EVERY once in a while, I get emails requesting for interviews and information on matters related to disability. The majority of them are from university students and academics seeking to have a better understanding of current issues faced by disabled people in Malaysia for their research.
No matter what the subject of their study, one question that keeps coming up is the state of the disability rights movement in the country. They are interested to know how and what we are doing in advancing our interests seeing that we are often marginalised in social development.
As a nation, we can pride ourselves on having the Persons with Disability Act 2008 and having signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Both are a reflection of the government’s commitment to upholding the rights of disabled people.
The reality of the situation is that the Act and Convention have not brought about the desired improvement we have been waiting for. Our lives have not changed for the better seven years on. We still have to grapple endlessly with barriers in the built environment, public transportation, education, employment and everything else.
The online lexicon Oxford Dictionaries defines movement as “a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social or artistic ideas”.
Ideally, an effective movement should work like well-oiled machinery, each part playing its role in achieving a desired result, in this case, betterment of the well-being of disabled people. To achieve this end, programmes are organised to empower ourselves so that we understand our rights to equality in society.
At the same time, the entire community and available resources are mobilised to carry out advocacy, awareness and educational campaigns to provide a better understanding of issues to the government, private sector and general public.
In extreme cases, picketing is necessary to publicise matters unresolved through more docile means. This application of pressure almost always garners a quick response. Somehow, publicly shaming acts of discrimination and omission works in nudging the offending party to act positively. This is proven effective time and again in the advocacy for accessible public transport in the Klang Valley.
In that sense, yes, we do have a disability movement in Malaysia but it is not always about rights.
Some of us knowingly or unknowingly muddle charity and privileges with rights. We demand for things that only profit ourselves personally without considering the wider implications that it does not benefit the community as a whole.
Nonetheless, when we do get it right, the movement is too fragmented to be a force to be reckoned with. We do not have a leader we can all agree on. Everyone thinks they can lead. This results in the movement being spearheaded by not one but by many groups and are being led by leaders who are not in communication with each other.
Normally, we would assume that the more groups there
are in pushing for a specific cause, the stronger the movement becomes. Unfortunately, these groups are neither working together nor supporting each other towards accomplishing a common goal. This becomes a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
Imagine a cart being pulled in all directions. We will get nowhere. Our failure to speak a common language in advocacy makes it difficult for the government to formulate policies based on recommendations from us. Some of the points put forth by different groups are in contradiction of each other. Which group should the policymakers listen to? In the end, we cancel out each other’s efforts and attain nothing.
The peril of our inability to work together as a cohesive unit means that we are not strong enough to push for meaningful changes on the many issues we are facing. In the absence of a strong leadership to steer the movement, we are left to drift aimlessly, each doing what we think is right and none nearer to the goal we set out to achieve.
The disability rights movement is in dire need of a leader who can unite all groups. The leader also needs to possess a rights-based spirit in dealing with issues and gather everyone to move towards that single direction. So far, no one has come forward to take up the mantle for one reason or another. This is the predicament that is beleaguering the disability rights movement in Malaysia.
Having said that, all is not lost though. We can still set aside our differences and work together. The first step we need to take now, which is also the most important, is for all of us discuss amicably and trash out our differences. It is not going to be easy but is something we have to do.
And usually after listening to me speak my mind, the interviewer would give a knowing nod. All along, they must have known of the bad blood festering in the movement. What they needed was confirmation. If other people can see it, it must already be very obvious.
We must bear in mind that leadership is not about personalities but the good of the entire community. Selfishness has no place in the movement. We can choose to continue feuding where everyone will eventually lose in the end. Or we can swallow our pride and ego and break that barrier of animosity to extend an olive branch in the spirit of camaraderie. The choice is in our hands.
United we stand, divided we fall.