MANY disability-rights activists have been working to improve the life of disabled people for decades. I know some who have been working since the 1970s and have passed on. Their roles have been taken over by people from the next generation. I am one of those of the next generation.
After working on it for more than half a century, many of the outstanding issues are yet to be fully resolved. They are in the areas of accessibility in the built environment and public transportation, education and employment.
The lack of progress has left many disillusioned. Some have moved on to other more ‘productive’ enterprises. I myself have nearly given up several times. The lack of meaningful results after putting in time, effort, and money was disappointing to say the least.
I only continued because I faced difficulties and there was no one else working on it. I also realised I should be proactive in resolving issues that I face. I have to be responsible for my own rights and safety in these matters, and not expect other people to advocate on my behalf.
The 14th general election has provided some very interesting examples activists can draw inspiration from. The structure and organisation between disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and political parties have many similarities. Having followed closely the events leading to the elections and the results itself, I deduced four good lessons disability-rights activists can learn from the elections.
First is perseverance. Never give up no matter how dire the situation may be. Stay true to the cause. Some political parties have been standing in elections for the past 60 years but never got enough seats to form the government. It was only in these elections that they acquired the majority to take over.
Even in times when it appeared hopeless, they never wavered. They trudged on. Imagine if they had given up halfway. We may not be able to witness this historic moment in the annals of Malaysia. This is the best example that things can change for the better if we work on it, no matter how long it may take. Just hang in there.
Second is altruism. Work on issues that benefit others. Selfishness has no place in the scheme of things. Political parties that work for the interest of the people will get the support of the people eventually. Likewise, DPOs that work for the interests of disabled people will get the support of their stakeholders.
There are very few DPOs that run rights-based and empowerment programmes for the community they claim to represent. These programmes will provide knowledge and skills, and create agents of change. We need more of these kind of DPOs rather than those whose mainstay are charity-based and fundraising.
Third is camaraderie despite differences. Opponents can become allies. This is a popular saying attributed to US congressman William Clay, “You must start with the premise that you have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.”
Who would have expected two nemeses, former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad and former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the former had sacked and jailed the latter, to work together for this election?
Likewise, there is much rivalry and enmity in the disability movement. Each DPO and its leaders try to outdo one another to stand out as the sole champion of disabled people. This fragmentation is the main reason we have been unable to make much progress. We are all not moving in the same direction with one voice.
If two long-time rivals can join forces, there is absolutely no reason why DPOs cannot work together for the progress and betterment of disabled people in this country. DPOs must always be mindful of the purpose of their establishment – to serve the people – and that is exactly what they should be doing. If we can work on our commonality, we surely can progress and go far.
Fourth is flexibility. Different situations call for different strategies. Hard-nosed advocacy like public protests may not work all the time. We need to be persuasive sometimes and argue with data, facts, and evidence at other times.
If we had paid close attention to the political campaigns, we would have noticed politicians have used various strategies to influence the thinking of voters. Any disability-rights activist who is worth his salt would have learnt many useful tips from them that can be used in our advocacy activities effectively.
These are skills that come with experience and are not taught anywhere else. Veterans in the disability movement should make an effort to instil the younger generations of activists with such skills. This is the best legacy we can leave behind for those who come after us.
Truth be told, the methods disability-rights activists use here are outdated. We keep doing it the same way and expect different results. The real world does not work like that. If one approach fails, we must find alternative ways to present the same issue.
We do not have to look far. Learn from the elections. Study how the politicians advocate and influence the masses. There are many lessons we can learn from their struggles, which are reflections of our struggles as well. Their successes have given us a new sense of optimism. Let’s capitalise on that to push our disability-rights agenda forward as well.