We can learn from our Paralympians

We should honour the hard work of our heroes by fighting for the rights of Malaysians with disabilities.

LET’S face it, we’ve seen some extraordinary Malaysians pull off amazing feats in Rio de Janeiro over the last few weeks.

We saw three Malaysians – Mohamad Ridzuan Mohamad Puzi, Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli and Abdul Latif Romly – winning gold medals in the men’s 100m T36 (celebral palsy) event, the men’s shot put F20 (learning disability) final and the men’s F20 (intellectual disability) long jump final, and we saw Siti Noor Radiah Ismail seize a bronze medal in the T20 (intellectual disability) long jump final.

Adding to that, we also saw Muhammad Ziyad and Abdul Latif setting and breaking world records in their conquest of the coveted gold medal – with Abdul Latif setting and breaking the world record three times in his three tries at the long jump.

Ultimately, thanks to them we got to see something very heartwarming: Malaysians cheering on Malaysians with disabilities and Malaysians uniting to give them their due recognition as national heroes.

Indeed, they’re the very Malaysians I leap to shine a light on when I write In Your Face pieces, as Mohamad Ridzuan, Muhammad Ziyad, Abdul Latif and Siti have proven that Malaysians can be amazing if given the right support and the right motivation – and it does look like we are giving them the motivation they truly deserve in the form of government and corporate incentives celebrating their efforts.

This has been touched on by my colleagues and fellow columnists who have praised the Paralympians for uniting Malaysians of diverse racial and religious backgrounds and called for their successes to be used as a platform for encouraging sporting excellence among our school students.

It is at this point that I’ll add that what all four of them have done goes beyond putting Malaysia on the map or bringing back our first Olympic-level gold medals. They have in many ways helped to open the eyes of Malaysians to the abilities of people with disabilities, and this has been a long time coming, having seen how many Malaysians have behaved around people with disabilities – in an ugly, arrogant manner.

On my end, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen parking spaces meant for people with disabilities stolen by those who are able-bodied. I’ve also lost count of the times I’ve seen Malaysians push and rush for a lift at a shopping complex, swarming around a person in a wheelchair when they could be courteous by holding the door open for her.

In short, I’ve seen the ugly side of many Malaysians when it comes to how people with disabilities are treated. It would seem that the view held by many is that they are second-class charity cases, trotted out to shake hands, receive cheques and smile for the camera when a public relations boost is needed by people or corporations with power until something or someone comes along to catalyse change.

I mean, consider the case of P. Mariappan. He won for Malaysia two bronze medals in the Paralympics, one in Seoul in 1988 and one in Barcelona in 1992. However, he went forgotten as he worked as an ice-cream seller in Ampang until our four Malaysians raked in their golden haul in Rio. He’s getting his due recognition and support now, but it needed the Rio wins to truly catalyse awareness and change.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and one that needs to change. It’s up to us to bring out that change and make it happen, as it’s in our hands now.

It is now up to us to speak up whenever we see people with disabilities being denied the respect they deserve, such as by alerting the management of shopping complexes when people try to abuse parking spaces meant for people with disabilities. It’s up to us to speak up and press that button to hold the doors open whenever we see someone using a wheelchair waiting to get into a lift.

And this is something echoed by activist and wheelchair user Ras Adiba Radzi, who shared why finding a parking space is a challenge for people with disabilities.

“It is a daily challenge. Some parking spaces meant for us are too small for us to unload our wheelchairs and move into them, and sometimes we even get scolded by able-bodied people when we park in these spaces,” said Ras Adiba.

She also pointed out that employment and education were major challenges for people with disabilities.

“A major challenge for people with disabilities are people’s attitudes towards us. People have been reluctant to give us jobs, they look at us as if we have horns on our heads – as if we are aliens. We are able to work if given an opportunity as we are people who are trained. We would like fair access to employment and fair access to education,” said Ras Adiba.

She also spoke of challenges in getting around, and called on architects and built space designers to follow all appropriate guidelines.

“As it is, some ramps are built so steep it is like trying to climb the Himalayas. As it is also, some children with disabilities have difficulties at school because their classrooms are on the top floor of the building, and there are no lifts. People have to carry them, and that puts them at risk of injuries,” said Ras Adiba.

So yes, we all have a role to play in making sure the efforts of P. Mariappan, Mohamad Ridzuan Mohamad Puzi, Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli, Abdul Latif Romly and Siti Noor Radiah Ismail don’t go to waste.

The question is – can we step up to the plate and do our part? Can we say “here I am” when our Malaysians with disabilities ask us to be their allies?

I’d like to hope we can.

Fresh Faces Young Voices offers a new space to a new generation that’s passionate about their causes. Senior writer Tan Yi Liang’s In Your Face aims to prove that people have more positive power in their hands than they realise, and to challenge them. He can be reached at tanyl@thestar.com.my.

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Opinion , Tan Yi Liang , columnist


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