Unheard Voices (Matthew Tan): Looking through the lens of a traumatic brain injury warrior

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Welcome to Unheard Voices, a segment where we conduct interviews on prevalent issues faced by the minorities, e.g. judgments, prejudice and unfair treatment, that are usually not explicitly known in our social environments, media landscape and daily interactions with people.

Remember Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) and lawyer Chia Yong Yong recent speech in April 2016 calling the Government to launch a “national education campaign” to raise awareness of disabilities not immediately obvious to the naked eye? Today’s interviewee is also part of this community whose “disability” may not always be “visible” to the public eye 🙂

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Name: Matthew Job Tan Ser Yung

Age: 22

Race: Chinese

Religion: Roman Catholic

Occupation: Graduated from Nanyang Polytechnic Social Work Diploma in May 2016

A brief introduction to Matthew’s sport incident

During the National Schools Judo Championships B Boys’ light weight (73kg and under) semi-final in 2010, the then 16-year-old went down head first during the match, resulting in an unsafe landing (*as told by witnesses present).

Matthew was later rushed to hospital when he collapsed after the match. Doctors performed a craniotomy to depressurize the compression in his skull (which had deprived his brain of oxygen), and a portion of his skull was removed. No foul play was detected at the end of the investigation. Till this day, Matthew has no recollection of that match.

Chapter 1: Waking up to a “reality” nightmare

When Matthew woke up from his 2 months’ coma, he continued to drift in-and-out of consciousness, with short recollections of nurses transferring liquid diet into the rouse tube (which went through his nose, into his gastrointestinal tract).

When his condition got better, Matthew underwent the Lokomat-assisted walking therapy , and it was the first time post-accident, that he had looked at himself in the mirror…

“I saw a monster that looked like me. I thought this nightmare would end when I went to sleep, but it continued on when I woke up. I once remember seeing my mother teared as she wiped the sweat off my face, and revealed to me about my accident while I was lying on my bed. She had whispered into my ears – if the doctors cannot heal you, God will. While you cannot communicate with us, pray, talk to God.”

Slowly but surely, his condition improved with the rehabilitative support, and Matthew’s eventual discharge from the hospital marked his return back to mainstream society.

Chapter 2: A new chapter of social judgments and misunderstandings

However, an indentation on the right side of his head (from an operation scar) remained, which still attracts public stares frequently.

Having a large built, Matthew also receives angry faces from strangers when he bumps into them. Unbeknown to strangers at close-up glance (as Matrhew is quite tall) or when they are facing the left side of Matthew’s face, the bump is unintentional, as Matthew is actually unable to see what is on his left if he does not turn his head, due to a lack of peripheral vision.

Though he walks at a slightly slower pace, Matthew’s slight limp (from the weakness in his right lower limb) has become almost negligible. Taking a short nap inbetween heavy work tasks is also something he carries out, for an energy booster.

When queried on his feelings towards his physical scars,

“My scar symbolizes what I am. I do not feel embarass of it, nor do I see a need to hide it. If people do not accept me for how I look, that’s their problem.”

Matthew adds on that individuals with medical conditions, special needs e.g. autism, intellectual/physical disabilities should be given the same respect and dignity like and other person, instead of being perceived as having a “lower” status, “weird”, or “inadequate”.

It is heartening to know Matthew has overcome his self-image issues. However, he shares that his social skills is something he is in the midst of working on, as what he communicates to others may unintentionally come out as socially-inappropriate at times.

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Matthew (left) has a soft spot for young children.

Chapter 3: Look past my disabilities, to see my potential abilities

Despite his injury leading to disorganized, delayed thoughts, as well as poorer processing skills, Matthew’s resilient attitude has enabled him to maintain a scholarship throughout his 3 years of polytechnic education. He expresses his gratitude to his school for being ever understanding towards his needs e.g. giving him extra time to complete his exams.

There may be a societal perception that requiring a longer time to do up one’s work task equates to a lack of competency. However, Matthew feels he is able to produce the same output and quality of work just like any other person, just that he requires more time in the process.

As I was reflecting on his point, Matthew suddenly remarked in an ardent tone,

“Have you seen the art pieces done up by children with autism? They can even draw better than many of us! Society tends to only look at our academic grades or cognitive ability, without considering our other strengths as a form of holistic assessment. I hope the time and effort I put in to do my work (which is more than that of a regular person) can be valued, instead of the constant focus being solely on the end result.”

Continuing on in a confident but humble tone,

I might be lacking in some aspects, but I can still contribute to society like any other person if given the appropriate support to harness my strengths, and maximise my potential. For example, during my supplementary industrial attachment – my colleagues gave me a platform to showcase my strength in writing. I am very willing to work hard for the things I want to achieve, and may even surpass normal people in some areas.”

Chapter 4: Past setbacks has shaped me to who I’ve became today

When I invited Matthew to elaborate about his statement on “(surpassing) normal people in some areas”, he disclosed in a slightly mellow disposition…

 “During my growing up years, I was constantly teased for my “chubby physique”, and was once ostracized for being a “nerd”. One traumatic incident was when my classmates suspended me up in the air, before pulling up my briefs to give me a wedgie.

But having gone through my share of adversities, it has nonetheless built up my level of empathy to others who has gone through similar situations as me. I would like to tell everyone that taking the route less travelled, being, or looking different might not always be something bad. Everyone is loved and special in our own unique ways. Do not lose hope when you face setbacks in your lives.

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Matthew (left) posting with a friend from Church.

Chapter 5: I found the “light” that brightened up my darkest periods  

The sombre mood soon lightened up with his zeal in wanting to narrate to me the pivotal role his faith has played in his life, and I gladly obliged…

“My faith strengthened after the incident as I saw the purpose for the different phases of my life. The bullying was to build up my resilience, and the experiences helped in shaping my character.

You will be a walking testimony of what true perseverance is – was a voice of revelation I heard from God during a low moment I faced. I might not be walking perfectly now, but I’m walking the way God has planned for me. When you have hit rock bottom, the only way to move on will be to look up. I’m glad I found God in my life again. He had been carrying me all along.

Chapter 6: Integration as a step forward to mature into a socially-inclusive society

Alongside his pillar of faith, and determination in adapting back to his community, Matthew also re-iterates the importance of a supportive environment for individuals with diverse challenges and needs to reintegrate back to mainstream society.

Currently, Matthew is developing a narrative academic paper using himself as the case study. He intends to share about it during the National Occupational Therapy Conference (NOTC) later this year. He enjoys exercising during his free time e.g. swimming, and he looks forward to attending his church activities every weekend!

Like how Matthew has grown from a boy with the trials faced in his life – to a man hoping to make an impact in the lives of others, let’s hope that Singapore can too mature, and become a more socially-inclusive country! With a change in perception, comes a closer connection. With Integration starting from you and me, you bet it will create a kinder society! 🙂 

*Matthew reveals that he has has since mended his relationship with his school bullies.

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The Purple Parade (Facebook Page)

The Purple Parade (Website)

*Inaugurated in November 2013, The Purple Parade is a movement that supports the inclusion & celebrates the abilities of persons with special needs. We are making a movement towards a more inclusive society by opening our eyes to people with special needs in our community.

Relevant post:

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Letter to Singapore’s press: Hope for increased usage of disability-friendly terms in publications

Offbeat Perspective’s previous interview:

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Xperimental Pathways: (Sean Francis Han) Radical, Intellectual, Activist.

“Unheard Voices”

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Unheard Voices: Once a bullied victim, now a youth protector

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Unheard Voices: The memoir of a Singaporean Transgender Sex Worker

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