Be bold in pushing for change

The writer with participants of the AUN-DPPnet Accessibility and Universal Design Training Programme.

TWO weeks ago, I was invited as one of the speakers for a forum organised by the Asean University Network – Disability and Public Policy Network (AUN-DPPnet). It was held at the Institute of Leadership and Development in Negeri Sembilan.

The 16 participants were all disabled persons from Asean member countries. They were here for a three-week Accessibility and Universal Design Training Programme. University of Malaya served as the secretariat, which is supported financially by the Nippon Foundation of Japan.

The title of my presentation was ‘Disability-Rights Advocacy in the Information Age’. I felt that this was an area that needed emphasis. Even with the incredible growth of connected devices, disability-rights advocates in this region have not fully capitalised on it to promote inclusion and equality in a big way.

With a computer, tablet or smartphone and an Internet connection, our reach is literally global. Facebook had more than two billion active users as of the third quarter of 2017. Most, if not all, of the participants stated that they have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts when I asked if they were active on social media.

I shared that the one excuse I often hear is that “I am only one person. What can I do?”

That is a self-defeating fallacy. Truth be told, I have been working mostly as an individual activist since I started in 2005 and that has not constrained me one bit. Even as individuals, we can advocate for change. In fact, the freedom of not having to deal with bureaucracy and answer to a committee made it easier for me to work more effectively.

With access to the Internet, blogs and social media, one does not have to be in a leadership position in any organisation to make meaningful changes. Even as individuals, we can create waves and challenge the status quo.

Because as individuals, we are stakeholders. We have the experience, the right and the credibility to talk about issues that affect us. Of course, it would be better if we have the backing and resources of large organisations but the Internet has made is easier to reach out even in situations of limited resources.

First things first, they have to build up their credibility and reputation by acquiring skills and knowledge. Access audit of the built environment is one of them. The other is Disability Equality Training where they are able to gain the Social Model of Disability perspective.

Other subjects of interest they should be well-versed with include legislation on disability and discrimination in their own countries, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Sustainable Development Goals and Incheon Strategy, among others.

Nevertheless, skills and knowledge are not enough. They must also be able to speak confidently in a language the general public can understand and empathise with. Or at least translate it into simpler and easier to absorb chunks of information. The usage of specialised, technical and difficult to understand words will make it hard for the public to understand and the message will be lost.

Having gained the skills and knowledge, and being able to express oneself confidently in easy-to-understand language, they should then start talking about issues on social media. Other than that, they should also talk about the same things in the mass media by writing letters to the editor and reaching out to journalists who are sympathetic to our cause.

The other crucial component in change is to directly engage with relevant parties who are in positions to make decisions or policies. I have engaged with government ministries, municipal councils, airport authorities, airlines, public transport operators and shopping malls.

I was honest with them that the results were mixed. Sometimes the agencies listened, many times they ignored. But that should not be a deterrent because we cannot expect change to happen immediately. But the little changes that do take place can snowball into something bigger.

To create meaningful changes, I encouraged the participants to be bold when it comes to fighting for equality and inclusion. They should not be afraid of authority even though our culture demands respect for and compliance with people in power.

I discovered that most of the time, the authorities were quite receptive to suggestions for improvements when we can put forth our case in convincing and logical ways. That is why the participants need to develop good communication skills.

They could take up big issues or start small. It is all up to them but my suggestion was to begin with small actions where they can manage and see faster results. As I just mentioned, small changes can lead to some very interesting results like my case with Malaysia Airlines.

I wrote an open letter to the CEO in this column last year relating the bad experiences I had on my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, which became viral on Facebook. The airline has now engaged my colleagues and me to provide training to all its customer-facing staff and also to advise on improving services for disabled passengers at all touchpoints.

In conclusion, I advised the participants to not underestimate the power of an individual using social media, and with the support of mass media, to talk about issues. The results can be surprising and more than we could ever imagine.

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