On the morning of April 21, 2018, 26-year-old Kishon Chong was preparing for work when he suddenly felt his legs go numb.
He must slept wrong, he thought, but the numbness did not go away as he was brushing his teeth. Instead, it quickly spread across his legs until Chong limped out of the toilet and collapsed onto the living room floor.
His parents quickly called for an ambulance, which conveyed him to the hospital where a battery of tests were conducted to determine his mysterious ailment.
It was only three weeks later that they arrived at a diagnosis: A spinal cord infarction, otherwise known as a stroke of the spinal cord.
Lost the use of his legs
While many do recover from a spinal cord infarction, the paralysis that follows a stroke may be permanent. In Chong's case, he lost the use of his legs.
The man, who was then a Mod-Sin chef of six years, was devastated.
"I was actually fairly active and healthy, that there wasn't any buildup to it. I wasn't sick, I wasn't injured. So it happened, like, out of the blue," says Chong who is now 28 years old and a wheelchair user.
When the doctors broke the news of his diagnosis, they also said, in no uncertain terms, that he would never be able to work as a chef again.
Aside from the fact that he cannot stand on his own, kitchens, in general, aren't designed with wheelchairs in mind.
That was Chong's first realisation of the limitations imposed by his wheelchair. Over the days and weeks that followed, as he adapted to this new way of life, Chong became increasingly aware of other limitations. Taking the public bus was one of them.
Gaining confidence as a bus commuter
One of the biggest issues he faced as a wheelchair-using bus commuter was confidence.
Most public buses today are equipped with ramps for wheelchair users that have to be manually deployed by the bus captain.
Bus captains usually deploy the ramp and wheel the wheelchair user up the bus before other commuters are allowed to board, which usually leads to a lot of stares, and unfortunately, the occasional sigh.
"I felt like I was holding up people's time, especially if there are a lot of people, then there's additional pressure," says Chong, adding that it took some time before he became more confident about boarding buses.
"I guess the more frequently you take buses you feel a certain level of confidence, and also to the point where you learn that you actually have equal rights to board the bus"
Working with Tower Transit to improve inclusivity
For nearly two years after his stroke, Chong threw himself into intensive physiotherapy — four hours a day, five a days a week.
"It was very hard to adapt," he says, admitting that he is a very career-driven person. Chong also sought the assistance of a job coach from SPD, a local charity that helps persons with disabilities integrate into mainstream society.
That was how he came to know, in April this year, that local bus operator Tower Transit was looking for a person with disabilities for a role dedicated to improving inclusivity.
The opening was for a Customer Experience & Inclusivity Officer (CXIO) which entails providing customer service at bus interchanges, conducting inclusivity assessments and training for bus captains, and coming up inclusive transport initiatives.
Tower Transit had been mulling over the idea of promoting inclusivity on buses since November 2019, says Communications Director Glenn Lim.
"At the same time we also thought, it's very hard for someone without disabilities to create something effective for people with disabilities because you don't know what you don't know," he adds.
"We needed someone who understood the challenges of commuters who have various mobility challenges."
It was a dream job for Chong.
"I found (the job listing) very interesting. I read the descriptions I felt like it's something new, that's for sure. And the direction of where it's going is something that's not done before, but I can align myself with it."
Being a very vocal person, Chong adds, this was quite the opportunity to speak out (and do something about) the concerns of commuters with disabilities, something that he became acutely aware of ever since he became a wheelchair user.
"I think it's only going through firsthand, rather than hearing of the difficulties from the people themselves, that you sort of understand and have that level of empathy."
His best commuting experience as a wheelchair user
Chong is now two months into his new role as a Customer Experience & Inclusivity Officer and he relishes it.
In a nutshell, his job is to improve the way Tower Transit's bus captains interact with commuters with disabilities.
This ranges from greeting the commuters warmly to offering to wheel them up the ramp into the bus, so that wheelchair users can commute with confidence.
Chong does this by taking bus rides and auditing bus captains, as well as passing on his suggestions and feedback to the team that trains bus captains.
Of course, he also takes note of the good examples.
During his audit there was a Tower Transit bus captain who greeted him warmly ("You can tell that he was smiling through his mask"), offered to wheel Chong up the ramp into the bus, and made sure that his wheelchair's wheels were locked going back to the driver seat.
That wasn't all.
"On that very audit itself, there was an elderly lady who boarded the bus with a shopping trolley. I overheard him telling the lady to take her time to find a seat....It was only when she sat down then the driver moved off. It's because of all this additional care that he showed right, it gives a whole different kind of feeling to the whole commuting journey."
It was one of the best commuting experience he had as a wheelchair-using commuter, Chong adds.
Changing perspectives about people with disabilities
Chong also serves as a customer service officer at the bus interchanges that Tower Transit buses operate out of.
"I will interact with the commuters, basically giving them feedback cards, getting to know about their experiences on Tower Transit services."
The goal is to change the public's perspective about people with disabilities. Chong shares that he has had people mistake him for a tissue-seller, even though he is decked out in the green Tower Transit uniform. Someone even tried to give him money.
It goes to show the stereotypes that people have about wheelchair users.
"I'm hoping to sort of change their perspective to make it better known that even though I'm a person with a disability in a wheelchair, I am also part of the workforce, and I'm there to basically give them help. I can give them directions if they need, or if they have any inquiries," he says.
People often see persons with disabilities as a community that needs help, but it doesn't always have to be this way, Chong explains.
"I want to sort of flip it around and be in a position where I'm a person with a disability and the person providing help instead."
Take a look around on the public transport network and you'll find plenty of initiatives that help commuters with disabilities. Aside from wheelchair ramps on buses, we have priority queues, priority seats on trains, tactile paving, barrier-free access and more.
However, as effective as initiatives are, it's far more important to build an inclusive culture that is pervasive and long-lasting, says Chong.
Creating awareness and changing perspectives "works from the inside and it's more people-driven than say, starting initiatives", he adds.
"We can do multiple initiatives, but you might not change the culture or change people's mindsets about [commuters with disabilities]."
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top image by Joshua Lee