2006 has been a year of interesting development for the disability movement in Malaysia. There is a greater awareness regarding the social model of disability. This concept sees society as the disabling factor instead of impairments. In short, it is the attitude and built barriers that disable people. The environment is built for the majority when it should have been made to be usable by all. This essentially marginalises and segregates pockets of society that are deemed to be different from the rest.
There is also a general understanding among the disabled community now that living with impairment does not necessarily mean having to live a less fulfilling life. As long as disabled persons can make informed decisions regarding issues that affect them, they are able to lead a reasonably rewarding life. This is due largely to the effort of the Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat Malaysia (JKMM) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA) effort in supporting Independent Living Programmes for People with Disability.
Dr. Kenji Kuno, Chief Advisor of JICA, must be credited for this initiative and his effort in empowering the disability movement in Malaysia. Through JKMM and JICA, he organised various trainings for disabled persons and welfare officers, and provided valuable technical expertise in this field to the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on disability-related issues. His insight and experience makes him a valuable resource person and injects a fresh breath to the movement in Malaysia.
The most prominent event in 2006 where disability issues are concerned was not the FESPIC Games but the campaign for accessible public transport organised by the Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group (BEAT). FESPIC Games displayed the painful reality of the infrastructure and non-existent accessible public transport in Malaysia, especially for wheelchair users. At a national conference on accessibility organised by the Kementerian Pembangunan Wanita, Keluarga dan Masyarakat, a speaker likened athletes that needed assistance to board non-accessible buses on steep makeshift ramps to cattle being herded into trucks.
BEAT, an informal coalition comprising sixteen major NGOs in the Klang Valley, were concerned that none of the public buses catered to the needs of the mobility impaired. The group held a campaign in September to demonstrate the dire situation of public transport for wheelchair users and a rally at Brickfields on the International Day of Disabled Persons to highlight the matter again. The event was widely covered by the print and electronic media and caught the attention of politicians who assured the group that they would look into the matter.
Going forward, I can foresee that through awareness campaigns and a better understanding of their rights, more disabled persons will come out and advocate for a fair and equitable society where they can participate fully in nation building. Given the opportunity, disabled persons would prefer not to be at the receiving end of charity and welfare but be productive citizens contributing to the development of Malaysia. They can only do that when they are included in all aspects of mainstream society through the removal of attitudinal and environmental barriers. Let’s hope that 2007 will herald in a better year when the Disabled Persons Act is tabled at Parliament to unequivocally protect the rights of people who have been marginalised and discriminated against for far too long. Here is a toast to a brighter future.