Ong Hua Han was deciding between NUS Business School and another university which was nearer home and most importantly, on flatter ground. Even his family doctor discouraged him from NUS because it would be hard for him to move around its hilly terrain. He was born with a condition called brittle bone disease (Osteogenesis Imperfecta), and moves around mostly on a wheelchair.
Then the BBA office reached out to the family. Its staff invited Hua Han and his parents to the school. Over a cosy tea session, they talked about the challenges and possibilities of NUS – accessibility, safety, health; and how the office could assist him if he joined the school. Then – and his mother fondly remembers – the Assistant Dean, Dr Helen Chai, personally took them on a walk around the school, showing him the routes that were wheelchair-accessible – in her high heels!
He remembers that there was a drop step near the bus-stop he would not be able to negotiate with his wheelchair. BBA Office connected with the now Office of Campus Amenities (then called Office of Estate and Development), and a ramp for wheelchair access was built. The office also, when needed, helped schedule his lessons so they did not run back to back and thus he had time to get to each class on time.
Throughout the four years, he always knew he could call on the BBA office if ever he needed help. Even for his commencement, realising that he would not be able to mount the steps to receive his scroll on stage, the organising team arranged for him to wait in the wings backstage so he could easily get onto the stage – to thunderous applause from an auditorium that saluted his resolve.
Looking back, Hua Han says he was also lucky that within the Business School, the Year Ones were sorted into groups who took the same modules. He was thus able to develop strong friendships with his group mates who helped him along the way. They continue to keep in touch.
Hua Han wanted to, like the other BBA students, go for an exchange programme. It would be difficult given his condition. Again, the BBA Office helped him to fulfil this wish – they spoke with the staff at the Student Exchange Programme, and also with Maastricht University, to make the arrangement for his buddy, Marvin, to attend the same varsity as him.
It was a fretful time. It was the first time he would be away from home for so long; plus, he had just recovered form a major bone correction surgery. His mother worried about his condition and about him being able to cope, and kept hoping if he would perhaps change his mind about going; but they both knew, it was a coming-of-age trip he needed to make on his own.
Attending the five-month exchange programme in Maastricht University in the Netherlands was a significant milestone for him. Those five months out by himself shaped him. It confirmed his belief that he could look after his own daily needs as he had to manage many aspects, like bathing, toileting and moving around, on his own.
Hua Han is grateful to his buddy Marvin, especially as two months into the trip, he broke his leg and Marvin cared for him throughout his recovery, e.g., in cooking for him when he could not stand for long. Later, Marvin had the option of going to Ireland to meet some friends, but chose to visit Germany instead with Hua Han, as it was more accessible for him. Hua Han is appreciative – he knows that without Marvin, it is unlikely he would have even gone on the exchange.
Hua Han also took the opportunity while in Europe to visit London, Germany and Norway, among other cities. He speaks of Norway fondly. He had always wanted to see nature, so his friend Szu Ker took him up to the mountains at Fløyen, in Bergen. Szu Ker pushed him all the way up the mountain till near the summit where he could not push the wheelchair any further. Han Hua was content to have had reached that far, but Szu Ker insisted on piggybacking him all the way to the summit so that he would have the opportunity to stand on the summit of a mountain and enjoy the awesome sight. It was a long-held wish come true.
This month, Hua Han graduated with a BBA Hons, majoring in Finance and Marketing. He applied for a job via LinkedIn and is today a graduate trainee at Diageo, a British multinational alcoholic beverages company that sells a portfolio of world-famous alcohol like Johnnie Walker, Baileys and Guinness.
“You have come so far,” I said to him, “What would you say to another youth, another person in your same situation?” He said, “Nothing, the child alone cannot change much. You have to speak to the parents. They are the ones to give the love and the support.”
All these years, his parents calmly and lovingly negotiated all the visits to the hospitals – he reckons when he was younger, he broke a bone five or six times a year. When he was five years old, his father made him learn to walk. His mother was fearful he would fall and break another bone and suggested he does what many in his condition do, rely solely on their wheelchair, but his father insisted – “Or the boy will never walk”. Later on, his mother was resolute that he should attend normal school like every other child. She visited many schools to speak with the principals to ensure he would fit well into their school environment.
His parents expect of him the same things as they do their two other children. They encouraged him to the same things other kids do – to do well in school, to participate in CCAs. Hua Han says his father was always available to take him on all school excursions, so he would not miss out on any of the experiences. They never allowed him to wallow in his difference and disability.
They made all the difference: his parents, the accepting school principal, his course mates, friends like Marvin and Szu Ker, the team at the BBA office – he said – down to the NUS van drivers who ferried him (and became firm friends) between faculties when he needed to go down to Arts or Science for modules.
Hua Han smiles when he says, at the end of his internship with Deutsche Bank, his intern line manager said to him, “After the first few days, the wheelchair becomes invisible.”
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