A disabled-friendly Malaysia

  • February 19, 2010
  • Bruce Bromley

MALAYSIA passed the Persons with Disabilities Act (PWDA) in 2008 as part of its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN Convention). According to the PWDA, those persons with disabilities shall have equal access to the following in Malaysia:

  • public facilities, amenities, services and buildings;
  • public transport;
  • education;
  • employment;
  • information, communication and technology;
  • cultural life;
  • recreation, leisure and sport.

Malaysia also amended the Uniform Building Bylaws in 1990, making it compulsory for buildings to provide access and facilities for disabled persons. Existing buildings were given three years to make modifications to comply with the bylaw.

In addition, then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said in September 2006 that all buildings and public amenities, including existing buildings, must be disabled friendly.

But two years after the Act and nearly two decades after the bylaw amendment, have there been substantial steps taken in providing equal access for persons with disabilities? If not, why not?

No change

Peter Tan, a disability rights advocate living with spinal cord injury, says that as far as accessing public places is concerned, not much has changed since the PWDA or bylaw amendment were passed.

He says accessible facilities have only been provided on a piecemeal basis so far. “For example, if a wheelchair user wants to go to Suria KLCC from Cheras, there are too many barriers in the built environment and public transport system that makes the journey impossible.

“We need to have accessibility from a holistic point of view. What is the point of having a building that is fully accessible when the wheelchair user cannot even get out from his [or her] house safely and conveniently?” says Tan.

He adds there is currently no code of practice for disabled access to public transport. “RapidKL claimed they have 100 buses with ramps. However, the buses don’t allow wheelchair users to board. Even if they did, the bus stops are not suitable.

“If I don’t drive, I won’t be able to move around the city conveniently. I have taken the Kelana Jaya LRT line, which is wheelchair accessible, but there is no connectivity from our homes to the stations,” says Tan.

Helen Chin, a lawyer and advocate for the learning disabled, cannot think of any examples of significant improvements brought about by the PWDA.

“There are some radio announcements on launching programmes to sensitise people on the rights of disabled persons. This is encouraging, but no details have been given,” she says in a phone interview.

“We’re in 2010 now; the Act was passed in 2008. [The government] has to move faster… there are so many who are disabled.”

Chin says that at an October 2009 Bar Council public forum, an Education Ministry spokesperson announced plans to remove the words “non-educable” from the Education Act (Special Education) Regulations 1997 by early 2010. This was to align the regulations with the PWDA, which ensures equal education opportunities for all.

To date, however, Chin says nothing has been gazetted.

Change possible

Petaling Jaya (PJ) City Council councillor and The Star Wheel Power columnist Anthony Thanasayan says the council has been working hard to make PJ disabled friendly.

He says having a technical committee on disabilities is a must to ensure access for disabled persons.

Anthony, who is a wheelchair user, says having a disabled person in the committee is also crucial to ensure plans are usable.

“All new buildings [in PJ] now need the committee’s approval. Through this process, we’ve spotted many plans that needed improvement. Often, [developers] genuinely have no clue [about how to construct a disabled-friendly building].”

Anthony says the PWDA is “useless” without a disabilities committee in every council. “Change must be top-down, not down-up,” he says. “It has to start with the pavements outside your house, not at some beautiful five-star hotel or shopping complex.

“If Najib means what he says [about ensuring all public buildings and amenities are disabled friendly], he should set up disability committees in all councils,” says Anthony.

Anthony predicts that a satisfactory level for disabled access can be gradually achieved in three years, provided the council stays committed. The council also plans to build 150 disabled-friendly car parks with shelters, and now issues official disabled passes for free. It also built a 500m universal-design pavement along Jalan Gasing that is disabled friendly.

Tan adds that accessible facilities do not just benefit disabled persons, but can also be used by senior citizens, pregnant women, and adults with prams.

Making change happen

On a national level, Chin says the government needs to set up a board of inquiry with session court powers if it seriously intends to address issues faced by disabled persons.

“At the moment, there is no machinery for channelling complaints and to draw the government’s attention to grouses,” says Chin. “You can write a letter just like to any government department, but there’s no accountability to this process. So how effective can it be?”

The PWDA establishes a National Council for Persons with Disabilities chaired by the minister in charge of social welfare, which meets at least thrice yearly to implement the PWDA.

However, Chin says the PWDA doesn’t provide for any sanctions if the government fails in its obligation to provide equal opportunities of access as outlined in the PWDA. Further, there are conflicting provisions in the PWDA on whether an individual can sue the government for not meeting its obligations.

“Without penalties [for contravening the PWDA] and a board of inquiry, [the Act] is more like a policy statement. There should be separate regulations made to ensure that implementation is down-to-earth and practical,” says Chin.

Chin notes that sanctions already exist for buildings that do not comply with the Uniform Building Bylaws, which provide for disabled access. However, enforcement has been weak. “Even when there are legislative provisions providing for sanction, its success depends on enforcement,” she says.

Although Malaysia signed the UN Convention, we did not ratify it or sign the Optional Protocol. The protocol allows those adversely affected by a country’s non-compliance with the UN Convention to report such violations to the UN committee, which oversees its implementation.

“The authorities often say that things cannot change overnight,” says Tan. “I have been a wheelchair user for 26 years, and have not been able to live independently even after the PWDA or Uniform Building Bylaws amendment.

“Fifteen years since the bylaw amendment, politicians are still using this excuse.”