SINGAPORE: Three days a week, Quek Hong An, 31, wakes up early, all excited and prepped for work. He commutes to mushroom farm Edible Garden City in Queensway, where he learns how to prepare substrate for the mushrooms to grow.
By most measures, Mr Quek leads a rather ordinary life – but for a person born with Down Syndrome, ordinary is good.
His family long ago decided never to let his disability define his limitations, and have been patiently providing him with every opportunity to learn, grow and get involved in anything that he takes an interest in.
Said his mother, May Quek, who refused to accept an expert’s prognosis that he would forever be stuck at the mental age of five: “They can do so much more than what you expect, sometimes beyond your own expectations.
“Don’t hide them in the house, and don’t be afraid to show them off to the world. If people are patient with them, they can make a positive contribution.”
Mr Quek isn’t the only individual with Down Syndrome – a genetic condition where a person has an extra chromosome, which causes developmental delays – to excel in their jobs and their passions, with the help of their parents, peers and employers.
Ms Nadhrah Daud, for instance, is a bowler who has won silver for Singapore at the Special Olympics and works three days a week at a fast-food restaurant.
Some one in 800 people worldwide are born with Down Syndrome. In a special series, the programme On the Red Dot (Fridays, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5) profiles a few individuals with this and other special needs, focusing on how the community tries to provide them with what’s needed to lead productive and meaningful lives. (Watch the episode here.)
‘I AM NOT DIFFERENT’
Mrs Quek recalled the day her son was born. It was only then that the couple discovered that Hong An had Down Syndrome.
“After I gave birth, I noticed that my husband’s face was not very happy. Then the paediatrician told me.
“I didn’t know what to think. It didn’t mean a thing to me, I didn’t know anything about Down syndrome,” she said.
Later, a professor warned them that her son would probably remain at the mental age of five, and that it would be best that he be sent to a dedicated home catered specially for his needs.
“It was really very discouraging but my husband and I, we did not give up. We believed that there is a future for (children like him),” she said.
The couple never shied away from letting him participate in all aspects of community life. “He is like the rest of us, with all our needs and wants.
“His interests are in cars, sports and in girls. From a very young age, he would chat up the waitress,” she laughed.
Mr Quek said that he likes to wash the family’s car, watch Youtube videos and drink coffee, adding: “I am not different. I am just like everybody.”
Before working at the mushroom farm, Mr Quek had held a couple of other jobs such as doing housekeeping duties in hotels. But these were either unsuitable for those with Down Syndrome, or the work conditions weren’t right.
Mrs Quek said persons with special needs like her son are suited to certain mundane tasks that few like. “They like routine, so, they will get on with it as long as they know what they should do. They can do it and not feel bored,” she said.
WHO’S ‘NORMAL’ AND ‘ABNORMAL’ REALLY?
Mr Quek’s bosses at the farm have adapted the job to suit their special needs staff. This social enterprise was set up not just to sell mushrooms to restaurants and supermarkets, but also to give those with Down syndrome an opportunity to earn an income.
Supervisor Mr Ng Sze Kiat said that when he first started working with Mr Quek and his friends with special needs, he was anxious as he didn’t know what to expect.
But the moment he met them, he felt an “instant connection” and they “clicked” straight away.
“It has been an extreme joy working with them,” sad Mr Ng.
Ultimately, I don’t believe they are special needs people. Who are we to say that we are normal and that they are abnormal? I think we are just different.
“We should learn to embrace that and one another,” he added.
Their challenge now, said Mr Ng, is to fine-tune their processes so as to ensure that the work is comfortable for Mr Quek and his friends.
As a member of the Down Syndrome Association (DSA), Mr Quek attends an adult enhancement programme designed to get people like him ready for working life.
DSA’s training officer Ms Nurshuhada Suhaimi explained that they are trying to inculcate the habit of living independently, working on their own and earning their own wages.
“I can see a greater change in (Hong An) in that he is more responsible. And he has communicated to me that he is doing his job well and that he wants to do it better,” she said.
WATCH: Not giving up (3:18)
Ms Nadhrah’s family also did everything they could to develop her strength and her confidence.
Madam Ratna Daud introduced her daughter to swimming and bowling when she was young, as she thought that these physical activities would be good for both her physical development and her confidence.
The young go-getter is today a Special Olympics athlete, who bowled her way to an individual silver medal at the Special Olympics Summer Games in Athens in 2010.
Ms Nadhrah has also been working at McDonald's for two years now, for three days a week.
It has changed her, said her mother. For instance, at home she would take the initiative to help with sweeping the floor, doing the laundry or cleaning the table. “Working helps to give her confidence,” said Mdm Ratna.
Before Ms Nadhrah was born, the mother of four admitted, she’d always pushed her other children to excel, especially academically.
But with Nadhrah around, she taught me how to slow down and to appreciate my other children’s achievements.
“While she cannot achieve as much as what normal children can, I am grateful for her small achievements,” she said. “Any kid would have their own rate of development, so you should not compare.”
BENEFITS OF BEING MY BROTHER’S SISTER
Mr Quek’s younger sister Ms Marian Quek is quick to point out that there are some things her brother can do that she can’t – such as going up a stage, grabbing a microphone and engaging the audience.
“For those with Down Syndrome, they can’t read as fast as me, they can’t go to university. That’s all true. But they can do a lot of things too,” she said.
People around her always imagined that it would be disruptive growing up with a sibling with Down Syndrome. But nothing could be further from the truth, she said, recounting instead the benefits that she reaped – such as getting invited backstage to meet Barney at a Barney & Friends show when they were kids.
“When we took a flight, he was allowed to go in the cockpit after the flight. Then, I was this little sister who was tagging along,” she said.
DSA assistant director Andrew Soh said there are sufficient opportunities for persons with Down Syndrome in Singapore to develop their capabilities, thanks to the support from employers and families.
Some of their members have been working for as long as 20 years.
Very often, we hear feedback from fellow colleagues that it’s very nice to have a genuine, very smiley and friendly person working alongside them.
“It makes their day, and it also makes the fellow workers a little more patient and understanding towards people with special needs,” said Mr Soh.
“I think that sets the tone and is the first step towards getting more Singaporeans to be more inclusive of others in the community.”
Watch this full episode of On The Red Dot here.