Saturday, July 04, 2009

WEEKEND VIEW: The Disabled Need Our Unflinching Support

I WAS delighted to be given an opportunity to speak at a very important seminar in Kuala Lumpur last week.

The event, which was held over two working days, was put together by the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM) in Jalan Duta.
My topic was on social justice and people with disabilities.

Three other speakers also spoke on the panel.

Their focus was on children and the elderly, indigenous communities and foreign or “guest workers” in Malaysia.

In my talk I pointed out to the able-bodied audience who were made up of mostly professionals that it was absolutely essential to have a proper understanding of what disability was first before one can start to tackle the issue of social justice.

We need to understand what disability is and what it is not, I added.

Another key consideration is “the who” that can be affected by disability.

Judging from the numerous nods from the audience, I was glad that I managed to drive home the point that disability is everyone’s issue.

It is not just something that affects a particular and peculiar group of people in some remote part of town.

I disclosed to the floor that although I was born disabled, I had yet to meet another person just like me.

Most, if not all of the disabled people that I know were once like you – able-bodied, I said.

A couple of participants from the floor looked down when I said this. Others smiled and nodded, as if to show that they understood what I was trying to say.

Common diseases like heart attacks, cancer, diabetes can and do frequently lead to handicapping conditions.

Disability is no respecter of persons. It can not only affect us but also our loved ones, friends, families, colleagues, employers, etc.

Once we understand this, we would be in a better position to discuss the issue of social justice when it comes to Malaysians with disabilities.

This is a chief reason why I, as a MBPJ councillor, embarked on a project recently to make a universal designed pavement in Petaling Jaya.

Located along Jalan Gasing, the almost 500-metre stretch is being constructed to allow everybody to use it.

The design which uses international and local standards includes tactile markings on the floor to help the blind find their way about independently.

The pavement will also be wheelchair-friendly. Mothers with prams, pregnant women and the elderly – not forgetting the able-bodied – will be able to walk on it safely.

Think of how many pavements that exist today that can actually be used by pedestrians?

The unique design will prevent cars from accessing the special pavement. Obstruction from any kind of street furniture will also be removed in order to allow unimpeded access for anybody and everybody.

The latest design is a test-case project. If proven successful, it will be automatically implemented in all of Petaling Jaya’s new pavements – as well as older ones eventually.

I was saddened and shocked by certain quarters who rushed out to criticise the project even before it was completed.

Someone asked if a “proper study” was done to see if there were disabled people in the area before the project was started.

The argument implies as if disabled people are only found in a certain part of town and nowhere else.

This kind of thinking clearly stereotypes people with disabilities who have rightly been recently officially recognised as the largest minority group in the world.

I myself have witnessed on a number of occasions several elderly persons with walking sticks going to the local shops, park, church or temple.

And on every occasion they chose to walk on the road and court danger with the oncoming traffic instead of on the pavement.

The reason they avoid the pavements is obvious. The pavement is too high for them to get on and off it. The pathway also narrows down suddenly next to large open drains like crocodiles waiting to swallow them up.

Someone else suggested that the project should have been initiated at another location in PJ next to an eye hospital.

This, again, is a most unfair stereotyping of the handicap as if to say the only place they ought to go to is to hospitals.

And why the devil would permanently blind people want to go to an eye hospital anyway?

I guess the lesson here for all of us is to stop labelling and stereotyping the disabled in our community.

It’s attitudes like these that have kept them locked away from our society.

Let us never forget that they are people just like all of us. And they are entitled to the same rights and privileges as all of us who are citizens of our country.

The best thing we can do for them is to offer them our unflinching support.

PET+BLOGSPOT is the official online blog of the Malaysian Animal-Assisted Therapy for the Disabled and Elderly Association (Petpositive).

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