[Photo: @rbproductionsg on Instagram]
By Loraine Lee & Xaveir Yeung
We sat down with inclusivity and mental health advocate Fathima Zohra to know what motivated her from feeling hopeless to sparking hope in others and learn how we can build a more inclusive Singapore.
“People always think that it is pitiful that I can’t walk because I’m in a wheelchair, but that was the least of my problems (after the accident). Being unable to breathe was”, says Ms Fathima Zohra.
Also known as Zoe Zora, the 24-year-old is a disabilities and mental health advocate, model, and a full-time programme manager at Running Hour, an inclusive running club that aims to promote inclusion through sports.
Scrolling through her Instagram page (@zoaaax6) gives a glimpse of her journey of perseverance, struggle, acceptance, and hope as she candidly shares with her 32,700 followers about her life paralysed from the neck down.
Her humour and lively personality shines through as we sit down and chat with Ms Fathima, who added that friends describe her as strong and bold, both mentally and physically.
In 2017, then 20-year-old Ms Fathima was on a holiday in India when she got into a car accident and flew from the back seat, hitting a tree head on.
“When I woke up a month later, it was so frightening because I had no recollection (of the accident). I only know what happened based on what my family and friends told me,” she says.
“I was tied down to the bed, with a lot of tubes all around me and I couldn’t move. I had no idea I was paralyzed, I just couldn’t understand… I later found out (the doctors) had tied me down because I kept trying to pull (out) the tubes that were going into me.
“It’s traumatising being able-bodied for 20 years and suddenly waking up and being trapped in a bed and the same four walls because I couldn’t leave the hospital, with people dying in front of me.”
At first, Ms Fathima’s family members and doctors presumed that she had only suffered a brain injury, but she later developed pneumonia, was unable to regulate her own temperature, and struggled to breath days after the accident.
That was when doctors discovered she had also suffered a C6 and C7 spinal cord injury — she was paralysed from the neck down.
Basic abilities which most give no second thought to — such as how to breathe, cough and move her arms — had to be relearned. But worse yet, she had to come to terms with losing her able-bodied self.
“It was traumatising being in the hospital in India watching people die around me and with the way I was treated as incapable. I was wondering if my life was going to be me constantly asking for help,” she says.
“Almost instantly, everyone forgot that I am still a person who can do things, and I felt like I became a burden.”
However, she credits her friends and family who stuck by her side for helping her make it “this far”, describing caring for her as a full-time job as they watched over her and ensured she did not choke on her phlegm as she was unable to cough.
Through her perseverance, alongside the support from her family and friends, Ms Fathima has since regained mobility in her arms and regularly goes to the gym. From thinking that she was going to die to recovering her mobility in her hands, she calls her recovery journey her greatest achievement — a journey that is still ongoing today.
“Don’t take away our power by pitying us”
Despite the progress from the days she struggled to breathe, she acknowledges that she is often the subject of pity from strangers and others in society.
“People define you by your wheelchair, assuming you’re not able to do anything,” says Ms Fathima, adding she felt sad in the beginning as her efforts in rehabilitation were being overlooked.
She shares how uncomfortable she feels when she receives stares from strangers in public, invading her privacy “as if I can’t see them”.
What’s worse? The strangers who would approach and ask what is ‘wrong’ with her. When she is out of home, these are a cruel, daily occurrence.
“There is nothing ‘wrong’ with me or anyone with a disability. You don’t know what mental space we are in, and not everyone has the strength to handle these questions,” stated Ms Fathima.
She added that the lack of inclusivity in society, with the added judgemental looks from strangers, pushes some with disabilities and mental health issues to struggle in silence. Some are also afraid of leaving their homes because they fear how society perceives them.
“They don’t look beyond my disability and (they) think I’m incapable, but I want to prove them wrong.”
Advocacy for an inclusive future
Ms Fathima uses her Instagram page as a platform to advocate for increased inclusivity and mental health awareness through sharing her experiences. Images of her exercising at the gym and enjoying herself with friends and family scatter the page, giving power to her message that others like her can live a fulfilling life.
She says the biggest draw to her story is the shared experiences and understanding she has with her viewers.
“I was ignorant, I came from a place of privilege to have an able body. Being able to come from that place of understanding makes my story relatable,” she adds.
Ms Fathima lays bare her struggle with depression on social media and doesn’t hide the fact she misses her able-body — especially being able to walk or get ready to leave her home within minutes rather than hours.
“It’s real, and it shouldn’t be a secret that I miss my former body. I am proud of who I am and the things that I do, but I do have to be honest,” she says.
“By being open about my thoughts, struggles and challenges, I hope we can normalise these conversations of mental health so people do not feel alone and feel comfortable to speak up.”
But as with being a public figure on the Internet, Ms Fathima is the occasional recipient of hate comments from netizens, with some saying she uses her social media platform merely to garner ‘attention’ and ‘sympathy’. She has also received attacks for putting her physique on the internet, which she tries to not take personally.
“It does affect me, but it’s for the greater good of helping others by making society more aware and understanding,” says Ms Fathima.
“Even though I do get hate (comments), just knowing that I have helped someone — even just one person — keeps me going.
“I just want society to be more kind and understanding.”
What should an inclusive Singapore look like?
Aside from her Instagram page, Ms Fathima collaborates with organisations to push for inclusivity in Singapore. In December 2020, she partnered with Maybank Singapore’s #HeartofSg campaign to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (Singapore), and Maybank matched each dollar donated.
“It’s empowering knowing that big organisations are willing to do better by encouraging youth to do good and support people with disabilities,” she says.
She hopes Singaporeans would join her in championing inclusiveness and hopes that everyone will be treated as equals.
“Don’t see a person with disabilities as someone that has to be better, but take (the) time and effort to educate yourselves and truly understand the situation. We aren’t just inspirational stories or a way for others to feel better about themselves,” she says.
“Just treat us like how you would want to be treated.”
While Ms Fathima understands that strangers may want to help out of goodwill, she hopes that she would be asked first, recounting situations where strangers have grabbed her wheelchair and pushed her. These actions are not only sudden and shocking, but can also be disorienting and ignores her own will, she says.
“There’s a whole community like me out there that is genuinely trying hard every day to show society that we are much more than what happened to us,” Ms Fathima says.
“Know that we are capable, we are more than our disability. Our disability doesn’t define us.”