Monday, April 25, 2016

Calling the shots in life with wheelchair basketball

This article was first posted on AbleThrive.

Singaporean para­athlete Emilio Choo, 34, came into contact with wheelchair basketball through something completely unrelated: learning how to drive a hand­controlled car.

During a driving lesson at Handicaps Welfare Association, the person in­charge of wheelchair basketball noticed that Emilio was still “young and mobile”, and told him he was suitable for the sport. He had always been a fan of team sports, playing soccer and basketball long before a spinal injury 14 years ago left him paralysed from the waist down. “A team complements each other. You can be good at something but no one is perfect. A team can cover your shortfalls,” he said.

But he didn’t think that he would be able to continue playing sports – or achieve anything significant – after his injury. “To be independent is a big enough accomplishment. For a year I even thought, that’s the end of it and I would be bedridden for life. But to be out here and doing something [at] the ASEAN Para Games [in December 2015]… I never thought I would be able to represent the nation in any way at all.”

Being active can mean different things for different people. For some, it can be a way to meet new people. For others, it’s a way to improve their health – both physically and mentally. For people with disabilities, sports can also serve as a way to empower themselves. Emilio thinks that trying a new sport encourages people with disabilities to get out of their physical and mental comfort zones.

“I know it’s tough initially – I went through it – there’s no need to rush. But I really think sports and interaction can help you overcome all challenges. Even if you have a family that’s encouraging and providing you with help, there’s nothing better than being independent. By coming out and meeting people in similar situations, you can gain the confidence to improve your life.”

Although Emilio went through a bout of depression after his injury, he feels his mental health improved greatly with the help of his teammates. “Hanging around with them helped me a lot because they went through the same things and had good advice for me. They also made me feel that there’s nothing wrong with being in a wheelchair. We joke about it, we say things like ‘why your hands so short’ and ‘jelly legs’. We laugh at each other. Those kind of things help you accept who you are.”

Since becoming a wheelchair athlete, Emilio has had his fair share of physical and psychological challenges. For example, he has had to shift his perceptions of fitness. While as an able­-bodied athlete, he was more concerned with stamina, his priorities now are his upper body strength and balance.

“In the past, I was tall. So it was easier for me to play basketball. I didn’t even need to jump, I just had to lift slightly and I was taller than everyone else. But now I have to learn to do things differently. For me, because of my disability I don’t have much balance on the chair. I have to learn to shoot from a wheelchair and to get my balance, [I have] to strap myself down.”

His favourite part of being on a team is being able to build on the strength of others and to know that he can always count on their support. Each player has a specific role to play to the best of their abilities, which enables them to support one another on and off the court.“At the ASEAN Para Games, even though I took most of the shots, I would not have been able to do so without my teammates. They gave me good positions, and gave me the ball to shoot.”

As for the value of sports in his life, Emilio counts “a fighting spirit” as the best dividend from investing himself in wheelchair basketball. “Even when the odds are down, don’t give up. Like life, you have to try and try. You cannot get things right from the start, so you have to practise to get the perfect shot.” Vulnerability in teamwork is another valuable lesson he has learned: “You need help in team sports, you cannot do it all on your own. You don’t have to.”

Emilio is predictably wistful about the importance of his team in his life. “My teammates, I have been playing with them for 13 years. They are [not only] my teammates, but also my mentors. They taught me a lot in life.” For him, basketball isn’t just an opportunity to regain physical, but also emotional strength. It has been a way to regain his independence and self­-confidence to call his own shots in life. “Someone told me this: you might miss a shot if you’re not good. But if you don’t even try to make a shot it will never even get in.”

If you’re a newcomer or beginner to wheelchair basketball, but curious and game for an aggressive sport and working as a team, contact us and we’ll put you in touch. (Don’t worry, you won’t be pressured into joining the team!)

“Be daring, don’t be afraid. If you keep trying, we’ll support each other.”

Check out this YouTube video of Emilio explaining why he loves wheelchair basketball, and watch him take a shot!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Does religion trump race? Yes, at least in Singapore.

One of the biggest problems that Muslim women face today is the need to deconstruct and reconstruct narratives of ourselves in the media. (That’s why Muslimah Media Watch exists, amirite?) A recent interview of Professor Jackie Ying, a Chinese Muslim scientist in Singapore, by a Singaporean Malay language news channel shows that this need can exist just as painfully among Muslims themselves.

50-year-old Professor Ying is presently the Executive Director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore. Born in Taiwan, she came to Singapore at the age of seven to complete her primary and secondary school education. At the age of 15 her family moved to New York, and she attended high school and The Cooper Union to complete a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Afterwards, she obtained her MA and PhD from Princeton University. In 2001, she became one of the youngest full professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The interview was brought to my attention through a blogpost by Singaporean blogger Zaihan, in which he highlighted the problematic ‘entanglement’ of race and religion. (The blog was last accessed on 26 Feb 2016 and seems to be currently unavailable.)
“Due to her choice of converting to Islam about 15 years ago, Professor Ying is somehow now seen as a representative of the Malay/Muslim community. She was asked to comment on issues that this group faces; on how she would change or improve interest in the sciences amongst the youth of the demographic, for example. She was even prodded to share the “kemelayuan”—Malayness, in short—that she sees in herself. It’s so strange because she is Muslim, but not Malay. She was not quite able to answer so many of these queries levelled at her, because she had not lived as a Malay (…)”
In Singapore, just like in Malaysia, ethnicity and religion are deeply intertwined. To be a Malay often means to be Muslim, and Muslim converts are usually expected to adopt Malay practices. Elsewhere in MMW I wrote that “these two terms [Malay and Muslim] are often used interchangeably.” One problem with this false equivalence of terms is that it erases the experiences of Muslims of other ethnicities, like Professor Ying herself. However, this is something that is sometimes reinforced by the ehnic group itself, in this particular case, the Malay community, as highlighted by blogger Zaihan:
“The blatant manner that Berita Harian and local Malay news programmes claim her amazing achievements (she is truly prolific and well-decorated) as a Malay-Muslim point of pride—simply by virtue of her holding the same faith as their target readers—is not only very silly but also insulting to her journey.”
The other problem with equating Malays and Muslims is the discursive erasure of Malays of other religions, even though they make up a very small percentage of the population. One’s religious identity takes precedence over any other identities.

In the half-hour clip, the interviewer asks several questions that assume that Professor Ying somehow would understand what it means to be Malay, just because she converted to Islam. The interviewer poses these questions:
  1. What is the reason behind the low numbers of Malay Muslims participating in science and research?
  2. What more can the Malay Muslim community do to encourage, ensure and produce a group of science practitioners?
  3. Do you see any Malay Muslims [in your institute] who have the potential to be [a Nobel Prize winner]?
Professor Ying works with the local Malay/Muslim community through Yayasan Mendaki, a “self-help” semi-governmental organisation. She mentors young Muslims interested in science by giving them the opportunity of working on research projects in her laboratory. While she could not answer these questions from the perspective of a Malay, she did have insights from the perspective of an educator.

She highlighted the shortcomings of science education, and she said,”I think it’s the same problem for everybody. Students learn science as a fairly dry subject.” Furthermore, she spoke about the emphasis on exams and early streaming, “Doing well academically is different from being able to do research well in the lab. We have too much of a civil service mindset.”

Even though the interviewer’s questions framed her as having to speak for the Singaporean Malay community by virtue of being Muslim, I think she managed to steer the conversation away to – as much as she could – create her own representation. The struggle continues for Muslim women to create their own narratives and resisting those imposed on them.
“I think from being young, we wanted to grow up to be individuals. It was important for me that my parents did not set me in certain pigeonholes. They are very accepting of who I am (…) Of course society is a different story. We have a lot of constraints. But because my parents never set those limitations, I never felt there was something I couldn’t do. I think it’s that: we set our own challenges that makes it possible for us to try different things.”
In Singapore, the conflation of ethnicity and religion erases individual narratives, as Professor Ying highlights here. However, with this interview she has given us an example of how to resist dominant media narratives – an example both media makers and participants can learn from.


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