I’m so special, are you?

International Day of Persons with Disabilities is commemorated every year on 3 December 2018

Maya Angelou said, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength”. Until we can truly embrace, celebrate and not just tolerate what makes us different, we will always be divided. And it is not just race, religion, politics that divide, but how we treat people of all abilities.

Last year, UNICEF released a study about Malaysia’s knowledge, attitudes and practice towards children with disabilities. The findings were not great; 22.8 percent thought disability was the result of God’s will, spirits, curses, the fault of the parents, punishment, the environment, bad feng shui or karma. It is with insufficient knowledge and incorrect information that we disable children with disabilities.

It is our own fears that are often the greatest barriers that make children with disabilities invisible, excluded and discriminated. In Malaysia, this shame and stigma have resulted in families not registering their children as OKU (Orang Kurang Upaya or person with a disability). This has to stop. There’s no shame in having a disability.

 

A smiling boy in a wheelchair, with his dad beside, and the invention he's made.
UNICEF/2017/AndrewKohBranden Lim and his father, Edmund Lim. Branden’s team is the winner of the #ThisAbility Makeathon 2017. Branden’s team developed a gripping assistive device, which can hold a pen, paint brush or spoon. Made of plastic, Velcro and screws, it allows a person with limited fine motor skills, strength and dexterity to hold objects without the need to grip with their fingers.

 

Malaysia is running numerous education systems at the same time to hopefully cater to the needs of children with disabilities. But do you know we have the mainstream, special, integrated and inclusive education systems?

Studies from Europe, the US, and Australia have proven that it is cheaper to run just one Inclusive Education System that is fit for all children. The International Labour Organisation has estimated that the cost of excluding children with disabilities from mainstream quality education could be up to 7 percent of GDP in low- and middle-income countries.

When we put children with disabilities in ‘special’ schools, it is not always in their best interest. By putting them in a ‘special’ school, are we exclude them from their peers, and from the rest of society. Exclusion leads to segregation, which creates isolation. We will be a society divided, and there will be no social cohesion.

I think the issue is we use the word ‘special’ too much. We think children with disabilities are ‘special’ but to the point that they need to be separated from everybody else and given ‘special’ things. For instance, they are given a ‘special’ education, ‘special’ friends, a ‘special’ home and ‘special’ jobs.

Children with disabilities don’t want their disabilities to be viewed as ‘special’. They want to be treated like everybody else. They want access to the same education, the same friends, the same homes, and the same jobs as everybody else. There’s the Malay saying ‘tak kenal, maka tak cinta’: ‘we don’t know, so we don’t love’.  We do not get to know someone, therefore, we isolate and fear them.

 

Disabilities are not the only thing that makes a person with disabilities ‘special’. They have abilities just like everybody else – they want you to see them for their abilities, not for their disabilities. They have rights to the same things as everyone else – education, health, protection, and care.

Yes, we are different, but we must learn that our differences are strengths, not weaknesses. Acknowledging, respecting and valuing our differences is what makes Malaysia diverse and unique – that is the Malaysia I know and love.

December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. To mark this day, we need to stop focusing on our differences. Instead, we should celebrate all that we have in common. Inclusion is every child’s right, not privilege.

We are all special!

 

Lisa Surihani is National Ambassador for UNICEF in Malaysia

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