7 April 2013


I took my friend Qi Shan on a train ride this morning. We did a big loop from Admiralty all around the Red line up through Orchard and back to Admiralty again. We hopped off the train at the Dhobi Ghaut train station to get an ice-cream and then we re-boarded the train back to Admiralty where Qi Shan lives with his mother.

Qi Shan has Downs Syndrome. 

He loves trains and ice creams and his mum. 

They are the three most favorite things in his life. 

Qi Shan is twenty eight years old but I think of him as a big kid. He doesn't talk very much but he is very expressive and he is happy pretty much all the time. He loves to hug people and clap his hands and I enjoy my time with him very much. 

I love it in fact.

Downs Syndrome is also known as Trisomy 21. It is a condition caused by the presence of an additional chromosome in the human body. This chromosome is numbered twenty one and hence the numerical version of the name. The condition is typically associated with a delay in cognitive ability and in physical growth and people with Downs Syndrome have a particularly distinct set of facial characteristics. With the additional genetic material in their bodies, Down's syndrome children are particularly susceptible to many conditions such as congenital heart disease and a wide range of cancers.

Their life expectancy is significantly shorter than other people.

Downs Syndrome is named after the British physician John Langdon Down. He described the syndrome in the British Medical Journal in 1886. The characteristic that I mostly associate Downs Syndrome with is one of absolute happiness. People with Downs Syndrome love to hug and laugh and play and it is delightful associating with them. 

It really is.

I first met Qi Shan a couple of years ago when I started volunteering at a Community Centre on Saturday afternoons. My friend Rowena – with whom I work - asked me if I wanted to come along one day and I told her that I would. I used to volunteer at a similar centre back in Australia and it was great fun.

The Community centre in Singapore is run solely by volunteers. They receive no government assistance. None whatsoever. The Centre was started by a support group mainly to provide respite for parents. They are also assisted by a group of university students and they are all very kind people. Like many things in Singapore these Saturday afternoon sessions are very orderly and structured. There are different themes every week where there is a focus on things like hygiene and self help. We have spent countless hours practicing washing our hands and brushing our teeth and we also practice skills such as balancing and hopping and skipping with ropes. Qi Shan does all of these tasks very easily. He is a much better hopper and skipper than I am.

The activities that the participants like to do the most though is to sing and dance. Music is played very loudly in the community hall and we all dance in a big circle. There is no air conditioning in the Centre so it gets very hot and for an old bloke like me it is quite exhausting.

With my work travel schedule I have been away from Singapore for the past couple of weekends so I asked the Volunteer coordinator if it would be alright if I took Qi Shan on an outing. She told me that would be quite OK and so I asked Qi Shan what he wanted to do. He told me he wanted to ride on a train and so this is what we did.

When I arrived at his HDB flat this morning Qi Shan was all packed up and ready to go. HDB is an acronym for ‘Housing Development Board” – which is public housing apartments here in Singapore. Qi Shan was wearing his Thomas the Tank Engine tee-shirt and he had a Thomas the Tank Engine back pack on as well. When I knocked on his door he opened it and then he threw himself into my arms and gave me an almighty hug. 

He squeezed me tight. 

He was very excited.

Here is a picture of a Singaporean train it is the type that Qi Shan likes to catch:

Qi Shan and I walked to the Admiralty station from his flat but we skipped a part of the way as well. When we got on the train Qi Shan didn't want to sit down. He wanted to stand near the doors and watch them open and close. After the third stop I was a little alarmed when Qi Shan alighted and rushed down to the next carriage. We did this for the next five stops. We carriage hopped and he thought it was great fun.

On the train quite a few people looked at Qi Shan as if he had a communicable disease. Many Singaporeans seem to dislike people with physical disabilities and there is an uncomfortable stigma attached with people with Downs Syndrome and autism. One does not see many of them out in public.

They are locked away. 

I think that this is a terrible shame and I believe that is an indictment on Singaporean society.

As we rushed into the carriage during our carriage hopping at one stop a group of young Singaporean adults looked at us with both derision and scorn. I told them not to worry and that Qi Shan didn't bite. I warned them however that I did. I gnashed my teeth at them and told them that if they didn't stop staring I would eat them alive. Qi Shan squeezed my hand very tight and he gave me a big hug when I said this, and these horrible people got off at the next station.

After an ice-cream stop at Dhobi Ghaut we caught the train back to Admiralty and I walked Qi Shan home. He was very tired and went straight to his bed for a nap.

I told him that we would do another train ride next Sunday and he clapped his hands in delight. I clapped my hands too because I had just as much fun as he did.

Maybe more.

Here is a picture of an ice-cream that Qi Shan likes to eat. His favorite flavor is chocolate. 

Mine is vanilla:

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