Come Merdeka, patriotism will be the word that politicians throw around to make us feel guilty that we are not doing enough for our beloved Malaysia. But are politicians themselves doing enough? Patriotism is not only about flying flags on this significant occasion. It is about building a nation where everyone can enjoy the fruits of success from the progress and development of the country.
For the past 23 years, I have seen the tremendous growth achieved by our country from my wheelchair. The construction of the Penang Bridge was completed shortly after I became a quadriplegic. Proton Saga, the first national car, was launched around the same time. Now, we have the Petronas Twin Towers – one of the tallest buildings in the world. We can also travel with relative ease the entire length of the peninsula from Bukit Kayu Hitam in the north right up to the Johor Causeway in the extreme south on the North-South Expressway.
As a nation, we have gone far from that fateful day on October 15 1984 when I dived into a swimming pool, broke my neck and became paralysed from chest down. From that point on, I had to learn to live again, very much like a baby who has to learn everything from scratch. However, a baby born on the same day that that my life took a tragic turn would have graduated with a degree, be gainfully employed and living life to the fullest.
On the other hand, my life has stood still since. The journeys outside my home are always fraught with barriers. There is no public transport to take me to places that I need to go. Many buildings, walkways and other public amenities are not accessible. 23 years ago it was like this. 23 years later it is still the same. While the nation has moved on by leaps and bounds, I am still stuck at the starting line.
This predicament is not unique to me alone. Disabled people all over Malaysia are in the same situation – marginalised, ignored and discriminated against. Something is not right somewhere when disabled people have to go to the streets to protest injustices perpetrated against them. Glaring examples are the demonstrations against RapidKL and Air Asia for ignoring the transportation needs of disabled people. We have to resort to this because things seldom work out through polite dialogues behind closed doors, be it with the government or service providers.
It is sad that we are driven to vent our frustrations this way. Whose failure is it that after 50 years of the nation’s independence, we, the disabled people of Malaysia, are still struggling to gain ours? We are neither asking for sympathy nor charity. We are neither asking for privileges nor special treatment. What we want are opportunities to be part of the society that we live in.
We want to get an education. We want to get employment that commensurates with our skills. We want to make friends. We want to fall in love and get married. We want to own a house we can call home. We want to have children. We want to enjoy leisurely strolls in the park. We want to enjoy movies and concerts. We want to travel and see the world. We want to be citizens who can contribute meaningfully to the growth of the nation. Those are the aspirations of everyone in Malaysia, disabled people included. Unfortunately, we are not able to enjoy many of those.
There is a need to change the mindset that disability is the cause of the problems that disabled people are facing in society today. If we look into it hard enough, we will realise that attitudinal barriers are the main factors why people are disabled. There are still widespread misconceptions that facilities for disabled people are extras, privileges and incur additional expenses to be included. What these people fail to see is that such accessible facilities benefit everyone including senior citizens, pregnant women and adults with prams, among others.
The most distressing part of this is that the government is not taking a proactive approach to the resolve it. Why is there a need for protests by disabled people to move the government into action? And these also are done on a piecemeal basis. When we protested against RapidKL, the government told the bus operator to look into the needs of disabled people. When we protested against Air Asia, the government asked the airline to resolve the issue. Looking at the way the government is handling these issues, disabled people will still be protesting against discrimination come the next 50 years.
Resolving disability issues are not only about building ramps and toilets and running an accessible public transport system. Those are only small pieces of the bigger picture. To resolve the problems faced by disabled people, there is a need to mainstream disability. There is a need to view disability as society’s problem as a whole rather than the exclusive problem of the minority.
Some people are born disabled. Some people become disabled in mid-life from accidents and diseases. Some people become disabled due to old age. No one can be certain that they will never become disabled. No one can be certain that their loved ones will never become disabled. Therefore, this is an issue that everyone should be concerned with. This is an issue that the government who cares for the wellbeing of the people who elected them should be concerned with.
My Hari Kemerdekaan wish is to see that the rights and dignity of disabled people in Malaysia are respected according to what is stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Some of my disabled friends have waited 50 years to see changes only to be disappointed by the lack of improvement in the overall system where mainstreaming disability is concerned. I hope disabled people of my generation do not have to wait in futility for that long to see changes. And I hope our patriotic Yang Berhormats will not only encourage us to display the Jalur Gemilang during Hari Kemerdekaan but find that spark of conscience in their hearts to do what is right so that no one is left behind when our country becomes a developed nation in 2020.
I am tagging Sashi. Here is the baton, mate!
Here are the posts in this project so far: