“I have made Malaysia proud so many times. I’ve worked so hard for the country and competed in seven Paralympics. I have made a lot of sacrifices for this country. And this is what I get,” Mariappan Perumal, Malaysia’s first Paralympic medalist, said about his experience as a disabled person in Malaysia.
Mariappan had Polio when he was a child which left him immobile from the waist down. He went on to become a decorated powerlifter, taking home numerous awards and two bronze Paralympic medals for his country during his career. But as he aged and was no longer able to compete, public support faded. Now, Mariappan lives in a public housing unit, trying to survive on a small state pension.
“I went to so many competitions that I lost my job. Once I retired, the government didn’t help me at all — they just gave me pension,” Mariappan told VICE World News. “My name portrays excellence but my life doesn’t reflect it.”
Mariappan is one of an estimated 4.5 million Malaysians living with disability. In spite of the contributions he has made to the country’s sporting scene, he’s still part of a highly marginalized sector of Malaysian society. In 1988, the government attempted to make the country more inclusive by mandating that 1 percent of public sector jobs be filled by persons with disabilities (PWD). But many believe that this law alone is not enough to address the larger issue of PWD marginalization in the country.
“That one percent quota has been on for many, many years now. At the moment, [there are] only four ministries that [have] hit more than 1 percent,” Senator Ras Adiba Radzi told VICE World News.
Ras Adiba was paralyzed in 1999 after a series of accidents, which left her in a wheelchair. She said society expected her to be idle when she became disabled.
“They prefer you to just stay in and not be a nuisance,” she said. “We’re not a nuisance, we’re like everybody else.”
Instead of adhering to social norms, Ras Adiba spent her days building a career and advocating for PWD empowerment. She continued her work as a newscaster, attending shoots twice a week. She founded OKU Sentral, a non-governmental organization that helps disabled people become independent. And in 2020, she became a senator. As a public figure, she proposed an update to the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008, a legislation that governs the protection, development, and wellbeing of PWDs, which would penalize employers for failing to comply with government quotas. As of June 2019, there were only 3,686 PWDs of an estimated 1.7 million employed in the public sector, which constitutes a mere 0.2 percent.
“I feel that 1 percent is too little, quite honestly. [The government] should just take that 1 percent and keep going [until] 10 percent, 20 percent,” Ras Adiba said.
For instance, Hanizan Hussin, president of the Malaysian Down Syndrome Association, works with therapists to train children with special needs to live independently. Her 25-year-old-daughter Alya has Down syndrome and works as a teacher’s aide at Taska ANISD, a preschool for children with special needs. In spite of Hanizan’s efforts to equip special needs children with practical skills, she said that there are still no opportunities provided by the government to support their employment when they grow up.
“This is where we have to fight. We are the ones who are working with our children because they can’t work for themselves. We never stop telling the government [that] we’re being serious. We want the government to see that we are successfully doing what is best for [those with] Down syndrome,” Hanizan said.
Even disabled people who have attained degrees find it difficult to secure employment. Muhammad Salim Harmanain is a law graduate and certified advocate and solicitor, yet he still can’t find a job.
“They don’t have good facilities for the disabled staff in the office and in the courts. It was really frustrating because they refused me for a job due to a pathetic reason,” he told VICE World News.
Malaysia lacks the basic infrastructure to support disabled people, so those who do have jobs find it difficult to go to work.
“As a disabled person, it’s not easy getting around the city. Pavements are badly maintained. The lifts aren’t working. I’d rather stay at home,” Chong Wei Tatt, a frustrated Malaysian, told VICE World News.
Many also believe that the 1 percent policy doesn’t go far enough, because the workforce isn’t the only institution that’s closed off to the disabled. Salim, the law graduate, described his schooling experience as “horrible” due to the lack of awareness, reasonable accommodation, and bad attitude among students and staff towards disabled people. He had to request for bigger classrooms and ramps for toilets to accommodate students in wheelchairs. Research conducted by the Raffles University of Malaysia reported that there are few opportunities given to disabled people to enroll in schools and universities. Some children have even been rejected by private schools and experienced discrimination from the person in charge. There is also a lack of qualified special education teachers and limited school facilities, such as ramps and grab rails. The journal also noted that even if PWDs were able to find employment, they would be more likely to experience discrimination and less likely to be promoted to a higher position.
The 1 percent policy only addresses a fraction of PWDs’ needs. Disabled Malaysians don’t have access to the same opportunities as able-bodied citizens and are marginalized even before they enter the workforce. Experts say larger and more holistic changes in both infrastructure and public perception need to be made. Besides giving more opportunities for employment, the government needs to be more sensitive to the other needs of disabled persons, including their higher cost of living, access to public or commercial buildings, and transportation.
“I aspire to see Malaysia [become] a disabled-friendly country,” Ras Adiba said.
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