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A chance for disabled children to stand tall

© UNICEF Malaysia/2008/Zhang
Dr. Aminah and Zahidah

Malaysian women share their voices with UNICEF to mark the country launch of The State of the World’s Children (SOWC) 2008 report on World Health Day in April. 

Themed 'Child Survival', the Report highlights, amongst others, the need for community partnerships to support families in improving their care practices for children, young people and women.

By Zhang Su Li

KUALA LUMPUR, 4 April 2008 – Nineteen year old Zahidah has been confined to a wheelchair for much of her childhood years. He mother, Dr. Aminah, drives her from their home in Shah Alam to the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) in Brickfields, next to the rising sun, three to five days a week. Here, Zahidah joins the morning classes with blind children, while mom has her meetings before both rush off to the Ministry of Health in Putrajaya where Dr. Aminah works in the Family Health Development Division.

Zahidah was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she failed to progress in the way normal babies do. After getting over the devastating news, her parents accepted their fate and decided to get on with doing the best they could for their daughter. As facilities for the disabled were either too expensive or not available, Zahidah’s father used to make furniture and toys for her.

Nowadays, Zahidah is eager to spend her mornings in the MAB classroom which is full of children, colour and laughter. Despite the fact that she has difficulty in speech and muscle control, she loves company and interacting with people. In a discussion between mother and daughter about whether she should follow her mother to work or return home, she replies, “I’d rather not sit at home and stare at the walls all day.” Her mother says proudly, “She can be quite sarcastic sometimes.”

Community partnerships with Government support

For Zahidah, the MAB has given her a much welcomed opportunity to participate in life outside her own home. Established in 1951 by the then Department of Social Welfare to look after the general well-being of blind persons in the country, MAB has since carried out this role and much more. In providing a lively environment for Zahidah, the MAB shows an openness to help those with multiple disabilities other than blindness.

© UNICEF Malaysia/2008/Zhang
Zahidah enjoys herself with children and caregivers at the Malaysian Association for the Blind.

Support from various NGO’s and the Department of Social Welfare has also made a huge difference. Zahidah, and consequently, the whole family has benefited from the rehabilitation programs offered by the Ministry of Health clinics which, within 10 years, grew from 54 centres to 200 nationwide.

With aid from the Government, an additional 379 community-based rehabilitation centres have been set-up to meet the needs of children with disabilities. Rather than function in isolation to each other, they conduct regular workshops and talks where nurses, Government officials, volunteers, and parents like Dr. Aminah share their expertise and experiences with each other.

Realising MDGs for children with disabilities

“The Malaysian Government’s realisation of its Millenium Development Goals 4 and 5, which are to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health, has very meaningful implications outside its own fulfilment - one of them is that children like Zahidah, who were not high priority before, now have a better chance to be happy,” says UNICEF Malaysia Representative Youssouf Oomar.

In comparison to other parts of the world, Malaysians in general have experienced enormous improvements in health, especially in maternal and child health. According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2008 report themed Child Survival, Malaysia’s health results for children and women are amongst fully developed countries.

Youssouf stresses however that more can and should be done in terms of health deliveries to ensure that no child is left behind, including those living with a disability.

“Zahidah's courage in overcoming her disability is a message of hope to all other children and young people like her. As they say in Malaysia, if Zahidah ‘can’, then Government and communities also can. They must come together even more strongly in partnership to build frameworks that will put back smiles onto the faces of children with disability.”

The future - allowing them mobility in spirit

Dr. Aminah echoes UNICEF’s sentiments, adding that it is the simple kindness of the community, including MAB staff and volunteers who make that special difference to the lives of children with disabilities.

“There’s such an immense sense of community, that not only has Zahidah benefited from it, but I have learned so much as well,” Dr. Aminah says. “The MAB has been great in accommodating Zahidah and my erratic schedule. And my bosses also have been exceptionally supportive and flexible.”

Shouldering a work bag and Zahidah’s daily necessities, the small-sized but vibrant and animated Dr. Aminah is ready to go to work. At the car, she transfers her daughter in one swoop from the wheelchair to the passenger seat, and packs everything into the boot. They begin their one-hour journey to Putrajaya.

Malaysia has most certainly progressed in the area of human development, but there are many more like Zahidah who need the special attention of Government and community services. And the need to continually raise the quality of children’s lives will always be there.

As Zahidah so rightly expressed, every disabled child deserves to participate in life outside the four walls of their home.



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