Privileges and Rights – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 27 July 2013

Privileges and rights
by Peter Tan. Posted on July 27, 2013, Saturday

SATURDAYS are grocery shopping days for my wife Wuan and me. We usually spend a few hours at the supermarket in a shopping mall to stock up on fresh food that we need for the following week such as fish, vegetables and fruits.

We frequent this one particular mall because of the ample accessible facilities. The other reasons being to escape from the heat and humidity, and because we can practically buy everything we need under one roof.

While our grocery shopping has always been fuss-free, queuing up to pay can be a long wait, especially nearing festive seasons and during school holidays. There would be long lines of shoppers with trolleys laden with festive goodies and whatnots waiting to check out at the cashier lanes.

Previously, there was a priority cashier lane at this supermarket specifically for senior citizens, pregnant women and disabled persons. A big signboard indicating this hung from the ceiling. I would queue there most of the time together with other shoppers who were neither senior citizens nor pregnant women. I had to wait for my turn just like everyone else.

The initiative to provide a priority cashier lane is laudable but the implementation left much to be desired. I complained to the management telling them that if they were not going to honour the purpose of allocating the priority cashier lane, they should remove the signboard because it was misleading. The signboard was removed a few weeks later.

Government departments on the other hand have been efficient in dealing with disabled clients. From the Immigration Department to the Road Transport Department, applying for a passport or renewing a driving licence has been a painless and quick affair for me as disabled persons are really accorded priority service.

Having said that, I am not too concerned about not getting such priority services as they are privileges and not rights. If I can spend two hours shopping, there is no reason why I cannot spend another 20 minutes waiting in line to pay just like everyone else. I would be more upset if my rights were violated.

It all boils down to the issue of equality. As a disabled person and an advocate, I have learnt to be very clear with what I want. There is a distinction between privileges and rights of which equality is part of. Both cannot coexist in the same sphere.

As an example, it would be unreasonable of me to demand for the privilege of discounted bus fares on the basis of my impairment and at the same time assert my right to accessible public transport as provided for under the law. If I want an acceptable level of service and facility, I must be ready to pay the full fare.

However, if the bus company chooses to charge discounted fares voluntarily, that is their prerogative. In fact, a number of government-linked companies such as Telekom Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines provide discounts on their services and fares for disabled persons. I have no argument with that but I personally would not lobby for these privileges.

Privileges are benefits granted to a select group of people that can be withdrawn at the discretion of the giver. Rights are principles granted by law, treaties and on the basis of our being members of civil society and citizens of the state. Rights, on the contrary, cannot be revoked at the whim of the government or any other party.

The demand for rights and equality must be tempered with responsibility on both sides. That is why the Independent Living Movement practises the concept of consumer-centrism in the employment of personal assistants to support disabled persons.

Personal assistants are paid salaries that are commensurate with market rates. This appropriate compensation is to ensure that there is a commitment to provide a level of service that is expected of them. It would be difficult to demand the same commitment from volunteers and people who are paid a token for the same amount of work.

In recent years, with the enactment of the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 and the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the provision of accessible facilities in Malaysia has improved although there is still much room for improvement.

With this development, the meaning of equality is lost in translation to some activists as they unilaterally move in to restrict the use of these limited facilities such as community lift van service and parking spaces. They pigeonhole disabled persons into those who are entitled and those who are not.

This act effectively segregates disabled persons into classes just like how disabled persons are segregated in society. It obliterates the spirit of equality that many disabled activists and advocates who have at one time or another fought hard to achieve.

Instead of restricting and claiming entitlement over the limited accessible facilities, all disabled persons should come together and advocate for more of such facilities. Therefore, I cannot emphasise enough to disabled activists the importance of understanding the meaning of equality and respecting its spirit.

This brings to mind the following line I read in the book ‘Training for Transformation – Book 1’ by Anne Hope and Sally Timmel: “As oppressed people, moving into freedom and opportunity, we can either become selfish and oppressive ourselves, or move into relations of solidarity with others, sharing and caring for one another, and marching together towards a new society in which our full humanity is assured.”

It succinctly sums up what we should and should not do in our continuous thrust for rights and equality, not only for disabled persons but all communities that are facing discrimination, oppression and segregation.

Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.

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