Sun, Mar 01, 2009
The Straits Times
Scaling one peak after another

By Wong Kim Hoh, Senior Writer

MISS OH Siew May, 38, walks with an awkward gait and speaks with great difficulty.

She was born with cerebral palsy, a condition caused by brain damage which affects her muscular control and coordination. Her disability has made her an easy target for taunts, cruel jokes and discrimination.

As if her lot in life were not bad enough, she has also experienced more than her fair share of tragedy and difficulty. A high fever rendered one of her four siblings mentally impaired while cancer robbed her of her doting father and her best friend.

However, Miss Oh chooses not to wallow in self pity but to chase and live her dreams. In 2005, she successfully climbed Mount Kinabalu in East Malaysia, which at 4,095m above sea level is one of the highest mountains in South-east Asia.

Last December, she scaled another peak when the story of her life became a book. Scaling Walls, which she wrote and published with the help of some very good friends, will be officially launched at the Jurong Regional Library tomorrow. Already, more than 3,000 copies from the book's initial print run of 5,000 have been sold.

The youngest of five children of a poor basket weaver and a washerwoman, she first started thinking about writing a book eight years ago.

'I wanted people to understand how a disabled person feels and to know that being disabled doesn't mean unable,' said Miss Oh, who completed her N levels at St Hilda's Secondary School.

Although she finds speaking difficult, the warm and bubbly woman is lucid and coherent. She describes herself as blessed because unlike many of her friends with cerebral palsy, she is mobile and not confined to a wheelchair.

Still, life is not easy.

'It's difficult to earn a living. Sometimes people will make fun of me and say nasty things. Some also act as though I have an infectious disease or think I'm 'off',' she said, circling her right index finger around her temple to indicate loopiness.

It took her more than a year to organise her thoughts and write the book. 'Sometimes I would cry and get upset when I remembered certain things,' she revealed.

Indeed, there has been a lot of sorrow in her life. For many years, she had to juggle her studies with looking after her mentally impaired third sister as well as her late mother. The latter was bedridden and suffered from a chronic skin disease which led to the amputation of her right leg.

There were other tragedies. Her eldest brother was a compulsive gambler who lost her parents' savings.

Her doting father - who worked two jobs to keep his family together - tried to kill himself after learning he had colon cancer. He died in 1998, eight months after his diagnosis.

Life has also not been smooth sailing on the professional front, says Miss Oh, who last month became a victim of the recession. The renovation company where she had been working as a clerk for two years had to let her go since business has suffered.

A true trooper, she has held down several jobs and even once had her own pushcart business in a shopping mall, selling knick-knacks. She had to give it up when Sars hit in 2003, and badly affected sales.

Convincing employers that she is able is an uphill task.

In her book, she recalls how a receptionist once refused to believe that she had an appointment for an interview and told her the company had no job for disabled people.

A slipped disc put paid to her longest stint, which was seven years as a packer and stacker at a Cold Storage outlet in Chancery Court.

Her friendly and helpful nature not only won her numerous model employee and excellent service awards at the supermarket, but many firm friends too.

One, in particular, had a great impact on her life. Performance coach Lui Ming and her little daughter Aurora taught Miss Oh to believe in herself and were instrumental in getting her to climb Mount Kinabalu and write her book.

'Ming told me: 'If you think you're useless, you're useless. I can see that you actually have a lot of passion and you've got a lot of things you want to do but it's all hidden by fear.',' she writes in Scaling Walls.

Her heart broke when Ms Lui died from colon cancer - she had hidden her condition from Miss Oh - in 2005, aged 44.

Fortunately she has many other friends, including a motley group who rallied around her last year when the fate of her book hung in the balance.

An acquaintance who had initially agreed to print and publish her story pulled out at the last minute because he and Miss Oh could not agree on contractual terms and royalties.

But the group came to the rescue. They pooled together $10,000, formed a publishing company called Siew May And Friends and got Scaling Walls edited, proof-read, designed and published in just eight weeks.

Siblings Sandra and Eric Kong of Design Vizio not only waived their fee but even rejected paying projects to design the book. Mr Johnny Chng from media moguls Pte Ltd agreed to print the book at short notice and also gave a huge discount.

Madam Jennifer Yin, a director at the National Library Board, who climbed Mount Kinabalu with Miss Oh, said: 'We just wanted to get her book out before Christmas and help her sell it so that she can get money from the royalties.

'It's a living for her. And we hope that her book will inspire schools and other organisations to invite her to give talks.'

She has already received fan mail, including a long one from an undergraduate who said her book had inspired him not to think of his painful past but to look forward to the future.

The bashful author, who is donating part of the proceeds from book sales to the Spastic Children's Association of Singapore, said: 'The mindset is very important. I want this book to give people, especially parents, hope.

'Nothing,' she added, 'is impossible.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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Scaling one peak after another