Disability Awareness

I was watching this youtube video the other day which highlights a day-to-day problem faced by persons with disabilities.

[Credit: UNESCO]

The video captures the looks of onlookers staring at a wheelchair rolling across a busy pavement. The wheelchair stops in its track as a young man throws a basketball towards it. The camera then switches back to the wheelchair, now with a young boy sitting in it, as he catches the ball with a wide smile. This short clip then ends with a simple, but powerful message: Look at me, not at my disability.

What is my purpose in showing this clip? Well, to put it out there, I believe that the Singaporean society at large still retains negative stereotypes of and attitudes towards persons with disabilities despite the many steps taken by the Government and various disability organizations to create a barrier-free and inclusive society.

In no way am I saying that the Enabling Masterplan implemented by the Singapore government does not help promote disability awareness – it most definitely does. Enabling persons with disability to live an independent and dignified life by providing greater access to schools, employment, transport and health helps dispel stereotypes and myths.

Instead, I am arguing that more can (and should) be done to promote disability awareness. It is necessary that we consider how society at large views disability. We need to have more discussions around the stigmatization of persons with disabilities, and more importantly the misconceptions that surrounds disability. Disability is rarely discussed in an open and frank manner and as a result, negative stereotypes of disability persist.

Such misconceptions and low expectations about the abilities and attributes of persons with disabilities can be detrimental to the opportunities they have access to and ultimately affect their chances of happiness. Let me share an example of what I mean by this. I had a secondary school teacher who constantly regarded me as a student in need of special assistance. He vehemently insisted I required ‘Special Arrangements’ during examinations despite my continual assurance that I had no difficulties writing, doing mathematical calculations and science experiments independently. His intention, while kind, was not at all comforting or reassuring to a young kid with disability. I started fearing for my future, particularly how my alleged ‘incapacity’ would hinder me from finding employment.

Such attitudes and beliefs about disability are toxic. They suggest that disability itself is a problem that needs to be solved, and that persons with disabilities will always be dependents in need of charity. Under the social model of disability, it is aptly termed as an ‘attitudinal barrier’. This suggests that it is really other people who are the biggest barriers people with disabilities encounter. It naturally follows that if we can change attitudes, we can remove the institutional and physical (the built environment) barriers surrounding the community of persons with disabilities because it is men who create institutions and the environment.

This is an idealistic view of the world, I know. I recognize that a truly barrier-free utopia is not possible, not in my lifetime at least. Practicality and resource constraints make it unfeasible to overcome every barrier. Let’s consider, for example, a library stocked with millions of books. The library could never afford to provide all these texts in all the different formats which visually impaired users might potentially require. It is equally hard to imagine how beneficial a barrier-free society would be for people with profound learning difficulties, especially in Singapore’s modern industrial society where reading, writing and other cognitive abilities are required for full participation in life.

Again, what I am highlighting is a culture that makes inaccessibility even possible. Just because people with disabilities are in employment does not mean they are not facing discriminatory attitudes and practices within their organizational culture/climate. Just because more people with disabilities are in mainstream schools does not mean they are not being bullied or teased at by their fellow schoolmates. And just because more facilities like lifts and ramps are being built for wheelchair users does not mean people will not pretend they are invisible. (I still witness people rushing into MRT lifts despite seeing a wheelchair user waiting nearby). In short, policies to promote accessibility does not eradicate ableism, negative stereotypes of and attitudes towards disability. They only help people with disabilities participate in society on a more equal basis with others – nothing more.

Equality is not enough

[ Image taken from http://civicreflection.org/ ]

This is where disability advocacy comes into the picture. Educating people about disabilities through newspaper forums, posters, workshops or parades helps eliminate negative stereotypes and ableist notions of bodies and what is considered “normal.” Every year, for example, disability organizations across the island work together to hold the Purple Parade. This year 2014 is no exception. The parade aims to promote an understanding on disability issues and gather support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.

But more can and should be done. We cannot simply rely on annually held events like the Purple Parade and International Day of Persons with Disabilities, interim public campaigns or periodically published articles on disability issues. What we require is a continuous and sustained engagement with the public on the topic of disability. I am not talking about those inspirational or sob stories you often read/hear on social media. I am asking for a frank and open discussion on ‘disability’. Think Channel News Asia’s “The Talking Point’’. It could be organized as an open panel discussion whereby parties involved (potential employers, persons with disabilities, caregivers, disability organizations etc.) are invited to air their views, pose questions and voice any fears/apprehensions.

Once we start getting the public to become aware of and comfortable with talking about disability, we would have taken a huge leap forward in making society truly inclusive of persons with disabilities. It will be a society where companies, both private and public, are openly hiring people with impairments without the need for government incentives or grants. It will be a society where a wheelchair user could roll down a street without attracting unwanted attention. And finally, it will be a truly inclusive society where no distinction is made between people with and without disabilities, and the term ‘disability’ is excised from the dictionary.

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