father, who had a subcontracting business, decided to switch careers to be a taxi driver in order to ferry her to and from school. To help supplement the family income, her mother worked various menial jobs, including being a confinement nanny, chambermaid and factory worker.
While Yong Yong is an optimistic person by nature – much of our conversation is peppered with cheerful smiles and an uplifting tone – she’s also practical. “Nobody likes to ask for help or trouble others, right? But I think this condition has been good when it comes to putting me in my place. Because it reminds me that I am not self-sufficient, and that other people are also not self-sufficient, and thus I should be more accommodating of others.”