WHAT has the general election got to do with disabled people?
This is the time for us to assert our status as citizens. This is the one time where our vote is equal to everyone else’s, although the effort to exercise that right is another story altogether.
We should seize on this opportunity to elect representatives who can manage the country well and look after our interests at the state and national levels at the same time.
We only get to do this once every five years. We need to come out in full force to ensure the democracy we embrace as a nation is thriving and vibrant.
The three biggest mistakes for disabled people is to think that one vote will not make a difference, going to the voting centre is difficult and nothing will change.
As disabled people, what we want to accomplish is full and effective participation in society. Participating in the electoral system as a voter is part of that process.
If we do not participate, we are throwing away that one right we have as a citizen of this country and allowing other people to decide on our behalf.
If we do not vote, we are forfeiting the opportunity to elect someone to represent us in the government. Most importantly, in not voting, we lose the moral high ground to talk about disability rights.
We also lose the privilege to criticise the government when things go wrong because we cannot and should not be critical of something we played no part in.
People in other countries have risked their lives for their right to vote. Compatriots before us have fought and lost their lives to defend this right.
All we need to do to honour their sacrifices is just going to the polling centres to cast our votes. Is it that difficult compared to what they had to give up to accord this right to us now?
I have voted in the last two elections. It was not easy. The multiple steps, uncovered drains and kerbs along the way were formidable barriers. I would not be able to get into the voting booth without assistance.
We have the chicken and egg situation here. Do we make facilities accessible so disabled people can go out or do disabled people have to go out to make sure facilities become accessible? I say the latter.
If every disabled person decides not to vote because of that, then there is really no reason to make it accessible. Not going to vote because the polling centres are not accessible is the reason they remain so.
If I did not bother casting my votes, I would not know what and where those barriers were.
On the other hand, having done it twice, I can pinpoint the problems and offer solutions. This is better than staying home and be hindered by imaginary barriers.
People may also wonder why we should make facilities accessible when so few disabled people are seen in public spaces. However, the World Report on Disability published by World Health Organisation and World Bank stated that about 15 per cent of the world’s population lives with some form of disability.
In the Malaysian context, for a population of 32 million, we should have 4.8 million people living with disabilities. This is a considerable number by any measure. Disabled people need to come out more often to reflect this number and for visibility’s sake. What better time than to do this on such an occasion of national importance?
It goes without saying that disabled people face issues with discrimination, inequality, inaccessibility, and exclusion in all aspects in society. We need better legislation to protect our rights. We need policies that are disability-inclusive. We need allocations for the development of better facilities and services.
All this can only happen if we work hand in hand with the government. We can do that by electing people who can represent us effectively in the legislative and policymaking bodies. It is only after we have exercised our right to vote that we gain the right to be critical about the actions of these elected representatives.
It does not matter whom we gave our vote to. Whoever he/she is, we should engage these elected representatives, tell them we are voters in their constituencies and our expectations of their roles in representing us. We should also make known to them in no uncertain terms that if they do a good job, they will get our votes in the next elections; otherwise, it will go the other way.
We may think that nothing will change even after we have cast our votes. It is a mistake to resign ourselves to that fate and refuse to do anything about it. In not doing anything, the status quo is maintained. But I believe hope springs eternal. Where there is hope, there is a possibility. If we have the conviction, there is still a chance the situation can change for the better.
If we want change, we ourselves must be agents of change. We have to be proactive. Things do not happen by us sitting at home and complaining or expecting other people to act on our behalf. This general election is a great opportunity for us to push for the positive progress we want for our country and for ourselves.
Whichever way we vote, come May 9, we will have a new government. I sincerely urge all disabled people who are eligible to go out in their wheelchairs, white canes, and whatever assistance required to get to the polling centres and vote. Vote wisely. Because we will have to live with it for the next five years.