The biggest obstacle for disabled persons is not the environmental obstacles that they have to tackle outside. Rather, it is the psychological barriers within themselves that they have to overcome in order to move on in life. Many are left with tattered dignity caused by years of social oppression. The emotional scarring runs deep with no way of being healed.
It is not surprising that through incessant conditioning over time they have come to accept discrimination as the norm. What is even more astonishing is that many leaders of the disability movement perpetrate this kind of thought, either through ignorance or for reasons only they themselves know.
In the practice of Independent Living, the very first thing that a disabled person goes through is Peer Counseling. It derived its origins from re-evaluation counseling and co-counseling. This is basically two persons taking turns to play the role of counselor and client with an equal amount of time allocated to each.
The goals of Peer Counseling fulfil the fundamental need to reaffirm disabled persons’ status as equal members of society. It is a simple 3-step process – recovery of self-worth, rebuilding human relationships and social reformation.
It works on the premise that disabled persons possess the ability to resolve challenges given the opportunity. They are encouraged to recognize patterns of distress caused by oppression, explore ways to break those patterns, recover from it and move on to lead a more fulfilling life. Through that, they will also be aware of their needs and rights, and actively advocate for it.
Peer Counseling has been used effectively to empower disabled persons in the USA, Canada, Japan, Korea and Thailand, among others. Many have gone on to become leaders and advocates in the disability movement. Even more have found new meaning in life, despite their severe disabilities and are practicing Independent Living after undergoing Peer Counseling.
In June, two resource persons from the Human Care Association in Japan conducted a workshop to train peer counselors. It was organised by the Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat Malaysia, Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Malaysian Independent Living Initiative Group.
Currently, Peer Counseling courses are being conducted in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. It has been effective in assisting disabled persons realise that they have the ability to take responsibility for managing their own lives. In time, they too will be able to advocate for their own needs and rights just like their counterparts in other countries.