ACCORDING to the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008, “persons with disabilities include those who have long term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society.”
In this article, I will not discuss the English term used in the Act. The term for ‘persons with disabilities’ in the Malay version of the Act is ‘orang kurang upaya’ and abbreviated as OKU. For the lack of a better term and for the sake of expediency, I use OKU but very sparingly. I am troubled by the image it projects each time I used it because when translated because it means people who are less able.
I admit that I am a stickler when it comes to terms used to refer to people like me. Am I a person with disabilities, OKU or disabled person? They may seem the same at the first glance but there are very distinct differences when we delve deeper into their meanings.
What are the factors that prevent people from meaningful participation in society? It all boils down to the location of the problem. Is the problem in the person or in the environment? Is not being able to walk or not being able to see an issue? Or is the way we construct the world around us the issue?
When we talk about disability, we are not talking about the functional aspects of the individuals. The Act and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have similar definitions when it comes to this. In a nutshell, disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society.
My experiences in Tokyo, and in a small part Seoul, have enlightened me on the reality that even people with severe physical impairments can live independently in the community when there are sufficient accessible infrastructure and support systems.
Essentially, in our country, people are needlessly inconvenienced and segregated by barriers that are man-made. Having identified the location and the cause that are preventing meaningful participation in society, I am baffled by why people still come up with terms that attribute the problem to the individual instead of pinpointing the root cause.
In this column previously, I have stated my preference for disabled person over person with disabilities. The former identifies that the person is disabled by external factors as opposed to ascribing the disabilities to the person in the latter.
As for ‘orang kurang upaya’, this term clearly states that the person is the problem. This brings up the question of whether disabled people are people who are less able. On what basis do we define the abilities or lack of abilities of a person? Again in this matter, let us not lose sight of the location and the cause of the problem, and that disability is participation restriction caused by barriers as defined in the Act and the Convention.
I spoke out on the need to redefine disability and how OKU is not an appropriate term in a national conference on disability a few years ago. It ruffled some feathers as it was the term used in all official government documents. It being used in official documents does not make it correct just like how ‘orang cacat’, which was previously used in government documents, was replaced with OKU.
Of late, there is an initiative to soften the meaning of OKU even more by redefining it to ‘orang kelainan upaya’ or differently abled people. The logic was that disabled people have different abilities; what those abilities are I do not know.
The fact is that humanity is diverse and everyone has different abilities. If that is the case, calling disabled people differently abled is of no meaning. It dilutes the problems that we face and devalues the advocacy efforts that we have been working on.
Given a choice, I would rather be known just by my name or as a regular person. Nevertheless, identifying ourselves as disabled persons is a political stand my colleagues and I of same school of thought make in order to further our agenda for an equal and just society.
Disability advocacy should not be limited to conducting disability awareness training, demanding for our rights through demonstrations and complaining though the various media. These forms of activism have been going on for the past few decades but the progress is still moving at a snail’s pace.
This matter cannot be taken lightly any more. Agreeing to be labelled as ‘orang kurang upaya’ is an admission that the problem that we are facing is the result of our impairments. It weakens our arguments against the injustices that we face every day because we are ‘less able’ and are therefore a part of the problem.
There is no politically correct replacement for OKU at the moment. We need to take a strategic position on this matter. First and foremost, the disability movement in the country needs to come together to coin one term in Malay that succinctly states our position as a community of people who are still experiencing discrimination and oppression. Only when we are able to clearly define our stand on who we are can we have the confidence to demand for what we rightfully deserve.
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