Theresa Goh is 34 this year. She’s known for many things—being a Paralympic medallist and Singapore’s first swimming world champion among them. She also happens to be an ambassador for the Gay Games in Hong Kong, having already fulfilled the role at Singapore’s very own Pink Dot in 2017. Being an openly gay athlete in Singapore is uncommon, and for someone on Goh’s level of visibility, it is practically unheard of.
“I’ve always been a little bit stubborn,” Goh jokes when asked if she had been afraid of the backlash when she first came out publicly for years ago. “And I sometimes feel like my disability is my shield. Who wants to be mean to someone in a wheelchair?”
Goh has congenital spina bifida and is a passionate advocate for the disability community, knowing well the value of accessibility both in the physical and digital realm. Two years after retiring from swimming, her focus is now trained on championing inclusivity for marginalised groups—particularly the ones she belongs to. Here, she opens up about her new life, representing the disability and LGBT communities in Singapore, and what she hopes the future holds.
“It’s difficult work, allowing inclusion and access for everyone, but its work that’s worth the effort”
You retired from swimming in 2019. What was that like?
After retiring, I was a little bit lost, to be honest. I had known that life for 20 years—I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go. I just knew I wanted to continue using my voice to speak about issues that matter to me, like disability inclusion and LGBT rights.
What are you up to right now?
I’m still figuring that out at the moment. I’m a civil servant, and I’m enjoying that. It’s been very interesting to look behind the scenes. But on the other hand, I do wonder if it’s the best way to be using my voice. I think the fact is that—as much as I sometimes don’t like it—my name can carry some weight in some circles, and I want to make sure I’m not wasting my life just staying behind the scenes when I could be effecting a lot more change.
2021 has been fast-moving. The ups and downs have been so sudden. One of the ways that I’ve been able to still have conversations about topics that matter to me is a YouTube channel I set up with my girlfriend. She’s Chinese-Indian by heritage, so we talk about what it is like to be in an inter-able, interracial relationship.
What made you want to start the channel?
Honestly, it came about when she was trying to plan my birthday weekend and realised that there were a lot of things she couldn’t plan for me. She would call a place and they’d be like, “Uh, did you say wheelchair? Then I think better not.” (laughs) They usually weren’t interested in finding out what kind of disability or access needs I had. They just hear the word wheelchair and choose to turn away. We realised these were things we could talk about—it’s interesting to be able to push topics that I may not be able to do at work on outside.
What do you think is the state of accessibility in Singapore today? Has it improved over the years?
Things have improved for sure. When it comes to transport, for example, I used to have to wait for a bus that had a wheelchair sign at the front. These days, I usually don’t have to wait long anymore. But we have a long way to go still. Things are getting better, but the goal is to be able to travel or do things without having to ask for help.
There’s an MRT station in Singapore that sticks in my mind because of how the lift is set up. There’s a stair climber with three steps which leads to the lift. (laughs) So to get to the lift, which is my access need, I have to call the security guard to bring me up. And it just makes me think, you know, why is this necessary? Why not build a ramp? With malls as well—and this is COVID-related, definitely–I forget sometimes that they have left only the main entrance open, which is sometimes not accessible. The side entrances, which I used to be able to enter through, are now closed. So often I have to call the security guard, or ask a stranger to help me, which can be quite strange.
What does digital inclusion mean?
When done right, digital inclusion uses technology to improve access. It’s about having accessibility options to suit the accessibility needs of different disability groups—whether those are screen readers or bigger fonts. COVID-19 has actually opened my eyes to this more. I think I’ve been able to see the transition of physical events to digital ones from a different perspective. I like going for poetry events, and sometimes they’re held in shophouse areas or spaces which are not very accessible. If it’s online, all I have to do is log on. I’m suddenly afforded access to it—it’s a more equal platform.
What are some good examples of how digital inclusion can improve access?
For people like me with physical access needs, Lumihealth is a great example. I don’t have to worry about losing points because the app recognises that I’m on a wheelchair. The Apple Watch Activity app is also really good with this. When I open the app, under exercise, there’s the option for wheelchair walk or run—it’s actually meant to track your wheelchair revolution. I was so happy to see that! It felt like someone had thought about me, which is so different from feeling like I have to adapt on my own.
How can organisations and digital platforms endeavour to be more inclusive and mindful of accessibility needs?
There are a lot of avenues. I’ve started to notice a lot more captioning. At webinars, for examples, captioning is turned on, or there’s a sign language interpreter because organisers recognise that there may be deaf participants. There’s also been a lot of conversation recently about how Clubhouse, given that it’s largely an audio-based platform, could be more inclusive to deaf users.
Ultimately it comes down to companies taking the lead and realising that there are consumers who will benefit from digital inclusion. There’s a misconception that nobody will use it, or that too small a population will use it. There’s more than just people in wheelchairs—we have a rising elderly population. We always think of the disabled as a whole separate population, but the truth is that someone who is able-bodied one day, could very easily be part of the disabled population the next day.
It’s also important to be mindful of different access needs. Sometimes when people want to create accessibility, they think only about the easiest group to reach. So you see a product or app advertised as accessible or inclusive, when it only caters to a small group. It’s because the maker’s understanding of accessibility is not synced with the user. And this applies to everything, whether digital or physical.
How can this problem be solved when developing inclusive infrastructure, products or apps?
What could be useful is getting somebody who uses the product or service to try it first-hand, instead of having someone able-bodied guess that it works. Chances are, they are going to miss out on something. Having a user test the product to make sure that it is truly as accessible as you think it is probably best.
“You can’t say I’m disabled without saying I’m gay. It’s been important for me to enforce the fact that I’ll talk about both”
Besides being an advocate for disability-inclusion, you are also involved in LGBT advocacy. Why is that important to you?
One of the main reasons is that I’m aware of my own privilege. I see what some of my friends—specifically those in the LGBT community—have gone through, and it can truly be harrowing. I’ve never been shamed or turned away by my own family and friends. I’ve never had to feel like I cannot be myself, especially amongst my loved ones. I’ve had my own negative experiences, of course, whether it’s based on my gender expression or my sexuality. In my younger years, I remember going for photoshoots and being asked to wear dresses, which is not something I was comfortable with. There are still photos of me in dresses because I didn’t feel empowered to say no. Regardless, I still feel like I’ve been so lucky. Given the spotlight that I have, I don’t just want to talk about my swimming—I think it’s the least interesting part of me. My goal is to talk about things that allow other people to feel comfortable being who they are.
Have you faced any backlash for being an openly gay public figure in Singapore?
I was a little afraid of going back to training in the pool when I first came out publicly. There are a lot of parents and kids around, and I didn’t know if parents would come up to me and say something. But it was the opposite—parents came up to me and said they were proud of me. It empowered me so much to keep speaking up.
I’ve really been lucky—after I came out, the Disability Sports Council and Sports Singapore never pushed back or made me feel like I was causing trouble. But that’s not always the case. Many of our athletes still are afraid to be public, they fear that their endorsements will be revoked or their management is strict with the image they put out. And I know there are so many people who want to speak up but can’t—I do it for those people. I haven’t figured out how to be a proper activist yet. But I feel like my main role is representation. So I try to be as public as I can. I try to be myself and represent all the different labels I think I represent.
What has it been like straddling the intersectionality of your identities?
It’s interesting because I’ve found that people are more willing to talk about one side of me than the other. You can’t say I’m disabled without saying I’m gay. It’s been important for me to enforce the fact that I’ll talk about both. It’s been an issue in the past with companies who want to talk about my sporting achievements and my disability and not my sexuality. So I’ve been strict with saying, “No, I need to talk about all of it.” You can’t pick the parts of me that are convenient for you. So it’s been about taking ownership of my story—but again, the fact is that I am privileged enough to be able to do so.
Through your work, is there a legacy you hope to leave behind?
I don’t think I want a legacy, to be honest. I’m completely happy if people forget me. I just hope my actions lead to betterment in society. I’d like to know that my life has not been wasted. The fact is that still, a lot of people see disabled athletes as less than, and it bleeds into things like monetary support for Paralympic athletes being far less than Olympic athletes. I’d like to direct this to people in power who have the opportunity to change things. I hope they see that they need to think for everyone, and that everyone should be allowed to have an equal platform. It’s difficult work, allowing inclusion and access for everyone, but its work that’s worth the effort.
I’m hopeful about the future—with the internet and social media, we’ve been seeing a lot more youth coming up to talk about issues that matter to them. Whether they are disabled or not, whether they are affected personally or not, they care. That’s a great sign.