The becoming of disabled people radicalism

Given current realities in Malaysia, the writer observes there are potential building blocks for disabled people radicalism

pic by BERNAMA

AMID the Covid-19 outbreak, and even now during Recovery Movement Control Order, all of us, or at least the vast majority among us, consciously or subconsciously aware that the status quo is no longer working. We can see a lot of disruptions and the need for radical changes in many aspects of our lives — be it in education, employment, poverty line, social protection and so forth.

Furthermore, the political roller coaster and dramas exacerbate the uncertainty among the citizens about their livelihood and future, and many citizens, if not most, become more and more frustrated with the “frozen progressive agendas” or the slow progress if there is any at all, particularly in human rights-related issues.

Given current social, economic and political realities in Malaysia, I observe there are building blocks and potential building blocks for disabled people radicalism in this country.

When I use the term “radicalism”, I am not referring to religious extremism, racial supremacy or racialised nationalism. Radicalism here refers to collective critical consciousness among a group of people about their life situation and taking actions to challenge and change it.

There are always misconceptions about the word “radicalism”. The word “radical” has always been framed or used negatively.

Students with special needs at an exhibition last year. There are many aids and programmes for the disabled community, but most are short-term – pic by MUHD AMIN NAHARUL

In truth, we live through so many radicalisations in our modern world. One example is the rapidly-changing technology, from the invention of smartphones to social media, though the tech community uses the word “disruption”, and not “radicalisation”.

Radicalism is not about tearing down existing systems and institutions, though many posed as radicals may give such an impression. It is about recognising and addressing systemic and structural failures that cause inequalities in the society, which are often situated in institutions and systems, as well as the people charged or served such institutions/systems and the tool they use, such as laws, regulations, procedures, requirements, performance indicators, money and so forth.

There are a few building blocks and potential building blocks for disabled people radicalism in Malaysia. In my opinion, all of these are very serious.

First, the absence of substantive changes in disabled people’s lives with the change of government in recent years. Of course, there are many aids, programmes and policies to cater to the needs of the disabled community, but most aids and programmes are short-term and so many policies require revisions and amendments.

In the 13th General Election (GE13) and GE14, political party coalitions do pay some attentions and make some pledges concerning disabled people’s issues, but the substance is superficial at best and usually not a priority.

Second, more and more disabled people feel frustrated with the aid programmes and policies, where eventually, they perceive such aids and policies as a burden rather than assistance. Many who are in need of such assistance cannot access the aids because of its rigid requirements and application process.

Some policies concerning disabled people are considered “old jokes” among the community because of their (policies) persisting ineffectiveness. The first and second situations then lead to distrust among the disabled community towards the politicians, political parties and the agencies supposed to serve them.

Third, the growing distrust and disappointment among the disabled community towards the law, particularly the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008. Though there is serious justification to amend the Act, I assert that the law, in its current form, has its strengths.

Unfortunately, the government, the minister, the National Council for Persons with Disabilities and the general disabled community fail to utilise the strengths. Nevertheless, the feeling of disappointment and distrust toward the Act is real.

Fourth, noble and positive social contract concepts, such as social mobility, no longer bring certainty and hope in current life struggles, especially among disabled youngsters, instead, they have to over-achieve and be overly-sufficient just to make a very basic living.

Finally, no meaningful participation and engagement among disabled people, especially among the disabled youths, in making substantive changes in society, including in policy decisions.

In one way, all of these factors seem negative, but I assert these can be used as a reason to cultivate critical consciousness among the disabled community. However, failing to positively shift the frustration and disappointment to actionable wisdom and advocacy can result in larger problems in the community, both socially and psychologically.

Although there are building blocks for disabled people radicalism, there are also some barriers to this.

First, the failure of the disabled community to recognise and come together as one big block for policy change, instead, we still walk loyally on political party, religious and/or racial affiliation lines.

Second, the persistence of cross-impairment groups’ relationships within the hierarchy of impairment mindset where one still uses compare and contrast, not realising the common barriers and struggles: One perceived as having a certain impairment is worse or better than other types of impairment in getting jobs or other opportunities.

Third, the acceptance and embrace of ableist conception and labels disguised as progressive “woke-ness”, including engaging and celebrating inspirational sentimentality in various forms in various mediums.

The above-mentioned building blocks pose both threats and opportunities to the disabled community in Malaysia. I genuinely hope the leaders of organisations representing this community and activists of disabled people’s affairs alike can critically engage and strategically transform the current circumstances into the latter.

Muhamad Nadhir Abdul Nasir


The writer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Malaya and actively engages as an independent consultant/researcher focusing on issues affecting disabled people. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.