Interview

Volume 7 Issue 6 - March 15, 2010

“The needs of disabled persons in Malaysia are still seen largely as a welfare function,” Maniam Sinnasamy

Maniam Sinnasamy, Project Manager, U.N.D.P.
Maniam Sinnasamy, Project Manager, U.N.D.P.

The rapid development of Malaysia belies the fact that disability issues were never in the scheme of things of the policy makers. Therefore, despite world class infrastructure near about nothing is accessible. The absence of a strong cross disability movement is often cited as the reason. United Nations Development Programme (U.N.D.P.) recently organised a National Conference on Universal Design and Accessible Transport in Kuala Lumpur to sensitise government officials and agencies, transport companies and civil society. Maniam Sinnasamy, Project Manager, U.N.D.P. - Government of Malaysia Project speaks to Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. about the disability movement in Malaysia and much more...

D.N.I.S.: United Nations Development Programme (U.N.D.P.) and Government of Malaysia are collaborating on a major project to make public transport systems in Penang province of Malaysia more accessible and disabled friendly. Can you tell us more about the project?

Maniam Sinnasamy: The U.N.D.P. - Government of Malaysia project aims to support the development of a fully accessible public transport system in Penang, Malaysia. It involves an access audit of public transport facilities; vehicles (buses, trains, taxis), ferry terminals, train and bus stations, airport (access to vehicles, ticket booths, retail outlets, toilets, etc), infrastructure (bus stops & bus shelters, taxi pick up points, surrounding pavements and walkways) and signage & information with an emphasis on interconnectivity between the different modes of public transport.

A key output of this project is a public transport improvement strategy for the state and the overarching goal is to promote the concept of universal design in public transportation for all. Other activities introduced under this project include capacity building for key stakeholders in government, private sector including transport providers, civil society and persons with disabilities, and a public awareness campaign.

D.N.I.S.: Malaysia is significantly more developed in comparison to most of its Asian counterparts. But disability seems to have been completely forgotten. Your views?

Maniam Sinnasamy: The needs of disabled persons in Malaysia are still seen largely as a welfare function of the state and non-government organizations. This ‘welfare / charity’ approach which is the basis of some of our social policies such as the National Welfare Policy has come under severe criticisms from disabled people because it views persons with disabilities as ‘sick’, ‘not normal’ or ‘without abilities’ and in need of charity and handouts. This approach tends to treat them as dependents, always in need of ‘support’ which society will give as and when it chooses. While there are some persons with disabilities who may need that level of care, majority of them have capabilities and talents that can be developed and they too can contribute towards the well-being of society.

Disabled persons argue that while this welfare/charity approach has contributed to some improvements in their well-being, this must now be replaced with the notion of equality and human rights in order to address the continuing violation of their fundamental rights. The human rights approach to disability, where every disabled person has the right to be included in social and economic opportunities is slowly gaining acceptance. This awareness will only be strengthened when stakeholders, for example in public transportation, begin to realize that the same features that benefit disabled people also benefit others.

D.N.I.S.: How strong is the disability movement in Malaysia? Can you give us an insight into its history?

Maniam Sinnasamy: In an apparent response to the traditional institutional approach to the care of disabled persons, the 1960s and the 1970s saw the emergence of a disability movement by blind persons and later followed by others but they were all disability specific groups. The mid 1980s saw the beginnings of a cross disability movement. Groups of disabled people and organizations came together as a coalition to focus on specific issues such as accessible transport and barrier free environment, legislation, education, etc. to engage with other key stakeholders in government and the private sector. However, it could not be sustained.

Following a recent National Conference on “Accessibility and Universal Design: Implications for Public Transport and the Built Environment”, a small group of disabled persons were invited to meet Javed Abidi who was a speaker at the conference, to look at ways to advance disability rights issues in Malaysia. Subsequent to that saw the birth of the “Disability Rights Group Malaysia” where 8 members met at the very first meeting. Currently there are about 20 wanting to become members. They have resolved to meet regularly to address critical issues confronting them. Currently they are focusing on transport, education and employment.

D.N.I.S.: What are the major challenges ahead of the disability sector in Malaysia?

Maniam Sinnasamy: At the institutional level, the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 without a penalty clause renders its legal effectiveness and binding force rather weak. Though the language is couched in mandatory form, it appears to be merely exhortatory without any legislative sanctions for non compliance. There is no compulsion on Ministries and agencies to comply and no provision for redress when discriminated. There is a need to review the Act and ensure that it is consistent with U.N.C.R.P.D. There is also the need for amendment to the Act or the introduction a new Anti Discriminatory Act. Unless this is done, disabled persons will continue to be discriminated and marginalized in society.

At the individual and community level, the absence of champions on disability rights issues and the lack of strong advocacy groups to influence decisions and policy makers remains a major challenge. While there is a need to promote awareness of the human rights of disabled persons, the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all stages of decision making is vital.

D.N.I.S.: What are the five major things on your wish list for the next five years vis-a-vis disability?

Maniam Sinnasamy: Within the context of the project, 5 major things on my wish list are as follows:

  1. A review of the Malaysian Standards on Accessibility to bring it in line with international standards and requirements, streamlining of all guidelines, adopting a common framework on technical guidelines and good practices on accessibility improvements.
  2. An Access Unit in all Local Councils with dedicated and trained access officers who are empowered to review all building plans (inside and outside the building) to ensure accessibility is incorporated and provide an access plan and award certification of occupation subject to compliance to standards for accessibility.
  3. Adopt and enforce “Guidelines on Universal Access of Public Transport (Buses)” developed by Ministry of Transport and develop similar guidelines for other modes of transport.
  4. Accessibility improvements to transport infrastructure including pedestrian infrastructure and walkways along selected corridors to provide for connectivity and seamless travel.
  5. A long term public awareness programme through the media, both print and television, continuing professional education, review of driver training schools and simulation exercises on accessibility for all Members of Parliament.

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