Saturday, October 25, 2014

Shining Light On Ignorance

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Shining A Light On Ignorance

Anthony-ThanasayanHINDUS celebrated Deepavali yesterday.
The ancient annual occasion is also popularly known as 'festival of lights'.
It spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, hope over despair and, especially, knowledge over ignorance.  

No one probably knows and appreciates this better than 20-year-old Aveena Devi who resides in Subang Jaya in the state of Selangor.
Like me, she was born with spina bifida. The condition is a serious one in which part of the spine was not properly developed at birth, leaving the nerves in the back without any protection.
As a result, she uses a wheelchair to move about and is currently a student in a private school.
"I never got to understand my disability fully until I was about 10 years old," Aveena told me in an interview I had with her last week.
"All I knew as a child was that I couldn't walk like my older brother and sister. I knew I was different from the rest of my family and that something was wrong with me, but I wasn't particularly sad or depressed about it," she explained.
The credit goes clearly to her supportive parents and siblings.
"Mum, more than anyone else, was ever ready to talk to me about my disability. In fact, she always did, but I was too young to understand anything then - until I turned 10," Aveena pointed out.
"Mum told me about spina bifida, what it was and how it affects someone who has it.
"She also told me that there are no coincidences in life because everything happens for a good reason - even if we may not immediately know what that is."
Aveena noticed that, strangely enough, because she had a disability as a child, the experience made her more mature than most of her peers, so much so that her friends started calling her "old lady" in jest.
One of her greatest motivations in life is her religion. Another is her ability and freedom to practise it.
"God is my main inspiration in life. I pray every night and go to the temple at least three times a week. This is where I find strength, peace and inner healing - which I can't get anywhere else."
So it is not surprising why Aveena's world "came crashing down" - as she put it - when she was denied entry into the Sivan Temple in Bukit Gasing in Petaling Jaya, Selangor earlier this year, because of her wheelchair.
"Mum and I had just got out of our car and were heading towards the temple when a member of the temple staff stopped us. He said, 'Devotees in wheelchairs are disallowed because wheelchairs are considered dirty, just like shoes and slippers.'
"We had no choice but to leave then and there. That was the first time in my life I felt 'disabled' and was made to feel that I was the problem in society rather than the other way around, especially for its not providing for my needs.
"I was so glad that, at home that night, my dad and my mum spoke to me and helped me gain back my confidence. I realised that the problem wasn't me. It was everything to do with prejudice stemming from ignorance on the part of the able-bodied about persons with disabilities." 
Aveena also pointed out that she was deeply disappointed that the state assemblyman for Bukit Gasing, Rajiv Rishayakaran, and Petaling Jaya City Council's (MBPJ) councillor for the area, Cynthia Gabriel, had made no effort to contact her to offer their sympathy and support because of the rejection, insult and humiliation she and other disabled persons had suffered, being treated as less than human.
Not only that, but the former had refused to see the matter as one of discrimination against persons with disabilities.
"I hope that elected and appointed representatives will realise that we are people too. We have feelings, just like everyone else."
The good news, however, is that the matter was finally resolved after several dozen people in wheelchairs protested at the temple against its discriminatory policy.
The temple officials came to their senses. The offensive wordings on their signboard were removed.
Today, Aveena still actively fulfils her religious duties and vows by visiting temples with the same fervour as before.
"Sometimes, when people stare curiously at my wheelchair, I immediately offer them my best smile. If they come up to talk to me, I welcome them with open arms. When they ask me about my disability, I am ever ready to educate them about it."
Aveena says her favourite temples are those which have ramps and which allow her wheelchair unimpeded access so that she can get as close to each deity as possible - just like able-bodied devotees.
Aveena is also the author of the book 'What's Your Problem?'. She said she will continue to use her experiences in life with regards to disability to shine a light on darkness, ignorance and prejudice wherever she goes.
NOTE: All new temples and other places of worship in PJ are required to provide disabled-friendly facilities in order for building approval to be granted by the Petaling Jaya City Council.


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