So Special

On the occasion of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, 3 December 2018

Lisa Surihani
Nikhil and Janna, best friends and children with disability
03 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% thought disability was the result of God’s will, spirits, curses, fault of the parents, punishment, the environment, bad feng shui or karma. It is because of 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. As highlighted by YB Hannah Yeoh, shame and stigma has resulted in families not registering their children as OKU. This has to stop. There’s no shame at having a disability.

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

Studies from Europe, the US and Australia has 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% 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 do not get to know them, 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.

Today 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