Myths and misconceptions about disabled people
by Peter Tan. Posted on March 8, 2015, Sunday
I WORK from home. The main door is always closed in the daytime to give a semblance that no one is home. An open door is usually an invitation to itinerant salesmen and donation collectors of dubious organisations to come knocking.
But that did not deter the postman who was delivering a letter that required a signature from tooting impatiently at the front gate. It took me a while to open the door. When he saw me in my wheelchair, he said matter-of-factly,
“Oh, you are sick. There is a letter for you. Can you sign?”
There is a general perception that people who use wheelchairs are unwell like what the postman thought of me. That cannot be further from the truth.
The wheelchair is an implement for people with mobility impairments to move around conveniently. Those who use one either have spinal cord injury, poliomyelitis, spina bifida or other conditions that limit or restrict movement.
True, when we have these conditions we are more predisposed to certain diseases but on the whole, most of us are reasonably healthy.
We visit the doctors more regularly. Those check-ups are to ensure that we continue to stay healthy just like people who make it a point to go for a full medical check-up annually to monitor their well-being. Certain communities take a divine stand when it comes to our conditions. We are either seen as a gift from God or believed to be suffering the curse for misdeeds of a previous life.
Whether we are a gift or a curse, we make up an estimated one billion or about 15 per cent of the world’s population. The Almighty must have been very generous or very angry with humankind to make so many of us this way.
Personally, I see it as humans trying to play God by thinking along such lines. The real curse here is not that we have impairments but a world that creates barriers that make it difficult for us to participate meaningfully in society. Some people can get very personal with their questions. More than once, I have been asked if I can “get it up?”
By that, they were asking if people like me can have an erection for sexual intercourse and father children.
Yes, we can although it varies between different men. We may or may not need treatment to improve the chances of success in the conception process.Likewise, disabled women are able to conceive and again it varies between different women.
Having answered that, the next question would invariably be “Will the baby have an impairment if either one or both
of the spouses have impairments?”
That should not happen unless either one or both have hereditary conditions that can be passed down and cause impairments. And most impairments are not hereditary in nature. Answering questions like these can get tiresome after the umpteenth time. Before the advent of the Information Age, I had to rely on the few books I had about my condition and the bits of medical advice I get from doctors to learn about all these.
Thankfully, there is the Internet now which is loaded with a wealth of information on this topic that can be easily accessed. Still, there are other misconceptions that have to be answered personally. Other than the impression that wheelchair users are sick, we are also perceived as always on the lookout for a cure to walk again.
It is not wrong to say that some of us still harbour hope for that to happen. There are also those of us who have more pressing concerns like earning enough to live by day-to-day. Walking aside, we will be very grateful for an environment where we do not have to contend with barriers all the time and a society where we do not have to face discrimination.
Moreover, medical science has also not advanced to the stage where there is a surefire cure to make people who are paralysed walk again. Most are still at experimental stages and the treatments literally cost an arm and a leg.
The other misconception is that disabled people cannot live independently. Independence in this context means not having the functional abilities to do everything by oneself but having the ability to make decisions autonomously.
Very often, we are perceived as not being able to take care of ourselves. Major and minor decisions are made on our behalf by family members and society on issues that affect us directly.
In reality, a proper support system like the personal assistant service has proven that people with the severest impairments can also live independently as being practised in a number of developed countries. That is the reason the global disability rights movement has adopted the slogan of “Nothing about us without us” to promote our right to self-determination and that we are properly consulted at all levels of decision-making.
Finally, do disabled people need charity or welfare?
The answer is mostly no if equality in all aspects of life can be guaranteed. These include equal access to the built environment, public transport, education and employment.
However, the United Nations Enable Fact Sheet on Persons with Disabilities estimates unemployment among my peers is as high as 80 per cent in some countries with employers often assuming we are unable to work.
On the contrary, Malaysia has successfully implemented supported employment with ample evidence to show disabled employees are more dedicated in their work and stay longer in their respective positions compared to non-disabled employees.
Imagine the amount of productivity a country can achieve if half of that number can become gainfully employed. The salary earned will flow back into the economy. The disbursement of welfare aid can be reduced. If this is not a win-win situation, then I do not know what else is.
Before I end, there is a need for me to clarify that disabled people do not consist of wheelchair users or people with mobility impairments only as it may appear in this column. Disabled people also include those with other impairments like visual, speech and hearing, intellectual and learning impairments.
There is a hoard of misconceptions regarding those impairments I would like to cover in this column in the future. Many of the negative perceptions with regards to disabled people are without basis stemming from ignorance, culture and superstitions that should be dispelled.
In all honesty, I believe a better understanding of disabled people by society can forge a relationship that can break barriers and bring us one step closer to seeing that we are all the same.
Comments can reach the writer via email@example.com.