DAP And Disability Issues

I am disappointed that some Democratic Action Party (DAP) members are not sensitive to the rights of disabled people to an inclusive and barrier-free society despite the fact that DAP national chairman Karpal Singh has been a wheelchair user for the past 7 years.

Shame on MPAJ councillor Dorothy Cheong who ignored my objections against the road hump that was built right outside my house. It is still there even after a lengthy explanation on the risks that it poses to me as a wheelchair user.

It is even more disappointing that ADUN Teratai Jenice Lee came to her defence when I chided Dorothy for her patronising attitude. The councillor had said that “I believe people of your situation would more than welcome it because it will practically slow down vehicles from speeding and thus safety is the priority in the mind of these residents in your neighbourhood.”

Am I stupid or what? Would I object to something that is truly for my safety? The fact is that the hump itself is a barrier and a danger to my safety as a disabled person. It may cause my wheelchair to tip backward when I ascending or cause me to fall forward when descending. Because of this safety concern, I have been stuck on my side of the road for the past three months.

Her talking down to me like I didn’t know what I was talking about is unbecoming to her position as a councillor and facilitator between the residents and MPAJ. What irked me most was that as a representative of the people, she had not even bothered to meet me in person to understand my concerns. Instead, she brushed my complaints off just like that.

She was also reported by The Star to have said that “We can’t entertain one person’s complaint as we want to help everyone.” So, the complaints of people in the minority can simply be ignored because we are inconsequential in numbers? Going by that logic, should the government of the day disregard the interests of all minority groups in the country?

I have no use for a councillor with such a narrow perspective of issues representing me in MPAJ. I earnestly hope that this is not the stand of DAP, the political party she represents. Otherwise, disabled people and other minority groups will have a difficult time advocating for our rights should Pakatan Rakyat come to power in the next general election. For that matter, I cannot emphasise enough that such irresponsible behaviour should not be the stand of any political party.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2012

The United Nations declared December 3 every year as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. I would prefer to call it the International Day of Disabled Persons but that is another story for another day. Approximately 1 billion people or 15% of the world’s population live with some form of disability. The theme for 2012, “Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all” is very apt as many disability-rights advocates have been demanding for the removal of barriers for a long time to enable equal participation of disabled people.

These barriers are not limited only to the built environment but are prevalent in attitudes in the form of prejudice, ignorance and discrimination. I am not proud to say that Malaysia is still a nation where disabled people are marginalised, discriminated against and face countless barriers every day of our lives. Even with legislation, the quality of life of disabled persons have not improved much in contrast to the rest of the population.

The requirements of the Uniform Building By-Law 34A that buildings must be accessible to disabled persons are ignored by the local authorities most of the time. More than fifteen years after it was gazetted by the various state governments, many buildings, including new buildings, are still full of barriers. And as far as I am concerned, the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 also have not done much to alleviate the situation.

Public transport and the built environment continue to remain inaccessible. These in turn make it difficult for disabled people to gain access to education, employment, medical care and participate in politics and religion. Ours is a government that is reactive. They need to be kicked to get rolling. Otherwise, the rights of disabled people are often ignored and forgotten.

Legislations are only effective when enforced. Sad to say, officials from the ministerial down to the municipal levels entrusted with implementation and enforcement have miserably failed in their duties. Legitimate grouses were swept under the carpet and complaints were ignored. These governments in different manifestations are the biggest stumbling blocks to making society accessible and inclusive as they have the all resources at their disposal to make it happen. Yet they do not bother.

At the same time, NGOs, activists and advocates have to pull their act together. We are weak because we are not united. We do not speak in one voice. We abuse our positions as leaders of the disability movement in Malaysia by squabbling over personal issues. We sacrifice the needs of the many to benefit the personal agendas of the few. We sabotage others’ efforts. We still practice charity-based activities when we should be advocating for our rights. We spend so much resources, time and effort in fighting each other that we have lost sight of the big picture. I strongly believe that much could have been achieved had we worked as one unit. It is still not too late though.

On the whole, Malaysia cannot claim we have arrived as a nation if the rights of minorities and marginalised are not respected. The theme for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a timely call for everyone to work together to make society inclusive. The governments have to play their part. Society in general has to play its part. Most importantly, disabled people must come together to speak in unison on issues that affect us as a community. Removing barriers is not that difficult if we each understand our roles. An inclusive and accessible society benefits everyone. Lets make an effort to work towards that.

The Rise Of The Supercrips

“Supercrips” are people with impairments who overcome great obstacles to achieve “normality” in their lives, or even more. She is that paralysed woman who went through intense rehabilitation with a never-say-die attitude and is walking again today. And he is the man with no limbs who go about life “just like everyone else.”

The recent London 2012 Paralympics has pushed these supercrips to the forefront. People are paying more attention to these elite athletes who can outrun most non-disabled people. Their visibility in mainstream society is made more prominent by the mass and social medias that recycled images of them in their eye-catching carbon fibre prostheses.

The term “supercrip” itself is condescending. The word “cripple” is considered not politically correct when used in reference to disabled persons. We have evolved where language is concerned but this particular word lingers as supercrips continue to amaze society while creating a sense of confusion within the disability circle.

To society, they are the epitome of what other disabled people should strive for, rising from the ashes to become one with society again. Their accomplishments are often used as examples to inspire non-disabled people and other disabled people as well.

Don’t we just love the story of the armless artist who paints with his foot? Or the wheelchair user who goes everywhere and anywhere and even up stairs by himself? They don’t need reasonable accommodation. They don’t complain. They just suck it up and move on. If they can, why can’t other disabled people?

They make “ordinary” disabled people like me sound whiney and demanding for not putting in that extra effort but expecting society to solve our problems. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against them. They worked hard to get where they are. They live the life they want to. That is their prerogative. I have no argument with that.

What I am opposed to is how they are being used as a yardstick on other disabled people. Not every wheelchair user can get up a kerb without assistance. Not every single-leg amputee can become a world class athlete. Not every disabled person who go through rehabilitation can regain full functionality of their body.

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a seminar organised by a municipal council on the environmental barriers faced by disabled people. Imagine my shock and horror when one of the speakers, after concluding his session on removing barriers, played a video of a disabled person going about his life effortlessly in spite of the barriers in and outside his house.

That video alone cancelled out all our arguments calling for a barrier free environment. Needless to say, the participants were more impressed with that video than the presentations of subsequent speakers. What made it more unfortunate was that the speaker is a wheelchair user and veteran activist on disability issues.

Injudicious use of such examples is damaging to the dignity of disabled persons as individuals and dilutes the advocacy of the disability movement. Disabled people who don’t achieve that certain level of independence will feel that they are not working hard enough. Society, on the other hand, will not see the urgency to make the built environment accessible since disabled people are the cause of their own problems.

The crux of the issue is that we should all accept the diversity of the humankind. People should be given a choice of who or what they want to be. There are super-achievers and there are people who just want to be ordinary. Not every non-disabled person can climb Mount Everest or run a marathon. We respect that. Likewise, not every disabled person has the capacity to become a super-achiever and may need support in their activities of daily living. We have to respect this also.

Supercrips are the exception, not the norm. Notwithstanding society’s fascination with them as the posterboy for disabled people, they are not the true face of disability, and not every disabled person wants to be a supercrip. That is the reality.

Around the world, millions of disabled people are still struggling against barriers, discrimination and oppression every day of their lives. Their stories of courage are not any less interesting. They are fighting for the right to live ordinary lives without having to accomplish extraordinary feats. Now, isn’t that one cause truly worth fighting for?