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|Public forum: `Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 – What Next?`|
|Contributed by Allison Ong Lee Fong|
|Monday, 19 January 2009 12:55pm|
•Welcome address by Dato' Ambiga Sreenevasan
Kuala Lumpur, 17 January 2009 – Malaysian Bar President Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan strongly urged the Government to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“the Convention”) and to also accede to the Optional Protocol in a public forum entitled “Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 – What Next?”, organised by the Bar Council Law Reform and Special Areas Committee, held at the Bar Council auditorium today.
The forum was officially opened by Dato’ Meme Zainal Rashid, Director of the Social Welfare Department, on behalf of YB Dato’ Ng Yen Yen, Minister of Women, Family & Community Development. Five speakers who have different areas of expertise were invited to comment on the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 (“PWD Act”) and to give suggestions to improve it
In her welcome address, Dato’ Ambiga questioned why the PWD Act’s drafters appear to have shied away from the fuller language and spirit of the Convention. According to her, there is no provision for any penalty for any party who does not live up to the obligations under the PWD Act. There is also a lack of remedies-pursuing procedures in the Act. In fact, the Federal Government is expressly exempted from any wrong-doing under the PWD Act even if it fails to address the needs of disabled persons.
Helen Chin, a lawyer and Chairperson of the forum’s Organising Committee who is known for her active campaigns on the rights of the disabled, highlighted the American Supreme Court case involving Sandra Winkleman, the mother of a child with special needs who contested the adequacy of the Individual Education Plan for her child. Helen stressed the active role parents should take in advocating the rights of children with special needs.
Helen also commented on some major omissions and gaps in the PWD Act with respect to monitoring, sanctions and penalties. She expressed, among others, the importance of prevention and early detection of disabilities, of provisions for anti-discrimination, and the necessity of implementing an Individual Education Plan. She suggested the commercial establishments play a part in supporting the disabled by offering them a higher fixed deposit interest rate, and rebates and discount for them to purchase computers.
Bathmavathi Krishnan, a writer, activist and the Secretary of the Malaysian Confederation of the Disabled, based her discussion on the shortcomings of the PWD Act and how to utilise its provisions to enhance, and protect and implement more effectively, the rights of the disabled. She emphasised the genuine inclusion of the disabled into society and urged for the “human rights and fundamental freedoms of the disabled” to be given due weight, as opposed to just lumping the disabled under “social welfare” criteria.
Bathmavathi commented that sections 13 and 14 of the PWD Act are the tools that can be used to propose changes to various areas, such as accessibility, transportation and health care, affecting disabled persons. She also pointed out the lacuna in Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution, which falls short of prohibiting discrimination on the ground of disability. To her, the absence of sanctions for non-compliance renders the PWD Act ineffective, and more of an “administrative document”.
Mohammad Faizal Che Yusof, a lawyer involved in various organisations working on issues relating to the blind and a Bar Council Human Rights Committee member, gave an overview of the PWD Act. He discussed a few areas that could be enhanced to better the lives of the disabled, such as housing facilities in particular. He highlighted that teachers and coaches dealing with the disabled have to be properly trained so as to understand the potential and capabilities of the disabled. Promotion of opportunities for disabled persons to work should be accompanied by a “real commitment” of the same. He asserted that data collection and conduct of surveys regarding the disabled remain a challenge especially since registration of the disabled is not compulsory in Malaysia.
Lawyer and Bar Council Legal Aid Centre Chairperson Ravi Nekoo focused on the criminal aspects of the PWD Act and shared with the audience his views, and illustrated by various examples why the Act is not disabled-friendly. The rights of a person arrested are in reality not readily communicable to the disabled, especially those who are mentally-challenged or deaf, due to the lack of specific training for the police officers and the lack of facilities at police stations. Similarly, crime victims with disabilities may have problems lodging a police report as the existing procedures are not designed in a way to accommodate a victim’s disabilities.
Ravi compared our system with other jurisdictions wherein they have developed more disabled-friendly strategies and facilities, and urged that our criminal justice system be improved to cater for the disabled.
A paper prepared by the final speaker, Mah Hassan Haji Omar, head drafter of the PWD Act, President of the Malaysian Confederation of the Disabled and President of the Society for the Blind, was read out by Lee Swee Seng. He shared the other speakers’ disquiet over the PWD Act’s silence on prohibiting discrimination and harassment of the disabled. He pointed out the need for Malaysia to implement the paradigm shift from a charity-based approach to a rights-based approach.
The floor was then opened to the audience during an hour-long question-and-answer session. A number of parents with disabled children stepped forward to share their concerns and their plight in advocating for their children’s rights.
Among the issues highlighted were the importance of early intervention to ensure that disabled children can lead a normal and independent life, the difficulties in assessing and streamlining eligibility for special education, and the support that the government, NGOs as well as civil society can give to disabled persons and their families.
The five-hour forum ended at 1.15 pm following the closing speech by Dato’ M. Ramachelvam, Bar Council member and Chairperson of the Law Reform & Special Areas Committee, urging the government to give full recognition and implementation to the rights of the disabled.
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