Monday, April 18, 2011

Disability Movement Needs More Voices

Colin Boyd Shafer teaches social science at a college in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Aside from writing/ranting, he concentrates most of his time doing documentary photography, trying to create a dialogue around sensitive issues. You can follow his work at ‘Colinizing Photography’ on Facebook.

Malaysia’s disability

December 21, 2010
DEC 21 — I spent four summers as a counsellor at an Easterseals camp for youth with disabilities. I have worked at many camps, but I especially cherish this experience.
At Easterseals, all doors open automatically, all accommodation are on the ground floor, all vehicles and showers are wheelchair-friendly, the pool has a special lift, sailboats have hammocks with neck support, and everything is connected with a smooth pathway. In other words, campers spend the summer in a world built for them.
After this experience, I became sorry for people who said “poor thing” or “what a tragedy” as they gazed at the campers in my photos. I also felt sorry for the people who got uncomfortable when speaking to my campers, or treated them like babies on field trips.

It bothered me when they stumbled over the “correct” term with which to refer to my campers — when really all that matters is intention. Most of these young people with disabilities were making the best of their lives — something I can’t say for all their able-bodies acquaintances.
A broken sidewalk with a pole in the middle of it. — Pictures by Colin Boyd Shafer

People with disabilities are not looking for charity or pity. They just want respect.

From my very first days in Malaysia, it struck me as one of the most inaccessible countries I’ve ever been to.

Even compared to poorer countries, Malaysia still ranks at the bottom in this regard.

For example, a dirt road in rural Cambodia is much more accessible than a broken busy sidewalk in KL.
Development here happened so fast that developers seemed to forget all the people. Malaysia has thrown up tall buildings and mega malls, joined by an extensive highway system. In other words, it is a system designed for those with cars.

The idea that some people like to walk has been ignored. More importantly, those with special needs have been disregarded. I am guessing I am not the only person who has witnessed a disabled man with a walker trying to cross a busy intersection, while cars whiz by as though he doesn’t exist.

The only wheelchair ramp I can find at the Subang Carrefour has a metal pole in the middle (see photograph). Even if 100 buses have been equipped with ramps, are the bus stops equipped as well?
As reported in The Star ”Wheel Power” by Anthony Thanasayan, one wheelchair-bound Malaysian woman said “The total disregard of my local council for disabled-friendly facilities keeps me a constant prisoner in my own house.” Even government buildings such as police stations aren’t always accessible.

It is not like Malaysia is oblivious to the situation. Since the 1990 amendment to the Uniform Building Bylaw of 1984, it is compulsory for all buildings to provide access and facilities to disabled persons.
According to Human Rights Watch and my own observations, compliance with this is at best “sporadic” . What percentage of buildings actually comply with this law?

According to Ding Jo-Ann in theNutGraph, Malaysia signed the Person with Disabilities Act (PWDA) in 2008 under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

This document stated that people with disabilities should have equal access to public facilities, amenities, services, and buildings, public transport, education, employment, information, communication and technology, culture and recreation.

Malaysia ratified the treaty in July 19, 2010.

However, Human Rights Watch revealed that Malaysia entered formal reservations to the Convention concerning the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment (article 15) and the right to liberty of movement and nationality (article 18).

Disability rights Researcher Shandtha Rau Barriga claimed “Malaysia’s reservations are troubling and send a terrible message to people with disabilities... What possible justification could Malaysia have for objecting to protecting persons with disabilities from torture or allowing them to move around the country?” Furthermore, Malaysia has reportedly not signed an “optional protocol” which would allow people with disabilities to report to a UN committee when Malaysia is not complying with the UN Convention!
The ramp in front of the Subang Carrefour and Starbucks entrance with a pole in the middle.

Some Malaysian youth are also disadvantaged within the current policy. As reported in The Daily Express, children are segregated by abilities/disabilities in Malaysia. According to the Education Act of 1996 children are classified as “educable” or “non-educable.” This is preposterous!  How can a human being be non-educable? 

Still, there is hope. This month Malaysia is competing at the Asian Para-Games in Guangzhou. The Star reported that Mohd Salam Sidik, two-time Olympic archer, would be the flag-bearer for Malaysia. It is great that Malaysia is participating, but what is it like when Mohd Salam Sidik tries to get around KL? Does he feel like he is bearing the national flag as he tries to cross a busy pot-holed intersection?

Many Malaysians are involved in trying to improve the situation of the disabled community. Disability rights advocate Peter Tan has taken it upon himself to revolutionise his community through networking, blogging, and pushing for an independent living centre in KL.

Likewise, Anthony Thanasayan, vice-president of the Support Group Society for the Blind of Malaysia, shares his constructive frustrations and recommendations in The Star Wheel Power column. Yvonne Foong wrote a book about her experience of battling neurofibromitosis, and has her own charity organisation called Heart4Hope.

Improvements have happened in Petaling Jaya where the city council’s (MBPJ) universal design pavement project along Jalan Gasing covers 500m, integrating a church, a temple, a popular park, eateries, and a couple of therapy centres and shops. The country needs more projects like this. Which other council will follow suit?

If disadvantaged citizens have an opportunity to succeed, Malaysia will be a much happier place. When accessibility improves, it benefits everyone. According to the UN, 10 per cent of the global population has some sort of disability. Moreover, we will all spend about eight years of our lives disabled. I may be walking today, but tomorrow may be different. 

As with many of my articles, I am trying to encourage people to create positive social change. Readers will not have to look long and hard to find something which needs fixing. No ramp? Ask why. Own a business? Make sure it is accessible. Sidewalk perpetually broken? Demand repairs. If PJ can create positive change, so can other communities. The movement has started, now it just needs more voices.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

PET+BLOGSPOT thanks columnist Colin Boyd Shafer of the Malaysian Insider for this illuminating article. We also thank our latest follower Amal Koay from Australia for alerting us to the article.

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