The general election is just around the corner. So blares the mainstream media day in day out for the past few weeks. That is also what Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi likes us to think. I read in The Star today where he said no any one race will be left behind in the nation’s mainstream development. In another report, he said that “the national development agenda is to bring extensive improvement to the living standards of the people.”
I salute Datuk Seri Abdullah’s statements. I sincerely hope he makes good those promises. Disabled people have been sidelined in all areas of the nation’s development since independence. These deficiencies are so apparent that it does not take much to discover how much disabled people in Malaysia are marginalised in all areas of our lives. Look around and you will realise how tough it is for disabled people to live their lives as compared to non-disabled people.
Disability transcends all ethnic, age and gender boundaries. It does not discriminate whether one is a Malay, Chinese, Indian or of any other ethnicity. Nevertheless, disabled people is the group that is most left behind in mainstream society. That happens because disabled people are not considered part of mainstream society. If anybody dare say this is not so, I ask that he try to live one day in a wheelchair to go to work and move around in the city using public transport.
Mainstreaming disability is the inclusion of disabled people in all levels of the society. Disabled people should not be considered as an aberration of society and that their needs are separate. The barriers that prevent them from being active participants in society should be removed. The problems that they are facing should be seen as the problems of society and not separated and segregated as special needs. Disability is not other people’s problem. It is our problem as everybody, including ourselves and our loved ones, has the potential to become disabled.
The present day government has not done enough to mainstream disability. The existence of the Uniform Building By-Law 34A (UBBL 34A) that was gazetted in the 1990s has been ignored by most local authorities. There is no enforcement to compel developers to include safe and functional accessible facilities in their projects. This deprives disabled people the opportunity to move around public places conveniently. This matter is under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government where Dato’ Seri Ong Ka Ting is the minister. The sad thing is that even some of the newest buildings do not conform to the provisions of the UBBL 34A. The people responsible to enforce it are obviously not doing their job.
The promise to provide accessible public transport was a knee jerk reaction to the protest by the Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group (BEAT). The ramps and wheelchair docking systems were so shabbily done that it is apparent RapidKL was never truly interested in running a public transport service for disabled people. BEAT’s meeting with Deputy Minister of Finance Datuk Dr. Ng Yen Yen and Minister of Transport Dato’ Seri Chan Kong Choy did not produce any result although they have promised to look into it. Dato’ Seri Chan, whatever happened to the National Transport Master Plan that was supposed to meet the needs of disabled people? I want to stress that these buses will also be convenient for senior citizens, pregnant women, adults with prams and children. It is not solely for the use of disabled persons.
Likewise, RapidPenang and the people involved in it lied through their teeth when they publicly announced that the buses would be “disabled-friendly.” Second Finance Minister Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop was reported by The Star on March 19, 2007 to have said that RapidPenang buses would be disabled-friendly. In my many trips back to Penang, I have neither seen any accessible buses nor heard from wheelchair users that they have used such buses.
Datuk Teng Hock Nan is another politician who is not in touch with disability issues. He had said that boarding wheelchair users would delay bus schedules. He had also said that a survey has to be conducted first to determine the areas that disabled people live in and the places that they travel to before RapidPenang would introduce “disabled-friendly” buses but the bus company would service rural routes even if the passenger head count is low. Does Datuk Teng not know that disabled people live all over in the state of Penang and that we want to go to places that other people go to? Why the double standard in serving disabled people as compared to people living in rural areas? Just in case you are not aware, Datuk Teng, I would like to inform you that the statement reeks of discrimination.
The Persons with Disabilities Bill was passed in the Parliament recently. Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Dato’ Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil admitted that this piece of legislation is non-punitive in nature. What that means is that if you discriminate against me based on my disability, there is nothing in that piece of law that says that you cannot do it or that you can be taken to a court of law for doing it. So what is this law for? Frankly, I have no idea.
For this impending 12th General Election, I will throw my support around any political party or individual who promises to work towards making Malaysia an inclusive and fair society for everyone. This person must respect the dignity and rights of disabled people based on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. If UMNO and Barisan Nasional want the votes of disabled people, the parties must first remove Datuk Badruddin Amiruldin from the list of candidates. He is offensive and has no respect for disabled people.
Candidates putting themselves up for election must be serious in making the education system, public transport and built environment accessible, among others. This is important as the first step to improve our standard of living which at best had been below the national average for decades. He must also provide the necessary support system to severely disabled people for them to live independently in the community.
He must never treat disabled people as charity cases by dishing out small token of money and consider it helping us. Disabled people do not need charity. We want a commitment in the equalization of opportunities so that we are on a level playing field with the society at large in matters of education, employment and accessibility. We can be productive and live independently with the right support and infrastructure. Most of all, the candidate must do this from the sincerity of his heart. I know of politicians who work with disabled people simply because they want the publicity.
Incumbents and aspiring politicians should take note and not ignore the potential support from disabled people during this general election. We are not one disabled person with one vote. We have families and friends who understand our grouses and support our causes. We have the ability to make those votes count for candidates who are serious in resolving our problems. The message is very simple: Work for us and we will vote for you.