By Subashan Vadibeler
It was a typical icy evening in Edinburgh where I stood on the crowded North Bridge platform overlooking the University of Edinburgh Old Building, eagerly waiting for a Lothian bus that would bring me to my pre-booked Fringe Festival venue. Half-anxious because the show was kicking off dangerously soon, I failed to notice a man in wheelchair positioning himself at the pavement in anticipation for an arriving bus. First came the startling raucous cry, soon followed by curses and offensive words hurled at everyone who started looking around in fright.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I instinctively jumped onboard the bus and never looked back to analyse the situation. Little did I know that the outburst had come from the man in wheelchair, frustrated and angry because the cars parked by the roadside had impeded the bus ramp from descending onto the platform.
The starting point
I was first introduced to the challenges faced by Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) through the eminent theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking. His expression of concern regarding the inadequate support provided by his alma mater, the University of Cambridge towards its minority PWDs was both inspiring and deeply shocking.
My attention was further drawn towards the issue by a motivated Malaysian scholar and recent Cambridge law graduate, Alicia Loh who championed the battle to improve support services offered for PWDs in the University and its affiliated colleges a few years back.
However, these thoughts were unsettling – if challenges faced by PWDs are so worrying in developed countries like the United Kingdom, where does Malaysia stand in providing care and support for its community of PWDs? And how come these pressing matters are not talked about more widely in our society?
Challenges facing PWDs and our international obligations
According to the International Classification of Functioning, Disability & Health (2001), persons with disabilities include those who satisfy three criteria, namely functional impairment, activity limitation and participation restriction. PWDs may face physical, mental, intellectual and sensory impairments which may lead to difficulties in carrying out activities on an equal basis with others.
As a result, they are restricted in simple pursuits that others often take for granted. For instance, a post-stroke patient may experience one-sided loss of bodily movement which renders walking, balancing and climbing a flight of stairs an arduous task. This limits access to public locations with services such as lifts and inclined ramps.
PWDs may face physical, mental, intellectual and sensory impairments which may lead to difficulties in carrying out activities on an equal basis with others.
Malaysia is among the many countries who have signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We have even taken a step forward in enacting the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 to promote social betterment of PWDs. Therefore, we have explicitly agreed to uphold the guiding principles outlined in the convention. Of these many principles, I aim to expound on the concept of ‘accessibility’ to discuss the progress we have made and highlighting weak areas that require reworking.
- Accessibility to physical modalities
In considering the challenges faced by PWDs, some may view external surroundings as a magnification of their limitations – the most significant disabling factor. In reality, PWDs can be extremely comfortable in their immediate environment such as their homes. These are often tailored to suit their personal limitations so that they do not experience any restrictions in participation.
However, problems arise when they leave their comfort zone to participate in daily activities (outdoor exercise, shopping, working, movie-going, etc.) where they may feel stifled by a disability-unfriendly environment. To combat this occurrence in the academic setting, University of Malaya has set up a disability-friendly residential college that includes facilities such as ramps, low-level counters, designated pathways, wheelchair-friendly tables and modified keyboards in the IT service centres. However, these services are only available in 1 out of 12 colleges at the university.
2. Accessibility to education
In my opinion, PWDs may be encouraged to pursue higher education in Malaysia but the sentiment of “aim high, but not too high” is apparent. Let’s take the example of Malaysian Medical Council’s reference to PWDs in their 2015 guidelines proposed for medical schools while selecting students – “While physical and mental disability may not impair students’ studies and professional duties thereafter, prudence should be exercised when considering their applications.”
While it may be challenging for PWDs to endure the challenges of medical school, it is not unachievable with perseverance and motivation. In retrospect, the medical program in my university itself is relatively unequipped to accommodate PWDs since the lecture halls are inaccessible and the nearest hostel is not disability-friendly. This is a shame because some of the best specialists and surgeons in our country succeed despite physical disabilities. A prime example is Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa, a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon and a senior lecturer of medicine.
3. Accessibility to medical & healthcare services
In a subjective social experiment involving medical students in my school, we found it extremely difficult to navigate through the narrow walkways and dangerously steep ramps in our teaching hospital while manoeuvring from a wheelchair.
According to the 2015 Malaysian National Health & Morbidity Survey, residents of rural areas are have the highest percentage of people with difficulties in seeing, hearing, walking, remembering, self-care and communication. Contrarily, urban dwellers with disabilities may find it relatively less troublesome to travel to a nearby hospital for medical assistance.
This is because PWDs in remote locations may face difficulties in travelling to rural health clinics that may be several miles away from their homes. Hence, outreach medical services are crucial to locate PWDs in rural areas and deliver effective medical care when necessary. Even for urban dwellers, not all hospitals in Malaysia, especially those built decades ago are equipped with facilities that allow for accessibility of PWDs within the hospital. In a subjective social experiment involving medical students in my school, we found it extremely difficult to navigate through the narrow walkways and dangerously steep ramps in our teaching hospital while manoeuvering from a wheelchair.
- Accessibility to employment
It has been reported that despite the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008, the employment rate among PWDs remains low compared with those without any disability (Wahab & Ayub, 2017). Many companies continue to require applicants’ disclosure of disability status while applying for jobs. Although not stated explicitly, this information can be used to selectively exclude and discriminate PWDs. As a result, PWDs are subject to social marginalisation, higher rates of poverty and homelessness.
- Accessibility to politics & opportunities in decision-making roles
Although the number of political leaders in our country with disabilities is still not reflective of the proportion of PWDs in the community, several political leaders with disabilities continue to inspire by their contribution. For instance, YB Senator Puan Bathmavathi Krishnan who will be holding an office in the Senate until 2019 is a proud ambassador for PWDs in Malaysia (Parlimen Malaysia, 2016).
Looking back on that cold night in Edinburgh, I now realise that creating an inclusive environment for PWDs is not a simple task with a straightforward approach. In contrast, it is extremely complex involving many stakeholders, and must cater to the needs of PWDs who each have distinctive personalities and preferences.
When faced with situations involving PWDs, we often choose not to react due to fear of getting it wrong. One thing is for certain – we must never stop striving to create a society that accepts PWDs not as individuals who are burdensome with difficult needs but instead, as ordinary people with different needs. If we can start having inclusive conversations with PWDs without making assumptions and “understanding” their needs, we would be moving in the direction of creating a society where people with different needs can flourish.
Subashan Vadibeler is a medical student at University of Malaya who finds writing as an outlet to summarise his muddled thoughts into a coherent picture. Although having conversations about difficult topics can be mentally exhausting, he strongly believes that the only solution to thorny issues is to talk about them without being too emotionally invested.
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- Ministry of Health Malaysia (2015). National Health & Morbidity Survey. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Retrieved from http://www.iku.gov.my/images/IKU/Document/REPORT/nhmsreport2015vol2.pdf
- Malaysian Medical Council (2015). GUIDELINES FOR ACCREDITATION OF THE MALAYSIAN UNDERGRADUATE MEDICAL EDUCATION PROGRAMME. Retrieved from http://www.mmc.gov.my/ images/contents/downloadable/Accreditation%20Guidelines%202016.pdf
- Wahab, H. A., & Ayub, Z. A. (2017). Employment Right of Persons with Disabilities in Malaysia. In Social Interactions and Networking in Cyber Society (pp. 217-232). Springer Singapore.