Budget 2019 a let down for disabled people

Disabled people make up an estimated 15 per cent of the country’s population. The issues that afflict us should be given more proportionate attention seeing that we are one of the largest minorities.

We have been very vocal in presenting our case to the authorities, be it the municipal, state or federal governments. We were left disappointed time and again after countless years of having high expectations on the government to look into our issues and resolve them.

Nevertheless, with a new government in place, disabled people have been looking forward to more inclusive and comprehensive policies to put the issues we have been facing to the forefront, and hopefully resolve some of the major ones.

We have been anticipating the Budget 2019 to reflect this new hope. We assumed the current government will be more serious when it comes to the development of accessible services and facilities. Most importantly, we expected to see some advancement in the social inclusion of disabled people.

In the entire Budget 2019 speech by the finance minister, disability or disabled persons was only mentioned twice. First is ‘Bantuan Sara Hidup’ for B40 households where RM120 will be disbursed annually to disabled children. Second is the collaboration with NGOs and social enterprises one of which will be the procurement of envelopes from Persatuan Pemulihan Orang Kurang Upaya.

The trickle-down effect from this budget that will benefit the community in general is minimal at best. No substantive proposals were made to enable and empower the 4.8 million people affected by disability. This budget is a total disappointment as far as disabled people are concerned. Again, we are left out from the development of mainstream society.

The needs of disabled people are not difficult to fathom. What non-disabled people can do in society are the same things disabled people need. We need equal access to the built environment and public transportation. We need equal opportunities in education and employment. We must be able to practice our cultural and religious obligations. In short we must achieve social inclusion in all aspects of life and living.

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To this end, we must be included in all decision making processes that affect us. Decisions cannot be unilaterally made on our behalf because there are characteristics about disability that non-disabled people can neither understand nor empathise with. This is often not practised. The government has been paternalistic in their approach, putting in place procedures, facilities and services that neither involved nor in consultation with us.

There is a tendency to group all disability issues as one. This is a mistake. We are not a homogeneous community. That is the reason for the seven categories of disabled people for registration purposes under the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. Each category has unique conditions and needs.

Each category of impairment must be represented across the board. For example, a person with physical impairment should not be the sole committee member taken as a representative of all disabled people. Each impairment is different and there is no way one person can represent such a wide spectrum of conditions.

Did the government engage in meaningful dialogue with the community before drawing up Budget 2019? Dialogue should not be a token 3-hour meeting with 100 disabled people. Neither should it be monopolised by a few organisations nor unbalanced representation of the various categories of impairments. There must be focus groups providing feedback from the grassroots to ensure everyone gets their voice heard and their issues seriously looked into.

Additionally, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development has all the data on disability. The Department of Social Welfare and Department for the Development of Persons with Disabilities are in possession of similar information gleamed from officers who have engaged the community in formal and informal sessions. With so much evidence on hand, there is no reason why problems faced by the community continued to be side-lined and ignored.

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Therefore, the insignificant allocation to improve the quality of life of disabled people has left us wondering where we stand in society. We had expected more from the new government. This maiden budget has shown that nothing much has changed.

I was told things cannot change overnight. I was advised to be patient as this is still a new government and they have many other pressing issues to sort out. I have been advocating for the past 15 years. Many of my peers have been doing the same long before me. We are realistic. We do not expect immediate results.

Even then, the progress in developing a more disability-inclusive society is disparate with the rapid progress the country is experiencing. We may have First World infrastructure but our facilities and services for disabled people is of Third World standards. This is an embarrassment especially when we are striving to be a developed nation in the coming years.

I was asked whether disabled people will benefit from the unlimited RM100 public transport pass for RapidKL rail and bus network and RM50 monthly pass just for RapidKL stated in the budget. My take is that even if the fare is free for disabled people, many of us will find it hard to use public transport for the lack of seamless connectivity from our homes to bus stop and the last mile to the destination.

What about the transportation needs of people living in areas not served by RapidKL? What about the rural areas? It is time for the government to move away from the mindset of developing infrastructure in the major cities only, especially around Klang Valley. If anything, people living outside major cities need the same development as well.

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Accessible infrastructure should not be done on a piecemeal basis. It must be holistic. Any break in between will leave us stranded, or even worse, pose a risk to our life and limb, as I have so often experienced in my daily commute to work. This is crucial as an accessible built environment and public transport allows us to realise social participation. Without it, we are mostly confined to our homes.

Prior to the Budget 2019 speech, the Ministry of Education announced plans to have 75 per cent of students with special needs attending Inclusive Education Programme with mainstream students by 2023. This is a commendable initiative.

Budget should have been allocated to improve the connectivity to and facilities of the schools to ensure the plans can become a reality. Five years is not a long time to get all these in place. Without corresponding infrastructure upgrades, it will be difficult for disabled students to go to school.

In short, Budget 2019 has left disabled people high and dry. I hope our needs will be looked into more seriously in the following years’ budgets. We do not need handouts. We need programmes that can enable and empower us. We want to be productive and contribute to nation building as well. At the moment, this is still a pipe dream for many of my disabled friends.