IGNORANCE is not bliss where disability rights are concerned. The lack of awareness often leads to abuse, oppression and discrimination. Disabled persons who are oblivious of these rights accept that the unfair treatments they receive are the direct result of their impairments. They blame themselves for the lack of opportunities in education, employment and other activities.
Years of being told that they are useless and are a burden becomes embedded in their minds. They believe in self-perpetuated statements like, “I cannot go to school because there are no facilities for people like me who cannot walk.”
There is also a perception that being disabled is a fate worse than death. This is perpetrated through the mass media in campaigns against drunk driving. Survivors of such accidents are often portrayed as severely disabled and can no longer lead a meaningful life.
It does not help that disabled persons are generally viewed as objects of charity and pity, always needing handouts and donations to survive. This view is reflected in the mindset of disabled persons, who accept the poor quality of life as fate and that nothing can be done about it. They become trapped by the internalisation of these negative images of themselves.
This is a vicious cycle but one that can be broken. There are four steps for disabled persons to become empowered and break free from these negative clutches. They can become agents of change, not only for themselves but for the good of other disabled persons and society as a whole.
The first step is the desire for change. This is also the most crucial step. The fact that the desire comes from within makes it a powerful catalyst to ignite the path to empowerment. It usually begins with them wanting to take charge of their lives. This can be as simple as eating a healthier diet or managing personal finances.
Doubts and fears are rife. The uncertainty of how to go about moving forward can seem daunting at times. Nevertheless, the fire has been lit. There is no turning back now despite the lack of direction.
The desire for change does not stop after the first step. It is a continuous process that builds on the successes of each subsequent step. As they learn more about themselves and what they can accomplish, they set the bar higher and higher.
The second step is the realisation that change is possible. Optimism takes over the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. This is a stage of self-discovery. They begin to learn of their potential and interests.
The vast resources on disability issues available in the Internet are a boon for the awakened spirit. It is here that they often find inspiration and role models to emulate. They begin to realise the possibilities of living a fulfilling life in the face of adversities and challenges from reading the success stories of people in similar conditions.
The third step is shifting the paradigm of disability. This is the most difficult step to get past. It is hard to convert a mindset that that has long accepted impairments as the root cause of the problems faced by disabled persons. Many leaders in the disability movement still cling on to this belief.
In reality, the problems are social construct. The infrastructure is not built to accommodate everyone. As a result, people are disabled by poor designs and bad attitudes rather than by their impairments.
Once disabled persons can see with clarity where the problems lie, the previous statement becomes “I cannot go to school because there are no accessible facilities.”
Being able to transfer the ownership of the problems from themselves and their impairments to society liberates them from the negative internalisation.
The realisation that impairments are not the cause of disability allows emotional healing from years of self-oppression and self-blame. They become confident of themselves. They regain their dignity. They are no longer ashamed of their impairments.
At this instance of enlightenment, they become truly empowered and ready to take on the challenges and obstacles that come their way.
The fourth step is taking proactive actions. Being empowered and aware of their rights, they work on a broad range of disability issues to make society accessible, inclusive and fair to all. They become role models to empower other disabled persons. They become agents of change.
Empowered disabled persons do not necessarily work full time or solely as activists and advocates. Many are successful professionals working in a variety of fields. When the situation demands their expertise, they contribute their time and effort to the cause.
This process of empowerment does not happen overnight. Some take years while others take decades to move from Step One to Step Four. The process may seem formidable but it usually progresses naturally and unknowingly. They do not even notice that they have moved up another step.
As long as disabled persons are motivated to take the first step to change their lives for the better, everything else will fall into place eventually. This is the power of empowerment at work, one step at a time.
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