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Ruminations on the festive seasons of long past – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 15 February, 2014

23rd March, 2014 - Sunday

Ruminations on the festive seasons of long past
by Peter Tan. Posted on February 15, 2014, Saturday

THE 15 days of the Chinese New Year celebrations have finally come to an end. There is one less excuse to indulge in gluttony, which was a part of the festivities that I used to look forward to, not that I am able to appreciate them fully now since I am on a low-protein diet.

In many ways, I miss the hustle and bustle leading up to the day when my parents were alive and the family was larger. Preparations would begin one month earlier when the larder was slowly filled to the brim with groceries for the several feasts that would be served during that period.

The entire house was then symbolically rid of its stale aura with a broom made from bamboo twigs during spring cleaning. Regular curtains and cushion covers were replaced with those reserved for auspicious occasions. The crisp air after all the cleaning made the sense of anticipation even more exciting.

Before the crack of dawn on new year’s day, the womenfolk were already busy cooking up a scrumptious spread of vegetarian lunch for about 50 relatives who would be visiting us later in the morning. That was my favourite meal of the entire year as it was the only time I got to savour those dishes.

My father, being the eldest in the family, had the privilege of having his siblings and relatives dropping in to pay their respects to him. For some, that was the only opportunity for us to get together as we were busy with our own lives and living in different parts of the country.

It was a tradition in the family to pay our respects to my maternal grandmother on the second day. She lived with my uncle and his family in the house that my grandfather built amidst the verdant hills of Balik Pulau in Penang. These hills are famous for durians, nutmegs and cloves.

Never mind that we normally pop in to see my grandmother once every few weeks, those visits during the festive season were keenly anticipated as I got to meet the cousins from my mother’s side and savour some very delicious authentic Hakka cooking that would only be served during the Chinese New Year. It was too much work to prepare them at other times.

Apart from rekindling of family ties, the cousins, nieces, nephews and even uncles and aunts would always end up playing black jack behind closed doors, mindful that gambling was against the law no matter how small the wagers were. My only excuse for this infraction is that we did it only once a year. Besides, gambling is a very Chinese thing.

After my accident, my parents stopped visiting my grandmother on Chinese New Year. The house was nestled on the hill and could only be reached by gingerly hiking down about 100 steps or more from the road. We figured that carrying me down was an arduous and dangerous task. A slip of the foot could send one tumbling down all the way to the bottom.

When my father passed away, we stopped hosting the vegetarian lunch for three years as a sign of mourning. We never continued with that tradition afterwards. Still, my mother’s siblings would visit us every year for many doses of merrymaking and ‘recreational’ card games.

After my mother passed on, the Chinese New Year traditions that I came to know all my life disappeared along with her. The relatives wanted to drop in but I declined due to the period of profound grieving I experienced after that. I thought I could never get to enjoy the occasion any more because each time it came around I would be overcome by sadness.

It has been a decade since. I have a family of my own now. As much as I tried to downplay the significance of the new year, I could not avoid the longing to celebrate it with my relatives again. The mood during those few hours when we got together could not simply be reproduced on other occasions.

My uprooting to 400km away from my hometown also made it difficult to meet up with them due to the crazy traffic during the long holiday season that caused the expressways to be jammed up. And we have not found a reliable cattery to board the three cats for us to be away from home for an extended time as they need to be fed and the kitty litter needs to be cleaned twice a day.

At my age (I was born in the year of the Fire Horse) and considering the condition of my declining health, I somehow feel the need to re-establish the long neglected kinships, not so much for the mouthwatering dishes or card games but to go back to my roots and be among the people I love and grew up with, although it may be just for a while only.

I may never get to experience the hustle and bustle of the early mornings again but being able to reconnect with my past among my relatives is more than I can ever ask for. Now is as good as any time for me to get organised so that I can make it for next year’s celebrations.

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A matter of perspective – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 8 February, 2014

23rd March, 2014 - Sunday

A matter of perspective
by Peter Tan. Posted on February 8, 2014, Saturday

Participants and trainers are seen during a session.

MALAYSIA is the unlikely hub for the rapid growth of the Training of Trainers on Disability Equality Training (TOT DET) course outside of the United Kingdom where it originated. I say ‘unlikely’ because Malaysia is not a model of inclusiveness when it comes to matters regarding disability.

Although we have the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 and have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, attitudinal and environmental barriers are still prevalent. These barriers prevent disabled people from meaningful participation in society; all the more reason why DET is needed to change prejudiced mindsets and break disabling barriers in this country.

I took a hiatus from writing for this column to participate in a national-level TOT DET course held in Kuala Lumpur in January. It was organised by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) and the Welfare Department.

There were 11 trainees altogether; seven from Malaysia and two each from Rwanda and Uzbekistan. The foreign participants had requested to be included in the training as they were very keen on implementing DET in their own countries.

During the 10-day course spread over two weeks, the trainees learnt to become effective DET trainers by gaining comprehensive understanding of the Social Model of Disability. They also learnt delivery skills by practising facilitation and presentation techniques. In turn, they are expected to implement DET as disability education for the public and as empowerment for other disabled people upon completion of the course.

Three senior trainers and I worked closely together by taking turns to be facilitators and co-facilitators under the watchful guidance of Dr Kenji Kuno, who developed the modules we are currently using. He is the senior advisor on Social Security (Disability) for Jica. This course was an important training for us as well in the run up to the international level TOT DET that will be held in Malaysia next year.

I have attended several other training sessions that stretched over two to three weeks but none were as tough as this. Likewise, my fellow facilitators were thoroughly exhausted by the third day of training. I had barely three hours of sleep each night as I prepared for the sessions I was responsible for. Teaching was tough but ensuring that the trainees really learnt was even tougher. That was the part that wore us out most.

There were moments when my body and mind felt like giving up. This was the same sentiment the other facilitators experienced. We were pushed to our limits. In the end, we were glad we hung on to conclude the course as we were able to learn the finer points of DET and the methods to deliver it even more effectively, be it as trainers or as facilitators.

DET was developed in the 1980s to address the need to provide information on disability away from the traditional perspective that impairments are the reason for exclusion in all aspects. It utilises the Social Model of Disability as a heuristic process to identify the locations that cause participation restriction and promote proactive actions to solve them.

The Social Model was developed from principles instituted by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (Upias), an organisation established in 1972 to advance disability rights in the United Kingdom. In its founding statement, Upias asserts that disability is imposed on top of impairments by systemic barriers that unnecessarily isolate and exclude people from full participation in society.

Dr Kuno introduced DET to Malaysia in 2005 as part of a three-year project on Capacity Building on Social Welfare Services for Disabled People. This project was jointly implemented by Jica and the Welfare Department. He was the chief advisor for the project in Malaysia then.

In its subsequent incarnations under Phase I and II of the Project to Support Participation of Persons with Disabilities and other Jica projects on disability worldwide, 192 people from 28 countries across the Asia Pacific, Africa and Latin America successfully completed the course to become DET trainers and members of DET Forum, a platform for networking and sharing of resources between trainers.

There are currently 37 DET trainers in Malaysia. Out of this number, only a handful are actively working as trainers. I was made to understand that the Welfare Department has plans to organise the TOT DET course on annual basis to increase the pool of trainers. This can only be good news as more trainers translates into more opportunities to reach out to society seeing that demand for DET workshops have been increasing steadily of late.

At the moment, government agencies, institutions of higher learning and statutory bodies are the mainstay of DET workshops. We are looking into expanding to more government bodies and private sector organisations seeking to create an inclusive environment for their workforce and clients.

DET is not the panacea to solve all issues on disability. However, it is an effective educational tool that reframes disability into a social perspective instead of focusing it on the individual. It complements other advocacy efforts by explicating disability in a structured, logical and non-confrontational way.

Personally, having been involved in various forms of advocacy activities on disability rights for the past nine years, I am truly convinced that DET can indeed effect change if implemented correctly, not only in society but a change of paradigm in the way disabled people view themselves and their impairments in relation to society.

Readers can find out more about DET at

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Unwitting victims of other people’s misconduct – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 11 January, 2014

23rd February, 2014 - Sunday

Unwitting victims of other people’s misconduct
by Peter Tan. Posted on January 11, 2014, Saturday

A GREAT number of people I am acquainted with use Facebook. This is mostly how we share information, communicate with each other and express ourselves nowadays. Living up to its title as the king of social media, Facebook by far is the most popular social networking site and one that has revolutionised the way we relate to the world around us.

The ease with which we can reach out to a wider audience makes it a very convenient all-purpose self-publicity tool. As with all things, there is good and bad to it. While spoken words are fleeting to those within earshot, messages posted on Facebook can be shared multiple times in a wink and get read by a multitude of people they may not be intended for, depending on the privacy settings of the account.

With this social tool, we have become more vocal than we ever were. We bare our lives and souls to friends and strangers alike. Where we were always mindful of our speech in public, our thoughts oftentimes flow unrepressed online. These open windows into the psyches of people from diverse backgrounds have also given me exasperatingly deep insights of the general perceptions society has of disabled persons.

Someone in my friends list thought it witty to equate asinine politicians with disabled persons. I agree with the view that some politicians are not grounded to the expectations we demand of them as public servants. Time and again, we cringed at the puerile statements that spewed forth from their mouths. Nonetheless, was there really a need to swear at their shortcomings by labelling them as ‘OKU’ (disabled persons)?

In another instance, one of the comments to a video of a snatch thief who was apprehended went like this: “You have hands and legs but do not want to work. Better be an OKU.” Again, it boggled my mind how that was deemed a justified analogy between disabled persons and people who do not want to find decent work.

Let us not forget that one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of our time is Stephen Hawking. He is living with severe physical and speech impairments. Closer to home, our very own Hasihin Sanawi, a paraplegic, bagged a silver medal at the London Paralympic Games. This is a feat not many of us can achieve. These are people who have worked hard to be where they are now. And mind you, they are OKUs.

What is even more disturbing is that some disabled persons have no qualms about using similar slurs on drivers who abuse accessible parking spaces. The image of a German marque caught occupying such a spot without a wheelchair sticker on its windscreen appeared in my Facebook timeline. Among others, a wheelchair user called the driver “cacat otak” (person with intellectual impairment).

Another two terms that I see being used often are “retard” and “mentally retarded”. Both were previously used to refer to persons with intellectual impairments but are no longer considered appropriate now. Although the inherent intention of people using these terms was to imply that inconsiderate people are stupid and thoughtless, it demeaned disabled persons by linking us to those unpleasant characteristics.

From these accounts, it is apparent that we, as a disadvantaged community, are seen as immature, useless and inconsiderate, even by other disabled persons with different impairments. The tendency to associate us with these traits may have been done in jest or meant to be an actual insult. Either way, I find that downright offensive. It is especially hurtful when it was lobbed by one of us against our own.

I used to step in to point out the inappropriateness of the language. Most people understand after listening to my explanation. Still, there are the few who took offence and accused me of trying to impose my norms on them and stifle their freedom of speech which was never my intention. I allowed them be because engaging them further would make them even more recalcitrant.

We are often tarred with the same brush used for people who are reviled due to deep-set prejudices. Just because we have impairments, we are seen as incapable of leading a meaningful and fulfilling lives. Disabled persons in general are still the innocent victims in these cases twice over; first of systemic barriers that society is in no hurry to dismantle, and second of blinkered mindsets that assume we can amount to nothing, a situation which is caused by the systemic barriers in the first place. It is a vicious cycle.

In reality, we are no different from anyone else. We have feelings. We can be hurt. We have ambitions. We are not exempt from failure. We want to love and be loved. And just like everyone else, we do not fancy being used as fodder for jokes and abuse aimed at other people for their bad behaviour.

That by itself is bad behaviour too, and rude. Therefore, I sincerely urge people who are prone to using terms like OKU and mentally retarded to insult another person to please stop and think who they are actually humiliating.

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