DSE 2022: How one Hong Kong student with spinal muscular atrophy overcame obstacles to score 5** on integrated science exam

  • Born with a genetic disease that weakens the muscles, 19-year-old Joyce Lam discusses the importance of perseverance and not being defined by stereotypes
  • Lam’s disability means she needs to use a wheelchair and spend two hours a day doing physiotherapy at home
Yanni Chow |

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Joyce Lam Yuk-shan, a student from Hong Kong Red Cross Princess Alexandra School, suffers from spinal muscular atrophy but still managed to achieve a 5** on her integrated science exam. Photo: Yanni Chow

Joyce Lam Yuk-shan got her Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) results on Wednesday just like everyone else, but most students didn’t have to overcome the same hurdles she faced.

The student from Hong Kong Red Cross Princess Alexandra School attained a total of 23 marks for her best five subjects on the university entrance examination, including a 5** in integrated science.

Although she didn’t technically get a perfect score, she is satisfied with her results, given the obstacles she overcame.

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Lam suffers from spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic disease that weakens the muscles due to the loss of a specific type of nerve cell in the spinal cord that controls muscle movement – in severe cases, it can even be life-threatening.

“I write slower than normal people and … get tired more easily than others,” said the 19-year-old, adding that she used to force herself to write more quickly on her homework.

DSE candidates with physical disabilities like Lam can request extra time to complete their papers, which she said helped with her performance. According to the exam authority, 3,218 candidates with special educational needs (SEN) were provided with special examination arrangements for their written examinations this year.

Lam studied for at least six hours per day during her study break. Photo: Yanni Chow

But apart from writing, Lam, who uses a wheelchair, also had to go to occasional hospital check-ups and spend at least two hours doing physiotherapy at home every day.

“I had to spend more time on physiotherapy, which cut down my revision time. Everybody has only 24 hours a day,” she said.

“My daily routine, such as eating and showering, requires more time than a normal person. When you add all that up, that’s a lot of time gone,” she said, adding that she often needs her family’s help with tasks.

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In spite of the time she spent keeping her health in check and simply doing her daily routine, Lam was able to devote six to seven hours per day revising during her study break, even managing to sneak in some studying during physiotherapy.

During the fifth wave, classes were suspended and moved online. While many students considered it a drawback, Lam was able to use it to her advantage.

“I think it was for the best because I could follow my own schedule instead,” she said.

Of course, there were moments of doubt when she felt like she was not advancing in her studies or making as much progress as she’d hoped, but she kept herself going with a simple reminder: be perseverant.

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Lam encourages other SEN students to not be defined by stereotypes.

“You need to take the first step and try. There will always be difficulties but there are also ways out,” she said.

She aims to study science either at one of the city’s top three universities – the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – or Polytechnic University.

“I like doing experiments, getting to explore new things and satisfying my curiosity,” Lam explained, adding that she hopes to eventually become a chemist.

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