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OKU is not OK! – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 22 February, 2014

23rd March, 2014 - Sunday

OKU is not OK!
by Peter Tan. Posted on February 22, 2014, Saturday

ACCORDING to the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008, “persons with disabilities include those who have long term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society.”

In this article, I will not discuss the English term used in the Act. The term for ‘persons with disabilities’ in the Malay version of the Act is ‘orang kurang upaya’ and abbreviated as OKU. For the lack of a better term and for the sake of expediency, I use OKU but very sparingly. I am troubled by the image it projects each time I used it because when translated because it means people who are less able.

I admit that I am a stickler when it comes to terms used to refer to people like me. Am I a person with disabilities, OKU or disabled person? They may seem the same at the first glance but there are very distinct differences when we delve deeper into their meanings.
What are the factors that prevent people from meaningful participation in society? It all boils down to the location of the problem. Is the problem in the person or in the environment? Is not being able to walk or not being able to see an issue? Or is the way we construct the world around us the issue?

When we talk about disability, we are not talking about the functional aspects of the individuals. The Act and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have similar definitions when it comes to this. In a nutshell, disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society.

My experiences in Tokyo, and in a small part Seoul, have enlightened me on the reality that even people with severe physical impairments can live independently in the community when there are sufficient accessible infrastructure and support systems.

Essentially, in our country, people are needlessly inconvenienced and segregated by barriers that are man-made. Having identified the location and the cause that are preventing meaningful participation in society, I am baffled by why people still come up with terms that attribute the problem to the individual instead of pinpointing the root cause.

In this column previously, I have stated my preference for disabled person over person with disabilities. The former identifies that the person is disabled by external factors as opposed to ascribing the disabilities to the person in the latter.

As for ‘orang kurang upaya’, this term clearly states that the person is the problem. This brings up the question of whether disabled people are people who are less able. On what basis do we define the abilities or lack of abilities of a person? Again in this matter, let us not lose sight of the location and the cause of the problem, and that disability is participation restriction caused by barriers as defined in the Act and the Convention.

I spoke out on the need to redefine disability and how OKU is not an appropriate term in a national conference on disability a few years ago. It ruffled some feathers as it was the term used in all official government documents. It being used in official documents does not make it correct just like how ‘orang cacat’, which was previously used in government documents, was replaced with OKU.

Of late, there is an initiative to soften the meaning of OKU even more by redefining it to ‘orang kelainan upaya’ or differently abled people. The logic was that disabled people have different abilities; what those abilities are I do not know.

The fact is that humanity is diverse and everyone has different abilities. If that is the case, calling disabled people differently abled is of no meaning. It dilutes the problems that we face and devalues the advocacy efforts that we have been working on.

Given a choice, I would rather be known just by my name or as a regular person. Nevertheless, identifying ourselves as disabled persons is a political stand my colleagues and I of same school of thought make in order to further our agenda for an equal and just society.

Disability advocacy should not be limited to conducting disability awareness training, demanding for our rights through demonstrations and complaining though the various media. These forms of activism have been going on for the past few decades but the progress is still moving at a snail’s pace.

This matter cannot be taken lightly any more. Agreeing to be labelled as ‘orang kurang upaya’ is an admission that the problem that we are facing is the result of our impairments. It weakens our arguments against the injustices that we face every day because we are ‘less able’ and are therefore a part of the problem.

There is no politically correct replacement for OKU at the moment. We need to take a strategic position on this matter. First and foremost, the disability movement in the country needs to come together to coin one term in Malay that succinctly states our position as a community of people who are still experiencing discrimination and oppression. Only when we are able to clearly define our stand on who we are can we have the confidence to demand for what we rightfully deserve.

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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

Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.

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