After more than two decades of swimming, Theresa Goh, 30, did not think she would end up to talking to major multinational companies like Facebook and Barclays.
Nowadays, when she speaks at events, she is prepared with a slide presentation that is customised for specific audiences. Having her life story laid out on a timeline and in a proper format helps her feel prepared and more at ease with speaking to an audience. “It’s more structured, and I’m definitely better at [speaking] now,” she says.
“If it’s for Disability Week I don’t talk so much about my swimming. I still give a basic presentation, but then I add whatever they ask me to do. So, for Pride Week, I touch more on my LGBT events.”
For the most part, Theresa enjoys answering questions from the audience. While her favourite questions are “those that have not been asked before,” she does face a fair amount of repetition.
“A lot of people are used to asking comfortable questions,” she says. “They ask questions based on their own assumptions. For example, when they ask, ‘What are the struggles in your life?’ I know they are referring to my disability. I always don’t have an answer for that, because when it comes to my disability I don’t feel that I face many struggles. Well maybe things like, waking up in the morning [laughs].”
Some of her least favourite questions are those that imply that having a disability “must be very hard.” In cases like these, she tries to get them to think about PWDs positively, rather than with pity.
“I mean, for me personally, [a disability] is not the worst thing. Of course, different people have different experiences. But I try the best that I can to widen their mindset.”
After participating in her fourth Paralympic Games in Rio last year, Theresa has started getting more involved in LGBT activism, which she shares about freely. However, as regulatory bodies and laws in Singapore still promote conservatism when it comes to homosexuality, she understandably exercises caution when talking to students in government schools.
Some argue that making people with disabilities (PWDs) speak about themselves and answer questions to able-bodied audiences places an unasked-for burden of awareness and social change on them. This argument is especially relevant for children with disabilities who are put forward in the media, with or without their consent, to be a spokesperson for their disability.
“Our sports association tried to get us [athletes] to do talks when we were younger. We started with school talks. Maybe about when I was 16 or 17. Those were very easy, just go there and answer questions. Sometimes we had to do talks where it’s just us talking. But at the time I wasn’t very comfortable.”
“I don’t think it’s the job of a marginalised individual to educate people. But I don't mind sharing or answering questions. It's a personal decision. I think more people need to read up more or do a little research on their own of topics they're not sure of, and not assume that all people have time or are willing to educate them.”
Theresa believes her public speaking engagements have helped to dispel fears, myths and misconceptions of disabilities. As a queer athlete who has recently come out about her sexuality, she would like to talk more about this, exploring the intersections between disability and sexual orientation.
“Most people are used to asking comfortable questions. My sexuality is something that people usually don’t ask about but I’m getting more questions about it now.”
The decision to educate others should be left up to the individual. While she thinks that not all PWDs should have to answer questions about themselves, as an advocate Theresa is happy to answer questions on stage.
“It’s never black and white sometimes. In the end, I would like conversations to happen.”
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