Thursday, July 18

A talk to remember

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IN all the years that I have been a trainer, I have never had to give a talk about myself as a disabled person. Sure, I have written about my life countless times in my blog and in this column but never before a live audience, and certainly never before an audience of medical students.

So there I was with my wife, whizzing through the maze of corridors leading to the lecture hall at the University Malaya Medical Centre, anxiously hoping that I was not late. I had spent quite a bit of time looking for an accessible car park as those nearer to the elevators were all taken up.

Associate Professor Dr Nazirah Hasnan, who is the head of the Department of Medical Rehabilitation, had invited me to give the short talk as part of her lecture when I was at the hospital for my routine check-up and then a meeting with her to organise a Disability Equality Training workshop for the staff in her department.

I first consulted her in 2006 when a friend introduced her. I needed a medical report to certify my fitness to drive a car. The report was a prerequisite by the Road Transport Department for the approval of a hand control attachment to the car and later for the learner’s driving licence application.

I had allowed the licence I got before the accident to lapse because I never thought I could drive again. An appeal to the Road Transport Department to have it renewed was rejected. I had to sit for all the tests again without exemption.

Up to that point in time, I had never heard of rehabilitation medicine as a speciality to manage the conditions and complications arising from disabling injuries and diseases. All I learnt about caring for my own health then was mostly through trial and error and from friends in similar situations.

When we got into the lecture hall, Dr Nazirah was in the midst of the lecture on accessibility for disabled people. The students who were listening intently to her unexpectedly burst into applause. I was a little embarrassed by the warm welcome — one that I am going to remember for a long time.

As I followed her lecture on the various aspects of accessibility, I thought it was indeed a good idea to expose these first-year medical students to relevant and important issues that have hindered the full participation of disabled people in the country for so long.

When Dr Nazirah passed the microphone to me, I began by giving a brief introduction of how I sustained spinal cord injury and how I was dependent on my mother for most of my activities of daily living.

I shared with them on one matter I had never spoken about, and something that I am not proud of. My mother helped me with everything because of her love for me. It was also because of love that she spoilt me and I took advantage of that.

She did for me the things I could not do and also those that I actually could. It was because of that that I was not as independent as I should be. That went on until she became seriously ill. Apart from having to look after myself, I had to care for her as well.

All the years of complacency finally caught up with me. That was arguably the most difficult period of my life, more difficult than having to cope with the diagnosis that I could never walk again. I look back with a tinge of regret for not being more diligent in my own rehabilitation and for putting more burden on my mother than I should have.

The story about my life cannot be complete without recounting my wonderful two-week experience in Tokyo. I related how liberated I felt the entire time I was there because I could practically go everywhere and anywhere in a wheelchair, including taking trains, monorails and buses.

In contrast, I felt extremely constrained the day after I got back to Malaysia. I could not move around safely and independently. There were simply too many obstacles every step of the way, even in the central business district of Kuala Lumpur.

At the conclusion, I posed a question for the students to ponder over. Are the problems that disabled people face in society caused by our impairments or are they due to other causes? I guess the trainer in me could not resist slipping in some elements from the workshops I conduct into the talk.

Overall, I am happy with how the session turned out. While it was not as difficult to talk about myself as I had anticipated, the process of sharing the challenging episodes of my life stirred up some emotional memories I thought had long been subdued.

I am grateful to Dr Nazirah for giving me such a valuable opportunity to share my experience and evoke some critical thinking in her students on disability issues. And I am heartened to know that they are being sensitised to issued faced by disabled people. This will certainly make my work in advocating easier.

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