Beyond access ramps, “Let Us Consider” how to truly include the differently abled
by Geraldine Tan // November 1, 2019, 9:03 pm
(left to right) Dr Tan Lai Yong, Jacqueline Woo and Glacy Soh are launching their new book, Let Us Consider, to encourage readers to think about what it means be more inclusive. All photos by Geraldine Tan unless otherwise stated.
“The catchphrase ‘don’t look at somebody’s disability, look at their ability’ is very nice to say but how many of us really do that?” asks Dr Tan Lai Yong, 58, senior lecturer at National University of Singapore.
This question became increasingly evident as the director of outreach and community engagement at the College of Alice and Peter Tan (CAPT) started interacting with Jacqueline Woo, a resident at the college while studying history at the university in 2012.
Being inclusive is more than just building access ramps and wheelchair-friendly washrooms.
Woo, 26, has generalised dystonia, a neurological movement disorder which affects her ability to fully control her muscles, causing involuntary spasms. Diagnosed when she was only three, the condition has worsened and she now gets around on a wheelchair. It has also affected her vocal cords and she communicates by typing on her phone or laptop.
Dr Tan had noticed a group of students helping Woo around the college and was soon introduced to her. “Jac didn’t exhibit any embarrassment that her friends are with her, supporting and helping her. She was very accepting and, yet, secure.”
The friendship forged among them showed their ability to look beyond Woo’s physical limitations to the person that she is.
It was this real-life example of inclusivity that led to the birth of a new book, Let Us Consider, co-authored by Dr Tan and Woo, and illustrated by painter Glacy Soh, 57. Set to be launched on Thursday at the Enabling Village, the title was a labour of love and deep soul-searching for the three involved.
What inclusivity could look like
There has been much talk that the Singapore Church can do more to welcome persons with disabilities (PWDs).
But how? It is more than just building access ramps and wheelchair-friendly washrooms.
Woo knows this only too well, having spent much of her formative years in church. The curious gazes and awkward conversations she and her family had had to endure while in church reflected an unease with a fellow believer who has special needs. Her physical and verbal difficulties further drove a wedge between her and her peers.
“Confused and unable to understand God for the suffering He allowed me to go through, I stopped going to church,” recollects Woo. But all that changed when she met that group of friends at CAPT, who gently led her back to the Lord.
“They adopted ways that worked for me, which aided my rediscovery of faith.”
“They ministered to me spiritually and physically on a personal and direct basis. My friends would patiently listen as I typed my thoughts out in the comfort of my campus room, while another friend helped me to go to church every Sunday.
“My friends were open-minded enough to work around the physical differences arising from my disability and embrace not just my strengths but also my weaknesses. They adopted ways that worked for me to the best of their abilities, which aided my rediscovery of faith,” says Woo.
Seeing how Woo’s friends rallied around her painted a picture of what inclusivity can look like in the church, as well as the wider community – a topic close to Dr Tan’s heart. He has been working among the disadvantaged and forgotten, and is best known for spending 15 years doing community development work in the remote villages of Yunnan, China.
A desire to foster a more inclusive society and a common faith kept their friendship going after Woo’s graduation in 2017.
Genesis of a book
Late last year, Dr Tan urged the budding writer to find out more about the word, “consider”, and how it is used in the Bible. He guided Woo on how to do an in-depth study, from understanding the historical context and Biblical narrative to learning the meaning of the original root word in Hebrew or Greek.
They embarked on this journey of discovering God’s word and decided to pen down their reflections. This led Dr Tan, who has authored several books, to ask Woo if she’ll be keen to co-author a devotional book.
She readily agreed. This led to Let Us Consider, a collection of 31 inspirational essays.
“I’ve never written a book, not to mention a devotional, so I was really pleasantly surprised. I’m very grateful he reached out to me. But above all, I believe it’s God’s surprise too,” shares Woo.
“But above all, I believe it’s God’s surprise too.”
As the project progressed, Dr Tan roped in his long-time friend, Soh, to help with the book’s illustrations. This, too, is the painter’s first venture into the publishing realm.
“I’ve never done this. I paint and I sell, that’s it. I’ve never imagined that I would be able to share my art with a wider audience, alongside God-inspired writings,” muses Soh. She painted 10 pieces of original artwork, inspired by photos taken by Dr Tan, Woo and friends.
“I’ve never painted so fast in my life!” exclaimed the artist. Despite that, the exercise taught her the value of slowing down. The book’s cover depicts a kingfisher, which Soh painstakingly painted feather by feather. “Especially for subjects like birds, when you want the details to show, the bottom layer of paint has to dry before you can do the next one.”
More can be done
Embarking on this project also made Woo confront things that she has been grappling with.
“I had to think deeper not just about each verse but also the bigger picture and how the Bible relates to and controls my life. How do I live it out in the everyday with physical barriers?
“What if I’m under-utilising my God-given gifts and talents? Christians are called to serve actively and regularly – where do I fit in then? Ultimately, how am I accountable to God when I feel helpless with certain physical tasks and when He feels distant in the suffering.
“These are some of the constant struggles and grey areas swirling in my head, whether I’m writing or not,” admits Woo, who also wrestled with how comfortable she might be to share her life and condition with complete strangers.
Despite the personal challenges, she hopes the stories within the book will stir people to do something for inclusion as she believes it should begin in the Church body.
“When we carefully consider the Bible, it is like passing a rainbow through Scriptures.”
“I hope that we can try a little harder to start including the long-excluded in our own ways. Make a concerted effort to get to know their abilities and needs,” she explains. “Take the initiative to learn best disability practices and etiquette. There has been a rise of disability ministry in several churches across Singapore in recent years but more can be done.”
Dr Tan echos: “The Church needs to work hard at this. Often, we want solutions, instant fixes. But what God really wants is transformation of the heart. So this book, to me, is a celebration of that – the transformation of our attitudes towards what we have, our talents, our skills and how we can bring them together.”
But above all, what the trio really wants is for the book to encourage people to read the Bible.
“Considering Scripture is not a treatise in meditation or mindfulness. It’s actually trying to bring God’s word alive to impact our speech, our actions, our relationships,” explains Dr Tan.
“When we carefully consider the Bible, it is like passing a rainbow through Scriptures and seeing how God ‘s truth can shine in and through you.”
As they interacted freely and openly at CAPT that morning, peppered with frequent laughter and easy smiles, one could almost see the dancing colours of the rainbow in their celebration of one another’s strengths – and weaknesses too.
Let Us Consider Book Launch
Let Us Consider, a collection of 31 essays written by Dr Tan Lai Yong and Jacqueline Woo, and illustrated by Glacy Soh will be launched on November 7 at the Enabling Village.
Join them as they celebrate the book’s launch that evening. You can RSVP here.