Developing a more sustainable and resilient society

THE UN General Assembly passed a resolution to proclaim Dec 3 as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) in 1992.

It has been observed since then with a specific theme assigned to each year. The theme for 2017 is “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient society for all.”

It calls for collaboration between all stakeholders to expedite the process of inclusive and sustainable development, and promote resilient society for all, in the context of disaster risk reduction and humanitarian action, and urban developments.

This is in view of rapid urbanisation, major natural disasters, situations of armed conflicts and humanitarian emergencies in recent times where disabled people have been greatly affected.

There is an urgent need to ensure we have access to protection and assistance without discrimination in these areas when the need arises.

United Nations recommend activities we can do to commemorate this day at a local level. They include stakeholders coming together to focus on issues related to inclusion, create public discussions to support the theme for the year, celebrate the contributions of disabled people in the communities and highlight best practices, and making recommendations to parties in positions to make meaningful changes.

This call is timely as disabled people are being left out in all aspects of society even in everyday situations. We need more than a transformation on the implementation of sustainable disability-inclusive development.

The changes that are happening are moving at a snail’s pace. We are actually running around in circles. Each time we take one step forward, we take another step backward somewhere down the road as we keep repeating the same mistakes … again and again.

What we need is a quantum leap in the perspectives of viewing disability, and new approaches and processes on how we deal with these issues. We have been doing things the old way and it has gotten us nowhere.

This is just like the saying that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

For someone who was very active before I became severely paralysed and has been using a wheelchair for the past 33 years, I have a good vantage point of how much we have moved forward where disability-inclusion is concerned. How different is my life as a disabled person compared to 10, 20 or 30 years ago?

The goal here is my ability to realise social participation in how I can be a contributor and beneficiary of the activities in society and the community I live in.

For this, I use two very simple yardsticks. Can I get out from my house safely and can I use public transport conveniently? These two are crucial links to my participation in society.

Having lived in various places in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, the answer to both questions are a resounding “No!”

They tell a lot of the progress we have achieved. I still struggle with the same issues that have been plaguing me since I started using a wheelchair. If we cannot get it right in times of peace and safety, how can we expect to manage it properly in times of conflicts and disasters?

Disability-inclusive development comes in spurts. We have to be constantly pushing for it to happen. If we stop, inertia sets in. It is also done on piecemeal basis without consideration for the wider implications.

Take public transport for example. Having accessible buses without corresponding accessible bus stops renders the entire system useless. This myopic approach to development is prevalent. We must change this at least to a linear course that is consistent across the board.

Moving forward, we need to relook at how we deal with issues related to disability. Firstly, there is a pressing need to empower disabled people who can promote inclusive-development on a wider scale.This means disabled people’s organisations should promote cross disability advocacy rather than for their own specific communities only as is happening currently.

We need to do this ten-fold more than what we are doing now. Without empowered disabled people with an inclusive perspective, we have very little hope of pushing for significant changes to the status quo.

Secondly, we need to come out with more effective mechanisms to implement, monitor and enforce laws and regulations that protect the rights of disabled people. At the moment, this is very lacking and mostly done on a per discretion basis. We cannot depend on the goodwill of others when it comes to our rights as our lives depend on it.

Thirdly, for effective change to happen in disability-inclusive development, we need to be included in all levels of decision and policy making, and look at it from a holistic standpoint.

At the moment, all actions that affect us are done on our behalf by non-disabled people. As I reiterate so often, one cannot understand disability by simply simulating it with sitting on a wheelchair or wear a blindfold for a few hours.

This exercise only gives non-disabled people an understanding of what disabled people cannot do and how difficult life is for us. It does not give the experience of discrimination, oppression and marginalisation we have to go through all the time. What more in times of crisis and disaster when our needs become more urgent and require immediate attention?

These are the three elements we must pursue and put in place. Disabled people and disability-related organisations must come together to actively push for empowerment, inclusion and more genuine representation.

There are no two ways about it. We must stand up to protect our own rights. Governments, on the other hand, should not include us as mere tokens for the sake of appearances only. Our view must be taken seriously.

Working together, we can realise the goal of building a sustainable society for all that can withstand the rigours of modern times, natural disasters and humanitarian crisis.

It is a win-win situation for everyone because we have a saying that what is good for disabled people is good for everyone else.

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