In the hands of masters and mentors

I HAVE become very forgetful. And many times when I get distracted, I have difficulty recalling what was in my mind just seconds earlier. Because of that, I try to note down my thoughts whenever possible. When I have pen and paper handy, I use them. Otherwise, I type them out on my laptop or smartphone.

While sifting through the notes in my laptop earlier today, I came across this verse: “Be pliable in the hands of masters and mentors for they can shape you into wonderful things.” If I recall correctly, I wrote that in a moment of deep creative contemplation while I was reflecting on my current phase of life.

As I reread the verse, I was reminded of how much I have grown and how far I have come as a disability-rights activist. I started with zero knowledge about how to go about it when I first got involved. All I knew was that I had to be hands-on somehow. It was not right for me to sit back and expect other people to campaign on my behalf.

At that point in time, I was beginning to emerge from my cocoon and went out more often. The paralysis grounded me for a good 20 years before that. The more I went out, the more I wanted to be out. There was so much waiting for me out there. There was so much I could do if I could move around more conveniently.

I wanted to change society to be more inclusive of people like me but I didn’t know how. One day, out of the blue, I was invited by Tan Kuan Aw, a renowned disability activist and artist in Penang, for a meal with some of his disabled friends. We met, we talked and generally had a good time. Most importantly, that marked the first step of my journey into disability activism.

We would joke afterwards of how Kuan Aw deceived me into becoming an activist with just one plate of wonton noodles, which he treated me to at that meeting. Perhaps I was, but I was a willing victim nonetheless. We would talk and discuss about issues for hours. I was like a dry sponge, absorbing all the knowledge he unreservedly shared.

At that same first meeting, he introduced me to his long-time friend Christine Lee, who was instrumental in pushing for accessible public transport in the Klang Valley. She initiated me into radical activism. We were involved in several high profile public protests demanding for accessible public transport and an end to discriminatory airline policies.

I also got to know Dr Kenji Kuno through Kuan Aw and Christine. Kenji was the chief advisor on disability from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. The many learning opportunities he gave me put me on solid footing to become a resource person on Independent Living and a trainer of facilitators for Disability Equality Training.

Kenji deserves all the credit for my transformation into a disability educationist. I spent 10 years learning from him the finer points of training, facilitating, and running workshops effectively. He supported my participation in many domestic and international conferences where I honed my skills. This in turn elevated my public profile.

At a later stage, he encouraged me to take the training sessions I conducted one level higher by running it as a business, not so much for the profit but to make it professional and ensure sustainability. I am proud to say that the company I established in 2013 remains the only one in Malaysia specialising in Disability Equality Training.

Whatever profit I earn from the company is used to support my non-paying advocacy activities. This allows me to do what I am doing without putting too much strain on my personal finances. I don’t make much. Sometimes, I have to fork out money from my own pocket to cover travelling and other expenses for activities when there are no training jobs.

I met Shoji Nakanishi when I went to Japan for further training on Independent Living. That was 11 years ago. Shoji is the founder of the first Independent Living Centre in Japan and is a well-respected disability rights activist at the global level.

I still remember the words he said to me on my last day of training in Tokyo. He told me I could count on him whenever I needed support to develop Independent Living Centres in Malaysia. He has never allowed the distance between us be a barrier. He has never stopped providing resources and even funding for me to run projects here. I am privileged to have him as a mentor and a friend I could always depend on.

Collectively, they have all moulded my worldview on disability. They allowed me to grow at my own pace, gave me room to be a thinking, discerning and critical learner while accepting my idiosyncrasies and dissenting views. They are masters in their own right and I am humbled by their magnanimity in taking me under their wings.

I was a lump of clay they painstakingly shaped. They worked on my strengths and were forgiving of my flaws. They pushed me to my limits. I admit I still have rough edges that need to be smoothed out. Despite that, in their expert hands, I believe I have been turned into something wonderful. For that, I am forever grateful to them.

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