The game changer


WHEN I first got involved in disability rights activism, I often wondered how I could be more effective in pushing for changes. What could I do to make a society that is typically reactive become one that is proactive?

It cannot be denied that disability is an issue that is often ignored and misunderstood by society. At the same time, disabled people have not been able to articulate with conviction that disability is not caused by the impairments of individuals.

In that aspect, explaining what disability is had always been a problem for me. For a long time, I sought ways and means to put it in plain words that the general public could understand easily.

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to attend four Disability Equality Training (DET) workshops. Dr Kenji Kuno, the expert on disability from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, facilitated the latter two workshops.

He understood that disseminating knowledge is equally as important as acquiring it. The training modules that he devised prepared trainers to deliver the contents effectively and reinforced their knowledge on disability matters at the same time. What I learnt from these workshops formed the foundation of my perspective on disability.

There are two components to DET. The first is to understand the meaning of disability. Participants are encouraged to apply critical analysis to a series of problem-posing exercises. It is through these processes that they are able to discover the root causes of the problems.

However, knowledge without application is meaningless. That is why in the second and equally important component of DET, participants are facilitated to develop action plans and become active partners in breaking social barriers.

Since then, I have facilitated DET workshops using this method with much success. Participants left the workshop enlightened on disability issues and were determined to transform society by becoming change agents themselves.

Just last week, I had the privilege to facilitate a one-day workshop for about 20 participants comprising of doctors, occupational therapists, educators and parents of children with cerebral palsy.

It was a collaborative effort between four outfits, namely the Malaysian Advocates for Cerebral Palsy, Welfare Department, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and DET Forum Malaysia.

This workshop had been in the works since late last year. It had to be postponed several times as I was rather busy during the first quarter and we could not find a mutually suitable date then.

The objective of this workshop was to open the mind of participants to alternative perspectives in dealing with disability issues. From seeing disabled people themselves as the cause of the problems, participants were facilitated to discover that systemic barriers in society are the actual cause.

For example, we like to build stairs that hinder the movement of wheelchair users. Ramps would serve the same purpose and provide easy access to everyone, including wheelchair users but for one reason or another, people continue to build stairs.

We analysed the differences between the Individual Model of Disability and Social Model of Disability. The Individual Model focuses on the impairments of the individuals and sees rehabilitation as the solution in making the person ‘normal’ again.

The Social Model, which the DET is hinged on, establishes that disability is caused by attitudinal and environmental barriers. People build barriers that prevent other people from meaningful participation in society.

The way to resolve this issue is to make reasonable accommodation. This means that where possible, facilities and services should be made accessible. The Persons with Disabilities Act includes this term to ensure that the quality of life and well-being of disabled people in Malaysia are equal to those enjoyed by non-disabled people.

One of the modules for this workshop was on Independent Living. I specifically shared a video on how it is being practised in Japan. The participants saw that people with extreme impairments are able to live in the community with the support of personal assistants.

Independent Living is a good example of how reasonable accommodation improves the quality of life of disabled people and preserves their dignity at the same time. The parents were visibly moved by the video. There were requests to organise a follow-up the workshop on this topic.

The highlight of the day was the presentation of action plans. This was also the session that I enjoyed most, albeit with some trepidation. It was a measure of the participants’ level of understanding as well as a reflection of my facilitation skills.

As most of the participants were parents or professionals working with disabled children, the action plans naturally leaned towards education. Most schools neither have accessible amenities nor sufficient trained staff to support disabled students.

I am certain that the participants, being direct stakeholders, will be able to carry through with their action plans of lobbying the schools and the relevant government agencies for the increase of manpower as a first step towards making the respective schools more inclusive.

This workshop and the many that I have facilitated in the past have proven that DET is an effective tool in promoting the understanding of disability among disabled and non-disabled people and move them to become allies in making society accessible and inclusive.

At the moment, I am one of only a handful of DET trainers in Malaysia. It is my hope that in time there will be sufficient trainers to facilitate DET workshops throughout the country so that change can happen quicker.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected].