By Clarine See (18S03G) and Zacchaeus Chok (18S03O)
Photographs courtesy of Aiken Lee (18S06G)
For their final batch project in Community Advocates (CA), the Y6 members organised an event targeted at persons with intellectual disabilities (PWIDs). In partnership with the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS), months of discussion and planning culminated in Confluence 2018 – a day of bonding and interactions between student volunteers and PWIDs from MINDS. Some members from Raffles Press participated in the event, and bring you our experiences and thoughts from the day.
The Indoor Sports Hall started to come alive with a buzz of activity – new arrivals from MINDS were ushered to their respective groups, and CA members in each group made an effort to break the ice with self-introductions. A few groups were noticeably larger, with close to 20 members, and students did struggle to familiarise themselves with so many new faces at once.
In some ways, this was alike the first day of Orientation, the stark difference being that the spontaneous interactions that form between the circle of students at Orientation was noticeably absent. The main question on the minds of student volunteers was: how do we interact with them? Thankfully, quick thinking by some managed to break the awkward tension. They used balloons that had been put up in the ISH as decor to kickstart a game of ‘the floor is lava’, and the frosty silence in the hall was soon replaced by laughter and cheers.
The Mass Dance segment that followed was not without hitches, with technical difficulties preventing a video of the dance from being projected. CA members swiftly stepped in to provide a live demonstration, and the PWIDs quickly got into the swing of things, confidently following the beat of the music and showing off their dance moves.
Following the Mass Dance, groups were allocated either Sports or Arts activities, depending on their level of activity. For the Sports segment, groups were rotated between games of handball, basketball and badminton, with CCA members from each sport generously lending their time to guide the PWIDs in picking up the basics. With the easy camaraderie inherent in playing sports, students did start to feel more at ease and the PWIDs did become more willing to mix with the students instead of exclusively with the volunteers from MINDS Youth Group (MYG).
The Arts groups carried out a series of simple arts-and-crafts activities, with the painting activity yielding the most smiles and particularly beautiful pieces. Sabharwal Sachi (18S03C), a CA member from the Arts groups, felt fulfilled and shared that ‘it was really sweet seeing how much they loved the end product’.
At the Sports station, things were noticeably more hectic but at the same time, rambunctious. Unlike the typical handball game where players rowdily tackle opponents to get their shots through, the handball matches played were marked by guidance and pacing by the volunteers. Expectedly, the inherent communication difficulties left both the beneficiaries and volunteers frustrated as some became upset over not receiving passes while others walked out of the game. Still, what warmed us as volunteers was the active engagement and participation of the beneficiaries, and the occasional bursts of joy in scoring a goal.
Dinner arrived. Badminton rackets were dropped and paint sponges put down in reaction to the long-awaited announcement for dinner time. More than just customary in function, the dinner was included as part of the event not just to satiate hunger but to bridge the stark gaps between students and our beneficiaries.
That we could easily converse like in a normal dinner gathering is indeed a stretch. While students had somewhat warmed up to the idea of interacting with PWIDs, there remained an existential empathy gap. Unsurprisingly, while small talk was extant, sustained conversations were mostly muted. Nonetheless, the MINDS volunteers were familiar with the beneficiaries and did try to draw everyone into conversations, brightening the mood to some extent.
Karaoke was on the agenda next, as groups returned to the ISH. There were some PWIDs who contented in swaying in time with the music, while a more enthusiastic group ran up to stage to sing and dance their hearts out. What was most valuable in the karaoke activity was that the PWIDs could use casual singing as a medium to comfortably and freely express themselves and enjoy the support of fellow peers, and that in itself is especially valuable in bolstering their confidence
With all the obvious differences that we focus on in PWIDs, there are in actuality real similarities that can be found, such as mutual support. One of the youngest beneficiaries at the event seemed just like any other jovial 10-year old kid, and he bravely stomped up in front to sing along, as encouraged by his fellow friends.
As the event wound down and the hype of music waned, the same kid approached one of us to bid goodbye. At the same time, another beneficiary came up and gave a hug while muttering thank you. While seemingly random in nature, and perhaps eccentric by our conventions, these acts do reveal the way PWIDs see us – as friends.
Do we view them through the same lens? Or do we constantly harbour thoughts of precaution, paranoid of the potential dangers they pose to us? As CA member Jenell Ong (18S03A) shared, it is exactly because of these fears that intellectual disability ‘remains one of the most misunderstood disabilities in Singapore today’, leading to PWIDs suffering ‘higher levels of hostility and social distancing’ with the general populace. For this reason, Confluence 2018 was conceived: to provide a platform for RI students to meet and mingle with PWIDs, whom they would otherwise have little contact with, to allow for the forging of new understandings of and personal bonds with PWIDs.
Indeed, as volunteers, the event accentuated the pre-existing differences we had in mind. Yet, while such doubts of incompatibility may persist, we realised that ultimately, a change in mindset is required on our part. For what stands in between PWIDs and the wider society is the familiar constellation of pre-existing stereotypes and misguided convictions that we chose to maintain and refuse to shake off.