Sunday, May 26

Stop mocking disabled people


PENANG suffered the worst floods as far as anyone living in the state can remember earlier this month. Personally, I have gone through two major floods when I was living there but both instances were far less severe than this. As with any disaster, politicians from both sides of the political divide took the opportunity to throw pot shots at each other.

The unprecedented amount of rain that fell over a period of 15 hours coupled with high tide caused by a full moon were major contributing factors to the disaster. Water could not drain quickly into the sea. Some 80 per cent of the state was affected. Seven people lost their lives and tens of thousands lost their household and personal possessions.

Thankfully, my relatives and friends who were affected by the floods are safe although they are still reeling from the loss and looking for ways and means to replace their important documents and items that were irreparably damaged.

What I find rather distasteful regarding this entire episode was Padang Besar MP Zahidi Zainul Abidin relating the flood to karmic retribution and insulting religions, and the rebuttal by Petaling Jaya Utara MP Tony Pua who said that people who linked disasters to religion have mental problems.

Normally, I do not bother with such political exchanges. They are what some politicians chose to do when presented with the chance to belittle their opponents. I would prefer they expend their energy on proactive actions in assisting those who were affected rather than criticising each other and blaming each other.

However, the barbs from both politicians touched a raw nerve in me. People in Penang were suffering and waiting for assistance and aid to help to recover and move on. Zahidi cited deforestation on hilly areas and poor development management as some of the causes. Then he rubbed salt into the wound by inferring that the floods were also punishments for pitting religions against one another and the act of insulting religions by certain parties.

While his first point has some merit, his second point was without basis. Floods are recurring problems in many parts of the country. Was he saying that all these other inundations were also caused by the same reasons? In that case, the governments of those states are to be blamed, including those from the ruling party as well. Was that what he meant? Or does it apply to states governed by the federal opposition only?

I was even more disappointed with Pua’s response to Zahidi. His using mental problems as a negative analogy was uncalled for. People with mental issues are categorised under psychosocial disabilities by the Welfare Department for the purpose of registration.

The difficulties faced by people living with psychosocial disabilities in society are real. They are often stigmatised, discriminated against and having their conditions made fun of. I have worked with some of them in my training sessions and could see how they struggle to keep their condition in check. They try very hard but it is not easy, especially in highly stressful situations.

Did Pua think it was witty or clever to use psychosocial disabilities to disparage Zahidi’s wild claims on divine retribution? We hold elected representatives to higher standards because they represent our voices and aspirations. We expect them to have empathy but they are exactly the opposite. We expect them to at least have some decency in respecting marginalised groups of people. Instead they chose to trivialise the issues faced by disabled people by using disability as cheap shots against their opponents.

It does not matter if his comment was not meant to insult disabled people in general. The fact that he resorted to using psychosocial disability to admonish or belittle Zahidi shows a blatant disregard and disrespect of people living with that condition.

Politicians must remember that people with psychosocial disabilities make up part of their constituents too. People living with this condition need support and empathy, not ridicule. If only Pua had taken the time to meet people with them and understand the suffering they have to go through all the time, he would not have said what he said.

This was not the first time and it is not going to be the last politicians say something offensive and insensitive against disabled people. There is a tendency for them to associate undesirable incidents or traits with disability or disabled people. This is a reflection of how we are viewed in society. We are seen as defective and easy to pick on. But coming from politicians who are supposed to speak on our behalf in the country’s highest legislative body is upsetting, to say the least.

All politicians should start reading the Handbook for Parliamentarians on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This document was published jointly by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and United Nations, and is a useful tool on ways to promote and protect the rights of disabled people in the country. They should also be made to go through Disability Equality Training to understand the real meaning of disability. If not, how can they effectively represent their constituents who are disabled?