MY teenage years in the Boy Scout troop were full of adventures. We hiked across jungle trails to camp at secluded beaches. Two of the more strenuous activities that I enjoyed were cycling around the island of Penang and abseiling down a rock face several storeys high.
At that time, it seemed like nothing could stop me. I was imbued with extreme youthful bravado. There was no hill too high to climb and no place too far to explore. Obstacles were simply challenges with an open invitation to be conquered. I never knew what defeat was until I sustained my spinal cord injury.
Barriers of all shapes and sizes waited for me at every turn of the corner after that. I was stuck at home in a wheelchair most of the time. It was too much hassle to go out. There was nothing I could do to change the situation. I accepted that the limitations I faced were due to my paralysis. I was finally beaten by my own body.
It took me a very long time to realise that there was no causal linkage between not being able to walk and not being able to achieve meaningful participation in society. The entire system is simply chock-full of barriers that are man-made. That realisation shifted my paradigm from just naively accepting my fate to becoming an agent of change by pushing for the elimination of barriers in society.
In the built environment and public transport system, barriers are the physical obstacles that restrict independence and hinder mobility. These obstacles cause a cascading effect with far-reaching consequences.
The activities of persons with impairments are affected in every aspect by these barriers. We cannot get an education because buses and schools are inaccessible. We cannot become gainfully employed because we lack qualifications from not being able to go to school. In the end, we become financially deficient and socially marginalised not of our own doing. It is the barriers that have made us into ‘disabled persons’.
Misconceptions, assumptions and prejudices are attitudinal barriers. They prevent meaningful interaction between non-disabled and disabled persons. We face discrimination because we are thought to have less abilities or even no abilities, deserving pity and in need of charity. In reality, all we need are equal opportunities.
In some communities, impairments are seen as a form of punishment for sins of a past life. In others, disabled persons are hero worshipped for overcoming barriers that were ironically built without consideration of the inconveniences they would cause in the first place.
Another common perception is that rehabilitation can put paraplegics and tetraplegics back on their feet again. Those who are unable to walk after that process are judged to have no determination and be lazy. Not being able to walk is not the issue here. The diversity of humankind should be accepted and respected. The attitude of expecting everyone to conform to the norm is the real problem.
Disabled persons are perceived to be incapable of sexual intercourse. This is one question we have been asked once too often and one we have become weary of answering. When we explain that it is a myth, we are discouraged from starting a family because we might produce offspring with similar impairments, which is also another myth.
Legislative barriers are exclusive policies and practices that lead to institutionalised discrimination. Segregation of disabled students in the education system is an example. They are evaluated based on what they cannot do instead of the skills and potentials they possess. Thus, they are denied the opportunity to develop like other non-disabled students in mainstream schools.
The lack of support services is seldom considered a barrier. They are crucial nonetheless. Personal assistants and sign language interpreters enable disabled persons to function more effectively. The importance in support services cannot be overstated, especially for persons with severe impairment who otherwise cannot practice independent living without the support of personal assistants.
The scarcity of resources in Braille and other accessible formats is an issue that has not been properly addressed. Braille printers are expensive but when they are available they are often underutilised due to the lack of expertise in using them. Students with visual impairments have no choice but to depend on volunteer readers to provide support in reading printed materials.
The list of barriers here is not exhaustive. What is a barrier to some may not be a barrier to others. However, it is a common denominator that all disabled persons are fighting against. Barriers, be they physical, attitudinal or legislative, must be removed without reservation.
Barriers are the causes of accessibility issues. Accessibility issues in turn can no longer be regarded solely as a problem of disabled persons. According to the United Nations, Malaysia will become an ageing nation when 15 per cent of the population will be aged 60 and above by the year 2030. We all know that ageing can lead to chronic mobility impairments and diseases.
If the policymakers in the government do not start to address the problems now, they may just find themselves in a quandary when they become old and frail and in dire need of accessible facilities and a caring society. The cliche:
“If we fail to plan, then we plan to fail” is a warning we should all heed. It is still not too late. Let us break the barriers now, for a better future for ourselves and those who come after us.
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