Joseph Louis Tan is a son, brother, designer and lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. His mom was a former athlete who represented Singapore in track and field events, and is now a housewife who works as an administrative assistant at a government agency. His father was also a former athlete who represented Singapore in body building, wheelchair basketball, track and field events, is now a retired business owner and works in online business. Both of his parents are wheelchair users.
What it's like to be a son of parents with disabilities
“I didn’t see the difference between able and disabled. I was just glad that I had parents."
Once I got into secondary school, I started to noticed a difference. People with disabilities weren’t viewed very highly in society back then. We were seen as an anomaly.” Susceptible to the societal perceptions, Joseph began to resent his parents. “The eyes (of strangers) looking at me and at my parents when I pushed my dad to the train station or when we went out anywhere as a family, it just seemed like we were part of an exhibit in the zoo. It was tough.” These experiences challenged Joseph. “I suffered in silence for a while,” he shared.
Joseph grew up in with a “don’t ask” culture and didn’t engage with his parents about their disabilities. “I wanted to ask the details. But normally we don’t ask about it, we don’t share that stuff. However as my parents got older and I got older, the lines start to blur. We started to have more open communication, which resulted in our connection getting deeper and deeper.” While studying overseas, Joseph did a project that focused on wheelchair users and disability. “It was a way to give back to my parents and show that I cared.” He is also co-founder of ToTheLoo.sg, a new application to help wheelchair users in Singapore find accessible bathrooms. Now that he knows and appreciates his parents more deeply, he thinks that all parents can start an open and honest conversation much earlier. “Up front conversation about sharing stories and experiences strengthens the bond between parent and kid. It doesn’t matter if disabled or not.”
The impact of having parents with disabilities
Joseph’s parents have deeply impacted his life. For his father, it’s “his perseverance and his can-do attitude.” Rather than give up in the challenges of finding a job, he started his own company and made it work, and when he closed it down, he created a new opportunity. “Don’t give up and just persevere and do what you are passionate about,” Joseph says. Joseph’s mom taught him the importance of “having humility and a positive attitude towards everything in life.”
“Never once did they complain about their disabilities. They’re very strong willed, even now. They always have a smile on their face. No matter how hard the situation might be, they saw things positively. They taught my siblings and I how to be more self-reliant and independent.”
“Whatever my siblings and I did, they always support us 100 percent. They never shut us down. It’s not about disability or ability- it’s about being supportive parents.” With this kind of support, Joseph found his calling. “When I talk about how I get into design and teaching, I always said that my parents are my source of inspiration. They are what made me who I am today.” All three Tan children are actively giving back to society through their chosen professions. Joseph through design and teaching, his sister through teaching and training, and his brother through nursing. A direct influence from how much their parents gave to them.
“Don’t judge people by their abilities, but see them for who they are as individuals. In the end, we are all human beings and we have a purpose in life and a duty—to give back and have an impact on this world. Yes, with physical disability there are limitations—but from my perspective this is a minor obstacle. I haven’t met anyone with disabilities who hasn’t found a way to overcome their challenges. They’ll innovate and creatively solve their problems. It might seem like very big obstacles, but they’re very small compared to the bigger obstacle of raising a kid (which is the same for everyone).”
Parenting is a wonderful and challenging adventure whether or not you have a disability. Joseph’s parents were no less able to offer their children a safe, loving home and raise compassionate, successful children. Don’t get hung up on a disability, but see the value of being a committed, supportive parent.
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