by Alvan Yap
In my latest Straits Times Forum letter – and which turned out to be my final one as a DPA staff – the paper’s forum editor, as usual, made minimal changes to it. This wasn’t by lucky chance; I always write such that it’s ‘publishable’ enough to have the editorial powers-that-be retain my own words and tone as much as possible.
But one edit made me frown again, as usual. In all his finite wisdom, the editor amended “disability community” in my original letter to “disabled community” in the published version. Now, to me, these are separate concepts, though the difference can be subtle to most others. “Disabled community” seems to merely refer to a group of persons with disabilities, which is fine and dandy.
But what I was referring to went beyond that – I say “disability community” because this group sees “disability” as a form of self-identify vis-a-vis other communities in the larger society. This community also includes allies from among the non-disabled – such as family members, caregivers, friends, as well as professionals in related medical, educational, social services and academic fields.
It’s true that “disability” comprises of an almost unimaginable diversity. After all, you’ll struggle to see any similarity between a person with Asperger’s, one with bilateral profound hearing loss, another with mild intellectual disability, and yet another with cerebral palsy and a wheelchair user. The spectrum of disability is dazzlingly wide and deep.
Making A Stand
We are, however, bound by a common trait – we identify ourselves as having a disability, but one which we do not perceive as a tragedy. Our disability is ‘common’ in that it is a natural part of us, of our bodies, and as part of our self-identity.
In a way, as in the X-Men series of comics and movies, we are all different (every member of X-Men has different mutant powers), but also the same (they are, at least initially, regarded as subversive outcasts and biological misfits by the so-called normal people).
But, like any other minority group which is marginalised and disadvantaged, we from the disability community seek to fight against the discrimination, stigma and misconceptions that are linked to our disabilities. Note this is not about political correctness or motherhood statements about “building an inclusive society” though.
It is about rejecting patronising attitudes and patchwork solutions. It is about constructing genuine understanding and acceptance. It is about being uncompromising and unrelenting in our struggle towards equal rights, equal treatment and equal access to all the things we are entitled to – as human beings and as full-fledged citizens of our nation.
It is about putting an end to the very real tragedies that have befallen persons with disabilities in the past and which continue to befall them today – the children who were denied access to education, the adults who were unable to find gainful employment and thus condemned to a lifetime of perjury, the families left destitute and in despair because of the expense or lack of services for their kids with severe disabilities, and too many others.
Days Of Future
So here are three things I want to see and which I will work towards.
* Persons with disabilities and disability organisations to adopt a big-picture view, reach out to one another, break out of the ‘silo mentality’ (I loathe corporate jargon, but this one I’m happy to hijack), and come together for our common goals such as disability rights and legislation.
* A disability community in Singapore that identifies as one, is united and advocates for the cause with one strong, clear voice. Can we make use of disability mega-events such as the Purple Parade and the ASEAN Para Games next year to forge this sense of community? Can we also seize on the growing emphasis on social welfare issues and the ratification of the CRPD to boost our case?
* More persons with disabilities, on their own merit, to get into leadership positions, whether in schools, organisations (especially disability VWOs!), companies. More importantly, once they get there, to speak up for the rights of their disability groups and the community as a whole.
I hope you join me too.
Goodbye & Hello Again!
This is an opportune moment to say I’m moving on from the Disabled People’s Association. This is my last week with DPA.
Thank you very much for your support and kindness during my time at DPA. Whatever successes and positive impact I had in my advocacy and public education work here were, in part, only possible because of your help and sharing. I’m also grateful to have had the chance to learn from the many big-hearted professionals among you who have been working towards a more inclusive and enlightened society.
Speaking of an enlightened society.. to my fellow peers with disabilities (or, to my fellow X-Men): I’m immensely honoured to know you. I have learnt so much from you – persons with autism, intellectual disability, visual impairment and physical disability. Just as how you are able to see me as a person beyond my deafness, likewise I am now able to truly look past our superficial differences and focus on our common ‘superpowers’ instead. I believe, too, we are both our disability and much more than our disability.
To my colleagues in the social services family: We have plodded a long way from the dark ages – at least, when it comes to disability awareness and accessibility issues – and the end point is someplace foggy over the horizon. We’ll never see it nor will we ever get there, to be honest, like we’ll never totally eradicate racism, sexism, ageism and bigotry of all sorts. But hey, we’re making progress and having fun and finding meaning and an ineffable sense of purpose in life along the way – that surely counts for something. (Or is it.. everything?)
Though I will be leaving DPA as an employee, I will remain its member and volunteer, and I continue to stay in the social services field. The disability rights movement will always be close to my heart – I pledge to continue, in my own way, to be an advocate for the cause.
Take care; we’ll meet again.