Being agents of change
by Peter Tan. Posted on April 12, 2014, Saturday
WHEN faced with situations where our rights are trampled on and disregarded, what should we do? Do we swallow our pride and accept the indignity? Or do we stand up and fight back to reclaim what we rightfully deserve?
Let’s face it. The society we live in is far from perfect – not everyone is treated equally. People are being oppressed and discriminated against all the time. Some cases are unintentional and occur because of ignorance. The sadder fact is that the others are deliberate and calculated. No reason can justify these acts, whether done on purpose or not. These transgressions should be pointed out and the wrongs righted.
One of the groups that has been the victim of unfairness is the disabled. Even when international and domestic legal instruments have clearly defined and recognised our place in society, the government cannot be solely depended on to protect those rights. Government employees are typically apathetic and complacent when it comes to resolving issues faced by disabled people.
This is where disability rights activists and advocates come in to safeguard those rights and expedite the process of inclusion. There is a difference between activism and advocacy, although the line between the two is often blurred. Generally, activism applies radical measures such as protest in public places to jolt the public into a sense of awareness on a particular issue. Advocates work more in the background to lobby the government and private sector in effecting legislative and policy changes.
Even in the USA, UK and Japan, which all have long and established disability rights movements, activism and advocacy is still an ongoing process. Governments and private establishments everywhere are the same.
They have to be constantly reminded to be inclusive in their practices. Otherwise, they will either forget or conveniently ignore issues that cause disability and allow discriminatory policies to be put in place.
What does it take to be an activist or an advocate? First of all, an activist must possess a certain degree of fearlessness as the use of militant methods in the forefront risks running afoul of the law.
There was a time when we discussed chaining ourselves to public buses to make a point about the inaccessibility of public transport in the country. In the end, we decided not to go ahead with it due to the legal implications.
An advocate needs to have a clear understanding of disability rights, accessibility standards and negotiating skills in influencing the relevant parties to achieve those means. A lot of research, reading and writing is required when there is a need to make presentations and forward memorandums to convincingly argue a case.
There is no hard and fast rule on how to become an effective activist or advocate. We all learn through trial and error what works and what does not. I am fortunate to have mentors who are veterans and experts in the field of disability.
They unreservedly shared with me their knowledge and encouraged me to undergo courses to understand the subjects at a deeper level.
Apart from that and most importantly, those wanting to get involved in the disability rights movement must have passion and empathy; passion to keep at it in the face of great challenges in a society that does not take the rights of disabled people seriously; and empathy to internalise the travails of people experiencing different kinds of disability in order to represent them effectively.
Activists and advocates both have their own roles in advancing disability rights. They are integral in different stages of a particular cause. For example, activists started the ball rolling by organising public protests to oppose the discriminatory practice of a certain airline that barred mobility impaired persons from flying with them a few years ago.
After having caught the attention of the top brass of the offending airline and also the government, the advocates then negotiated and worked with these parties to remove the discriminatory practice and provide training to the ground and cabin crew to better deal with disabled passengers.
The lack of people working actively and full-time in this area has compelled the few of us who are active to take on both roles. We usually wear one hat or the other depending on the demands of the situation.
Most of us who are involved with this do it at our own time and expense. We took the mantle of leadership not out of choice but necessity as stakeholders directly affected by oppression and discrimination.
Frankly speaking, the effort that we put in does not commensurate with the results we get. For every one issue we successfully advocate for, we fail in several others. That is the reality. That is why changes have been slow in coming. Still, we must push forward lest we lose even that one shot at making a difference.
It is my hope and those of other leaders in the disability rights movement that more disabled people will join us in this effort to make society more inclusive. When more of us work together, the louder our voices will become.
We ourselves must be willing to do our bit to change the situation for the better. If not, who else will do it for us? After all, the slogan we often use to demand to be included in all levels of decision-making on issues that affect us has been ‘Nothing about us without us’.
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