The year is coming to an end. The long expected Persons with Disabilities Bill 2007 (PWD Bill 2007) has been tabled in the Parliament and passed by the Dewan Rakyat (Lower House). This Bill was first drafted in 2002. Disabled persons in Malaysia finally have a law that is supposed to protect their rights and address the problems that they are facing. But why am I not too excited about it?
Firstly, the PWD Bill 2007 is all bark and no bite. Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil herself admitted, as reported by The Star, in A realistic bill, says Shahrizat on December 19 that there would not be any form of punishment for those who breached a disabled person’s rights because the bill was not punitive in nature. She was further quoted to have said that “There are by-laws which we can use to take action for non-compliance.”
My question to Datuk Seri Shahrizat is that if we already have by-laws to such effect, why do we need the PWD Bill? We could have just used those by-laws and be done with it without having to incur so much resources in drafting a bill that is totally toothless. A non-punitive legislation for disabled persons is as good as having no legislation because, frankly speaking, whatever by-laws we have that is supposed to protect the interests of disabled persons are as impotent as the bill itself.
The PWD Bill is not the first piece of Malaysian legislation for disabled persons. Many people may not realize that there already exists a by-law that requires all public buildings to be accessible to disabled persons. The Uniform Building By-Law 34A (UBBL 34A) of the Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974 succinctly spelt out the measures that must be taken to provide such accessibility. This by-law was gazetted by various state governments in the 90s.
More than one decade later, disabled persons are still facing countless problems with accessibility in public buildings. These include no convenient access into buildings, ramps that are too steep, parking lots that are too small, not sufficient in numbers and usually taken up by non-disabled persons, toilets that are not functional, and the list goes on. We have the UBBL 34A, so what? Nobody is being punished for violating the standards. The local government which is the enforcing body for this by-law approves the building plans without referring to the standards drawn up by SIRIM. It is apparent who is most guilty here for non-compliance. Because of that disabled persons are still left high and dry where accessibility is concerned. To exacerbate the problem, the UBBL 34A does not include accessibility outside buildings. That is the reason why almost all walkways in Malaysia are not accessible.
The PWD Bill does not protect the rights of disabled persons at all. Neither do existing by-laws. Parties that do not comply with these by-laws are let off scot-free. Nobody is compelled to provide equal opportunity to disabled persons in fields of education and employment. The same goes for social, religious and cultural activities. The non-punitive nature of this bill does not create an urgency to respect the rights of disabled persons or compel guilty parties to make amends. They can happily go on violating those rights without fear of being punished.
What is the penalty against RapidKL, RapidPenang and all other public transport operators that do not provide access to disabled persons? What action can be taken against airlines for singling out wheelchair users and compelling them to sign indemnity forms? Who will take action against public building proprietors that do not provide accessible facilities? Or rather, who should take the local governments to court for ignoring the provisions in the UBBL 34A? Can we take legal action against the government for not providing inclusive education in mainstream schools? And these issues are just a tip of the iceberg for problems faced by disabled persons.
There are so many loopholes in the bill that a whale can even slip through without as much as a creating a ripple. Truly, the bill is a great disappointment. Disabled persons can still be blatantly discriminated against and there is nothing we can do to protect our rights. What exactly this bill was intended for is lost on me. If you ask me, having the bill is like not having one at all. The struggle against discrimination, injustice and inequality continues. Thanks but no thanks Madam Minister. The Persons with Disabilities Bill 2007? Bah! Humbug!