How She Does It is a series by CLEO featuring Singaporean women in their 20s carving out names for themselves in their respective fields. Know someone suitable for this column? Contact us at email@example.com.
Up till three years ago, Zoe Zora (@zoraaax6) was living a life no different from that of many women her age: she was a student, part-time model and fashion, beauty and fitness brand endorser. Then she got into a car accident while in India.
“We hit a tree and I was thrown from the backseat to the windshield. I not only suffered a brain injury, but also broke my spinal cord. It left me paralysed chest down,” says the 23-year-old.
“Waking up to tubes going down my nose because I couldn’t eat, and tubes going down my throat because I couldn’t breathe, left me traumatised. I became an emotional, mental and physical wreck. I wasn’t sure of who I was anymore.”
Her life changed forever, but she soon found out that her purpose in life did too.
The physical and mental impact the accident had on her
After three months in the hospital, Zoe was desperate to leave even though her doctors weren’t willing to discharge her.
“I’d been athletic my whole life, so being trapped in a hospital bed and staring at the same four walls for months was agonising. My family decided to make things a bit better for me by transforming a room in our house into a hospital room with equipment and nurses.”
She was allowed to return to Singapore half a year later, but because of the trauma she experienced, developed bipolar disorder and clinical depression and had to go for counselling. Aside from occupational rehabilitation, which she will have to undergo for the rest of her life, she is still on medication to this day.
“It was extremely hard to come to terms with what happened to me. I told my orthopaedic surgeon I want to walk again but he laughed, said I have ‘very high ambitions’ and told me that that was never going to happen. That was the day I acknowledged the fact that I might never walk again.”
It didn’t help that she also had to adapt to the physical changes that come with her disability.
“I went from being athletic to barely having the energy to move. I went from modelling confidently in front of the camera to barely identifying myself on a wheelchair, or knowing what to do with my body on one.
“Modelling came so easy to me when I had a body that could move in any way I wanted. I knew what it was like to walk for 20 years, so adapting to a wheelchair was the hardest thing to do.”
But Zoe was determined to not let her circumstances defeat her.
She now uses her voice to speak up for herself and others
For one, she still lives a life no different from that of many women her age. She graduated last year and currently holds a full-time job with Runninghour, a running club that provides support for special needs runners. She also still models—scroll through her Instagram account and you’ll see that she’s not only been involved in a couple of campaigns, but is also an ambassador of Will and Well, a local clothing brand that caters to the disabled.
And now, she also uses her social media account for a different purpose.
“I use it to promote inclusiveness. Society overshadows people with disabilities as there’s a misconception that the disabled are less than the able-bodied people or less capable. I want to break the stigma and show that I’m more than my disability.”
But she doesn’t just speak up for herself—she also speaks up for those with disabilities who can’t speak up for themselves.
“For the past two years, I’ve been co-facilitating groups with different disabilities to understand the different struggles and challenges they face in society. I use my platform to spread awareness of the difficulties and the challenges faced by people with all sorts of disabilities.”
“Every day, the disabled fight against ableism. We fight against the ignorance that tells us to hate our bodies. I hope to make sure that anyone with a physical or intellectual disability is never left feeling alone in their fight and to help them to cope in different life situations,” she explains. In recognition of her efforts, she was a recipient of the Goh Chok Tong Enable Awards last year.
That’s not to say she doesn’t have her own struggles anymore. She has just learnt to cope with them.
“I get stares from strangers every day and I do get stares of pity and even disgust. People have also approached me to ask what happened, and told me things like, ‘You’re so young and so poor thing.’ I was extremely affected in the beginning but came to realised that they’re just curious, as anyone would be.”
“I accept help when I’m desperate. I can’t ask people to treat me like how they would treat others because sometimes I’m helpless, so I accept help.”
She adds that her disability has also helped her see who are the people around her that matter.
“My friendships have completely changed. There are a lot of restrictions with a disability and the ones who only wanted to walk, run and do normal able- bodied things with me left. I’m grateful for everyone that has stayed by my side and reminded me that I can live a different yet fulfilling life.”
It’s probably safe to say that not everyone can emerge from an experience like that the way Zoe has. So how does she do it?
“I might never walk again, but that shouldn’t stop me from achieving what I want,” she says.
“We don’t realise how much strength we have until being strong is the only option we’re left with. I learnt to get used to my new lifestyle and found my purpose in the midst of all the suffering.”
Images: Zoe’s Instagram