I walked towards the already-opened door of the Clementi apartment where I met couple Jake Oh and Jean Ling on a Friday afternoon, a few weeks back.
The house was quiet, and I could not see anyone when I popped my head through the doorway.
“Hello,” I called out. Quickly, Oh greeted me at the door and led me to his wife who was waiting for us in the kitchen.
As I settled down at my seat, Oh busied himself getting drinks, checking if Ling was feeling warm, and chasing away an Asian Koel (yes, the bird that goes “uwu”) perched by the window.
He then scuttled off to check on the kids who were napping in the other room.
“It’s okay already, come sit down,” Ling said to Oh, who seemed anxious about the interview.
He sat down next to Ling, she smiled at him, and the crinkle between his brows faded as his worries seemed to melt away.
The couple met seven years ago after Ling got into a horrific car accident that snapped her spinal cord and left her wheelchair-bound.
She lost all sensation in her lower body and is now faced with difficulties doing everyday things like getting to work and taking a shower.
After losing the ability to move on her own, Ling figured that anyone who was willing to accept her condition and its nuisances had to truly care for her – which was rare from her experience.
But Oh didn’t see their relationship that way.
Car crash, broken spinal cord
In early 2014, Ling was travelling around New Zealand with a friend. They were headed to a horseback riding activity when the car skidded, causing Ling to lose control of the wheel, and as she attempted to steer the vehicle, they collided with a tree.
She woke up spitting blood and remembers someone telling her he was there to help.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Ling said, “and I lost consciousness”.
After a 10-hour surgery, she woke up in a hospital with a throng of nurses and doctors waiting to break the bad news to her.
The car accident had severely fractured her spinal cord, leaving her permanently paralysed from the waist down.
“Basically, it’s like someone took scissors and cut it,” Ling said.
It would be an understatement to say the injury changed her life; Ling’s love for travel and adventures – hikes, skydiving, climbing and horse riding, among others – had to be put on hold indefinitely.
She spent the next four months recovering in New Zealand, unable to make the long journey home given her condition. Even though friends and family visited, she’d never felt so alone.
“I just cried every day lor,” she said, recalling seemingly-never ending nights, knowing that it would take a miracle for her to walk again.
In July 2014, she was finally well enough to come home, but soon realised the place she grew up in was so different from the perspective of a wheelchair.
Home wasn’t the same
Arriving home, Ling quickly faced many challenges in her daily life, from getting her wheelchair up the small doorway ledge and through the gate of her HBD unit, to taking public transport.
Boarding the MRT requires a coordinated manoeuvre — she leans back and jerks the wheelchair up, lifting the front wheels over the gap between the platform and the train.
Sometimes, inconsiderate passengers would grab her wheelchair for support, jolting it back and forth, at times coming close to toppling it.
“Yeah, keep happening,” Oh chimed in ruefully.
Once, as she tried to exit the train, a rush of other commuters knocked her off her seat and sent her crashing face first to the ground.
Thankfully, she got connected with SPD, a local charity set up to help people with disabilities adjust to their environment. This included learning how to navigate the commute between home and work, and even how to use the restroom.
Losing all sensations in the lower half of her body meant she also couldn't urinate normally. Instead, she needs a urostomy pouch and adult diapers, which has to be cleaned and changed regularly.
On top of needing 10 to 15 minutes in the toilet each time, encountering unhygienic public toilets puts her at risk of infection too.
With time, she got more used to the conditions, but things were never the same, both physically and emotionally.
“Last time, I will say that I was really quite confident in myself,” Ling said.
But the accident shattered that.
As time went by, Ling decided to go on dating apps to “test the waters”.
“[It’s] very scary,” she said about opening up to dating again. “Are they going to think I’m a nuisance or troublesome?” she wondered.
Her voice became soft and jittery as she spoke; the memory of those uncertain first steps back into the dating world still seemed to bother her to this day.
She told me some dates went well — often, all it took was that her date didn’t comment negatively about her disability.
To me, that felt like she’d set the bar too low. Surely there were other reasons she’d deem it a good date right?
I felt horrible when she explained how moved she was by those who were showing signs of interest in getting to know her:
“I’m disabled already and you're still showing your affection towards me? That’s a totally different feeling. It really boosts my confidence.”
Eventually, though, most of them said they preferred to remain friends, which made her wonder if anyone could and would see a future with a person in a wheelchair.
But this did have an unexpectedly positive consequence.
Ling stopped looking at her romantic life in terms of stages she had to get through – dating, then marriage, then getting a house, then having children, and so on.
This helped to take away not just the pressure of settling down but also the desire to just “settle”.
“When you really want to marry a person, when that person is the right person for you, you’ll have that really strong feeling,” Ling said intensely.
“You’ll know,” she said matter-of-factly, just as she did when she fell for Oh.
Falling in love
Introduced by one of Ling’s colleagues, Ling and Oh got acquainted while hanging out in groups for weekend drinks and late-night meals.
But it was only when a mutual friend bailed on a get together — leaving the two alone on a night out — that they got to know each other better.
The dinner started with the mindset — “we’re just friends, no interest whatsoever.”
“I really treated him like a younger brother,” the 39-year-old Ling said about her husband who’s seven years her junior.
But as the night went on, something sparked between them.
“Our characters clicked,” Ling explained, and when I asked what it was about their similar personalities, she said: “We both enjoy food, [and] enjoy life.”
Her response was rather vague, and when prompted further, the pair repeated the same thing:
“Yeah, we get along. Same interest lor.”
Yet, Oh told me that the start of the relationship also had its difficulties, which I immediately assumed was in reference to the heavy responsibility of caring for Ling in a wheelchair.
But then, breaking the tension, he quipped: “I had to work so hard to catch her.” To him, she was worth the chase.
Instead, Oh never had any qualms about Ling’s condition.
“Go out, okay need to make sure there’s a handicap toilet,” he said, a matter-of-fact statement that showed his attitude towards her.
“We need to make a big round because of the wheelchair access? Let’s go la.”
Ling describes Oh as easy-going; he wasn’t the type to think very much about the extra 20 steps he might have to take to find an accessible path or the additional minute to check if there was an accessible restroom.
As Ling showered her husband with compliments, he started giggling and smiling — a reaction which only spurred Ling to praise him more.
It was clear, even after five years of marriage, Ling was still very grateful for Oh, and seemed to take the interview as a chance to show it to him.
“You don’t make me feel like a burden,” she said earnestly, looking over at Oh to watch him react to her comment.
More importantly, Oh made her feel like a “normal person”.
After half a year of dating, he proposed, and they married in December 2017.
Today, the pair have two kids, two-year-old Summer and five-month-old Evan.
Starting a family was a dream come true for Ling.
Yet, her condition makes it hard for her to fully care for her children.
“I can’t even shower my baby, I can’t even carry them from the chair to the sofa because I have no balance,” she said.
“The love that comes with the skin-to-skin touch is a lot lesser,” Ling said, her voice cracking.
When her daughter Summer was a baby, Ling was frustrated when she wouldn’t latch on to be breastfed, which meant even less time holding the little one since she couldn’t carry her alone.
Because of this, her daughter couldn’t recognise her scent and was not close to her.
She worries that when her daughter grows up, she won’t be able to teach her how to do simple things like using the toilet.
“This is just the next stage of my disability,” she sighed. “Just got to cry it out and let it go.”
Again, she praised Oh, this time for being such a good dad and stepping in to take care of the kids when she can’t.
“I’m blessed with this marriage,” Ling said, “I lost my mobility for the entirety of my life but I gained a good marriage.”
I had come to meet the couple to understand how they felt about Ling and her disability.
As Ling explained, the wheelchair and her condition had come to define her – perhaps by those who don’t quite know her might too.
But, one thing’s for sure, the person she’s chosen to spend her life with is the one who has never labelled her as “Jean Ling, the woman in a wheelchair”.
Just Jean Ling, the great catch.
Quotes edited for clarity. Top images via Alfie Kwa and Ling.