Inappropriate activities for disability-related charity events – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 9 August, 2015

Inappropriate activities for disability-related charity events
August 9, 2015, Sunday Peter Tan,

DISABLED people’s organisations (DPOs) have to perpetually find money to support their welfare activities for the benefit of members. There is always a need for assistive devices such as wheelchairs and callipers, or grants to start small businesses so needy members can become more independent and self-sufficient.

One of the commonly used methods to fill the DPOs’ coffers is to send out appeal letters seeking donations in cash and kind from business entities and individuals. Some organisations spend thousands of ringgit on postage alone for such purposes annually, not to mention the amount of man-hours needed to accomplish the task. I was told that for every 100 letters sent out, only 10 on the average will come back with a contribution of some form.

It is indeed a welcome relief when the public chip in by organising fundraising projects. Any help to that effect is accepted with open arms as it will free up staff of the DPOs to deal with problems faced by members. From washing cars to elaborate charity dinners, any amount big or small from these events can go a long way towards relieving the burden faced by members of the organisations.

Recently, a friend posted the image of a banner for a charity event on Facebook that was peppered with poorly-written copy. My beef wasn’t with the grammar. And before anything else, the organisers must be praised for the noble intention of helping an association that operates a shelter for disabled children. Not many people have the time and effort to spare in organising activities like this.

In this tough economic climate, donations have been slow in coming. Many DPOs depending on donations are struggling as the contributions have reduced to a trickle. Additionally, assistive devices and disposable items that disabled people need to use are subject to GST. Even though the government has announced that wheelchairs and other rehabilitation equipment are exempted from it, no one seems to know how to apply for the exemptions.

The event was supposed to give participants the experience of being disabled by having them complete a 5km obstacle course in blindfolds, walking three-legged and walking backwards, among others. The organisers seem to have a misguided notion that participants would somehow understand how disabled people feel and what we face after that.

There is really nothing wrong in organising an obstacle course race to raise funds for a DPO. It is even absolutely all right to make the participants go through three-legged races and such. The blunder was in trying to associate the obstacles and the difficulties imposed on the participants with the experience of disability. That was where I had an issue.

Running through an obstacle course like that doesn’t provide an understanding of the nature of disability. Neither does it give a real experience of the barriers faced by disabled people. As the participants could overcome the obstacles, although with some difficulty, it gives a false impression that barriers can be overcome with some effort. In reality, we disabled people are excluded from mainstream activities because we can’t overcome such physical barriers even with great effort.

Using a blindfold to simulate visual impairment or sitting on a wheelchair for an hour wouldn’t give non-disabled people the feeling of what it is like to be permanently blind or a full-time wheelchair user. What they take away from this exercise is the understanding of what disabled people can’t do and then they go back to living their non-disabled lives while we have to deal with it for the rest of our lives without respite.

Moreover, disability is more than encountering problems with physical barriers. On a deeper level, disabled people are subjected to discrimination, oppression and exclusion all the time. This is one aspect not many non-disabled people can empathise with.

On the other hand, we have to deal with it on a daily basis. The emotional trauma of having to go through this day in and day out is very difficult to comprehend. Therefore, to think that one can understand what disability is like by just using a wheelchair for an hour belittles the endless difficulties we are facing and devalues our struggle for equality.

This is the very reason I don’t include simulation exercises in my training sessions. It deceives participants into thinking that they know what it is like to be disabled when in reality they don’t. I would prefer the participants of my workshops learn to identify barriers in their immediate surroundings and take proactive actions to remove them.

My advice to the generous people out there who want to organise charity events in aid of DPOs is to go ahead and do it. Every little bit helps. However, there is no need to go overboard, especially on the awareness part. Leave the education of disability to the experts and people who have experience in such matters. It will reduce a lot of misinformation and confusion.

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Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Slave to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. End-stage renal disease since 2017. Principal Facilitator at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. Former columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.