Monster Blog – March 2, 2007: Looking At A Gift Horse In The Mouth

Looking At A Gift Horse In The Mouth

Would you give someone a pair of shoes that are two sizes to big for her feet? Those ill fitting shoes could cause a host of problems from calluses, corns and blisters to more severe problems of the knees and ankles. Most of us would have the good sense to ensure that those shoes that we are giving are of the right size and for the purpose it was intended.

Likewise, there are wheelchairs and there are wheelchairs. Every now and then, we read in the newspapers about major corporations donating wheelchairs to those in need of one. The recipients are mostly people who are living with permanent mobility impairments. The usual scenarios are that these benefactors give away as many wheelchairs as their budget allowed in order to portray copious amounts of generosity being passed around. Unfortunately, most times, those wheelchairs are barely suitable for the recipients’ use.

Humans come in all shapes and sizes. Like shoes, a wheelchair must be of the correct size to serve the user well. An ill fitting wheelchair that is either too big or too small will cause postural problems and pressures sores, among others. Pressure sores on the buttocks and ball of the feet are expensive to manage and take a long time to heal. Postural problems, if left unattended, will result in problems such as curvature of the spine and lumbar pain.

A good fitting wheelchair is one where the user fits snugly into it much like sitting in a bucket seat. The width and length of the wheelchair seat and backrest are customised to the user’s body to ensure that pressure points are evenly distributed and a good posture is maintained. There are many other aspects to look into to fine tune the wheelchair to make it as functional as possible to suit the lifestyle of the user.

Customised wheelchairs do not come cheap and are still luxury items here. Comparatively, a basic manual wheelchair costs RM300 while a customised wheelchair costs RM6,000 upwards. That does not include a good wheelchair cushion that may add another RM1,000 or so to the cost. Given a choice, what would most well-meaning donors do? Help twenty people or just one? The solution may be obvious but the consequences of a misguided decision could be far-reaching and unpleasant.

Giving away twenty ill fitting wheelchairs could inadvertently be damning those twenty recipients to a potentially agonising journey of pressure sores and postural problems that is going to cost many times more to treat than the price of all twenty wheelchairs combined. How best can this dilemma be worked out? Frankly, I do not have all the answers for this matter.

On one hand I would like to see as many people as possible getting the assistance that they need but on the other hand I worry about the outcome of such generosity. My take is that in the long run, it would be cheaper and more logical to provide one suitable but expensive wheelchair to one person rather than treating twenty people for problems arising from using ill fitting wheelchairs. What about the other nineteen who may be in genuine need of wheelchairs too? I was made aware that some countries take care of such needs by allocating funds for customised wheelchairs for those who require it. Are we ready for such a system in Malaysia?

Monster Blog – February 12, 2006: Sympathy or Opportunity – Media’s Portrayal of Disabled Persons

Most people get to know about disabled persons and disability issues from the mass media, namely through televisions and newspapers. Disability issues have been highlighted and awareness created among the public and officials in the government to the challenges faced by disabled persons. Admittedly, without the media, many important issues would have been swept under the carpet to be ignored and forgotten.

The recent rally by the Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group (BEAT) to advocate for accessible public transport is one such example. The wide coverage by the print and electronic media has raised awareness up to the ministerial level. BEAT would not have achieved much without the support of the mainstream media.

Nevertheless, I am concerned that some articles in newspapers and programmes in televisions have a penchant to dramatise the stories that they carry. Disabled persons who have achieved their place in life are often hailed as people who have overcome extraordinary odds to reach where they are today where non-disabled persons who have accomplished the same would have been overlooked.

While there is truth to what these disabled persons have accomplished, many of those extraordinary odds are manmade. Those are barriers to equal educational and employment opportunities. And then there are barriers to public transport and in the built environment. I am not saying that by removing those barriers, disabled persons can achieve more. However, is it not ironic that we are applauding these people for overcoming the hardships that we created for them in the first place?

Another angle that the media like to use is the sympathy approach. As they say, a picture paints a thousand words. Images of a man with skin and bones for limbs certainly can tug at one’s heart strings, and purse strings. It is undeniable that we are a nation of generous people. That said, sympathy should not be used as a tool to canvass for donation. It is an undignified portrayal of disabled persons. Disability should never be manipulated in such ways to make the public part with their money, however worthy the causes may be. Disabled persons do not need sympathy. They need opportunities to realise their full potential.

If the media is truly interested in supporting disabled persons who are in need of assistance, they should work with reputable non-governmental organisations on sustainable projects that not only benefit one individual momentarily but an entire community in the long run. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. You then have to give him another fish tomorrow and the day after and the day after. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.

Education is one way to lift disabled persons up from the marginalised position that they are in today. They need to understand their rights and their needs and advocate for it. They need to understand that the nation as a system entrusted to look after the interests of citizens, and not their family alone or even public and corporations, is responsible for their well-being, and work towards making the nation play their part responsibly.

What disabled persons do not need is dramatisation of their lives with pathetic scripts and pitiful images for the sake of soliciting money that can only maintain them temporarily. Is the mass media ready to play a positive part to empower disabled persons by highlighting the inequalities that they are facing and what can be done to right those wrongs? Will they portray it from a rights-based approach angle? Or will they continue to portray disabled persons as helpless beings and tell tear-jerking stories to gather sympathy for short term gains?