THIS year’s celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) – which falls today – is a cause for double joy for me as a person who has lived with a disability all of my life.
That is because I turned 50 years old last month on the 21st of November.
Turning half of a century older is a big achievement for anybody especially if they are told that they would never make it that far.
The doctors told my parents that because of my congenital condition of my spine called “spina bifida” I wouldn’t make it past the years of being an adolescent.
Well, hello, here I am; proving those clueless doctors wrong – and very audaciously living to tell about it.
With such a prognosis, it is the best birthday present anybody can ever wish for and have.
More bad luck struck, however, when I was ten years old.
I was forced to go for a leg operation to straighten my knee so that I could use callipers (special shoes with metal support) to walk.
However that turned out to be not only a total failure but it also made my legs worse causing it to lose whatever sensations I had on it.
Again some bad doctors were clearly only using me as a guinea pig in order to become famous, if the surgery had worked.
I had to stop schooling at standard four and spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair “imprisoned” within the four walls of my home.
I pretty much lost everything else after that.
I couldn’t continue with my studies because the school said that they couldn’t fit my wheelchair in their classrooms and toilets.
I couldn’t get out of my house because the whole environment was hostile to my wheelchair.
There were no pavements in Klang, Selangor, where I lived; and if there were, I couldn’t get my wheelchair on it.
Once a car grazed through the side of my wheelchair and damaged the big wheel. The inexperienced driver stuck his head out of the car and screamed at me: “Stay indoors where you belong you cripple!”
I was only a boy of about 10 years old then and was being pushed in my wheelchair by my grandmother. It was a terrifying experience for the both of us – and something we didn’t dare to attempt again after that incident.
During my teenaged life I moved over to Petaling Jaya.
However, the situation was worse in the neighbourhood’s public park.
I couldn’t access it for years because the local council kept the gates eternally closed except for their official vehicles to access. The able-bodied had no problem lifting their legs over the barriers meant for contraptions with wheels.
There were no kerb cuts to the pavements. Even if someone carried my wheelchair on it; it was still no use.
The pathway would suddenly narrow down to a point where only a walking person can get through, or a lamppost or some other hindrance would appear right in front of you.
Despite the tantalisingly near distance that many of the shops were to my house, I could never access any one of them.
This was because of the many steps and uneven floor levels in the buildings.
All these made me feel very depressed and even suicidal about myself.
It was clear that as a disabled person, I did not belong in society. Quite frankly, it was better if I was never born than to be alive in my situation.
However, I soon discovered that all these negative thoughts that society was feeding into my mind was really a great big lie.
My big break came when I went to live in America in the town of Eugene in Oregon for a month in an exchange programme.
It was a wheelchair-heaven for people with disabilities!
That’s because I later found out that the handicapped actively sat with the able-bodied in the meetings of the local council.
I took my first bus ride there.
The buses were equipped with wheelchair lifts. These amazing gizmos would magically unfold from the vehicles at the push of a button.
The pavements were fully accessible to wheelchairs.
I could go into supermarkets and virtually every public building where doors would open automatically when I approached or at the push of a button. Some were even voice activated.
Wheelchair accessible toilets and proper ramps were available everywhere.
And although most Americans were always willing rush in with a helping hand to a person in a wheelchair, there was no need for it because of the accessibility all around.
The biggest thing that I learnt from my adventure whilst overseas was that I was not the problem – society was!
This was simply because they lacked to provide the necessary facilities for all its citizens – instead of looking into the needs of only some people.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I was appointed as a councillor in the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ).
My first task was to get an active disability team into the council in order to provide vital information – from the horses’ mouths, as they say, - regarding their many needs.
The MBPJ’s special committee today has representatives from a wide range of disabilities such as the blind, Deaf, people with learning disabilities, stroke and even mental illness.
Many of them have the conditions themselves and are therefore able to best articulate their needs.
We have also included caregivers of disabled persons who take their loved ones like those with Parkinson’s for outings in the city.
One of the unique things we have considered is building shelters for disabled car parks so that users can be protected from the elements, considering the extra time that they need to get in and out of their vehicles.
All new buildings will have to come to our committee first for approval of their disabled-friendly facilities before they get the green light to proceed with their projects from a higher committee.
The MBPJ is also making a special effort to ensure that disabled and elderly homes are fully equipped with the proper disabled-friendly features so that every user and resident will fully benefit from their stay.
One of our proudest achievements yet is a 500-metre stretch of pavement along Jalan Gasing that is universally-designed.
It is 90% complete.
Once it is ready, everybody – the elderly with walking difficulties to mothers with prams, children and the blind – will stand to benefit from it which is said to be the first of its kind in the country.
However, what was rather shocking is that there was some opposition to the project claiming that it was a waste of money.
However, what surprises me is that the same group (all of them able-bodied and who, by the way, happily own vehicles) have never once complained about virtually all the other pavements presently that are friendly to no one.
Why do we keep building them when no one can use them?
Another confusing part is that some of these complainants are people who are 60 years and above.
Don’t they realise that they themselves are growing older by the day and one day – as medical experts say – could very well become disabled too because of a heart attack, stroke, diabetes or some other common condition?
It’s not about being born disabled or having an accident only.
I think it is high time that all of us realise that disabilities are only increasing rather than decreasing and that it is a natural aspect of the human condition.
Rather than pretending that it doesn’t exist through fear or ignorance, it is imperative that all councils must start actively planning for the growing older generation of citizens in our society.
To do that, it is vital for all the departments in the councils such as the engineering, planning and building to also coordinate their objectives and work in order to see each and every project through.
This is often the reason why some of the even best plans for a disabled-friendly city fail to materialise at the end of the day.
As a disabled activist – and now a city councillor – I used to think that the answer towards creating a disabled-friendly world solely lay on the welfare ministry or even the Prime Minister!
However, now I realise the answer really lies with each and every local governments.
It is these institutions who truly hold the key for change for the future of disabled Malaysians all over the country.
And the first step towards bringing about that effective change is to involve the disabled community in consultation with the local councils.
My wish on International Day of Disabled Persons today is that each and every local council throughout Malaysia will set up a technical disabled committee of their own with the handicapped community actively participating in them to bring about a positive future for them in the country.
PS: As for the park in my neighbourhood, MBPJ has made a special wheelchair (and pram) entrance that effectively keeps motorcycles out. And next month, the council is launching another park like it together with tactile flooring for the blind so that they can independently find their way about.
Happy IDDP all!
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