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November 26, 2003

A voice of our own

From: The Star, Malaysia - Nov 26, 2003

"A VOICE of Our Own” has been the inspirational phrase and passionate motto of the well-known global disability group Disabled People’s International (DPI) which, for over the past two decades, has been advocating for the rights, dignity and empowerment of disabled people everywhere.

With its headquarters in Winnipeg, Canada, and run by disabled people, DPI recently campaigned for – and succeeded in – having its ideal phrase adopted as the theme for this year’s UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which falls on Dec 3.

The theme marks a new era in the disability movement, says DPI, in which disabled people should rightfully become an integral part to any discourse related to disability, simply because “they are the best qualified” to determine their future through their thoughts and ideas, effecting a better quality of life for themselves.

What do local disabled people and organisations feel about having a “a voice of their own”?

G. Francis Siva, president of Independent Living and Training Centre: "Greater efforts need to be made by non-disabled advocates to train disabled persons to be leaders in their own right and for their own cause." Are they getting any closer to being in charge of their destinies or is the chasm only widening?

Wheel Power recently talked to several disabled leaders and organisations about the issue.

For Jessica Mak Wei-E, who has been deaf since birth, having a “voice of our own” means the freedom to be able to use both her hands to communicate in signs.

“Just because I’m unable to vocalise doesn’t mean that I have nothing to say, especially where my deafness is concerned,” e-mailed the 26-year-old deaf leader of the Kuala Lumpur YMCA Deaf Club who has returned last month from a three-week International Women Leadership and Disability programme in Oregon, United States.

The first-ever deaf delegate from the Asia Pacific at the international event insists that she and other deaf people are consulted on every matter involving them – be it education, health, employment or even their personal lives.

“Hearing people often mistakenly assume that just because we are deaf, we’re not able to express ourselves and leave others to make decisions on our behalf,” Jessica explains. “Though we may be deaf, we’re certainly not dumb.”

“And just like everyone else, we want freedom of choice, even if it means learning from our mistakes and living in harmony with the hearing world without prejudice,” she adds.

In voicing her concerns, Jessica concludes that she would like to see a better education system for the deaf – with more deaf students graduating from universities, the full implementation of “Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia” – the local sign language of the Deaf – into deaf education, and a significant increase of sign language interpreters throughout the country.

Godfrey Ooi, 55, the Deputy Executive Director of Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB), would like to see more opportunities given to the blind in decision-making processes that involve the formation of national policies that affect the blind community.

“The blind are currently included in the National Advisory and Consultative Council (a government body that works closely with non-governmental organisations) – a move that technically gives the blind a voice on national issues.

“However, meetings are held so infrequently that it makes little purpose of having the blind there,” he points out.

Godfrey, blind from infancy, suggests having at least three meetings a year instead of the usual one or two that is the usual practice, in order to make participation by the blind more effective.

He would also like to see more blind individuals getting involved in the MAB and taking part in top-level council meetings instead of leaving it to the only one blind representative who is currently there with about 15 sighted members.

“More blind people from various backgrounds and walks of life will effectively contribute to greater ideas towards MAB’s efforts to provide better services to the blind community,” he concludes.

“Although persons with learning disabilities end up being the most forgotten of the disabled lot, we have lots to say about issues affecting us,” says Eugene Lau, an office assistant from United Voice (UV), a self-help group of about 40 learning disabled young adults in Shah Alam.

Wheel Power, says the 29-year-old who became learning disabled and epileptic after the age of three, is one forum in which persons with learning disabilities can express their thoughts.

“We warmly welcome views and advice from our non-disabled counterparts but would like to emphasise that the final decisions are ultimately ours to make,” he says.

UV members, concludes Eugene, would like to see positive changes occurring in the attitudes of the non-disabled – in particular about their often negative perceptions about them as well as more community support for their projects in building meaningful friendships with others.

Finally, the four-year-old Independent Living and Training Centre (ILTC) in Rawang, Selangor, which is a self-help group for the physically disabled and tetraplegics, would like to see not only stronger voices among the disabled community, but emerging ones for the future.

ILTC president G. Francis Siva, a wheelchair user for 17 years, says the non-disabled should give more opportunities to the disabled to speak for themselves instead of representing them all the time at local and international meetings and events.

“Sincere and greater efforts need to be made by non-disabled advocates to train disabled persons to be leaders in their own right and for their own cause, which includes helping them attend leadership courses locally and abroad,” says the 44-year-old disability leader.

“At the disability level, it’s high time for seniors and long-time disabled leaders in the community to take on advisory roles in helping the disabled whilst grooming potential leaders within the disabled community.”

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