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Thursday September 8, 2011
Spare them a thought, please
North View by STEPHEN THEM
The disabled are not ones to ask for handouts, just an opportunity to work in order to go through an already difficult life with dignity.
SO THEY want to work for me? What can these people do?
Those were the questions that shot out from a towkay in Miri many years ago when I took three wheelchair-bound disabled men to find out if he could give them simple jobs to earn a steady income.
“Can they write? Can they speak English? How to move around the office like that?” asked the towkay in front of the disabled men.
The men dared not look the towkay in the eye. They just sat in their wheelchairs and looked at the table.
Without waiting for replies, the towkay bluntly said it would be too difficult for him to find suitable things for the men to do.
He spoke to them in Bahasa Malaysia.
Turning to me, he spoke in Hokkien and said he could give some ang pow if they needed cash.
I told him they wanted a job and were not here to ask for money.
I felt sad to see the dejection in their faces. I could feel the pain and shame they felt as the rich man mockingly asked those questions.
I got to know the three men in 1999 when I was president of the Northern Sarawak Journalists Association. They were among a group of needy folk struggling desperately to meet their daily needs.
I heard the towkay could help by giving them jobs in one of his many companies in Miri.
He is the boss of a consortium involved in housing construction, hotels and commercial complex management and owns an agricultural estate.
This was why I took the men to him, hoping he could employ them. But as it turned out, the interview lasted only 15 minutes. The towkay had no place for the handicapped men, not in his consortium and obviously not in his heart as well.
That was in the year 2001.
Last week, The Star published a report on the plight of disabled champion athlete Aslin Melit, 39, who won a bronze medal in the Special Olympics in Seoul in 2002, as well as 50 other gold, silver and bronze medals in the Paralympic Games from 1996 to 2010.
Aslin, despite his success, had failed to land a job in the public or private sectors in Miri.
He repairs simple electrical equipment to survive and gets RM300 in welfare aid from the Government.
His plight reflects the plight of similar disabled people not only in Sarawak but throughout the nation as well.
In 1992, when I was in my second year as a reporter at The Star headquarters in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, covering assignments in the Klang Valley, I had the opportunity to interview the then Labour Minister Datuk Lim Ah Lek.
I asked him why his ministry did not make it compulsory for government departments and private companies to hire handicapped workers. I told him that his ministry had the power to recommend to the Federal Cabinet to enact a regulation to compel public departments or agencies and private companies to set a quota of perhaps 1% of jobs for the handicapped.
His reply was that it was not wise to force employers to do a such thing.
“The Government prefers a policy of gentle persuasion to encourage employers to open their doors for the disabled. If we force them, they may not be happy because they may have no goodwill in accepting disabled workers.
“The disabled workers may not be happy working under an employer who accepts them reluctantly,” I remember him saying.
I wrote a report on this and it was printed quite prominently the next day.
After these many years, it is clear that the Government’s policy of gentle persuasion is not working.
Employers are hesitant to hire handicapped folk. There are big companies in the Klang Valley that open doors to disabled workers, but they are few and far in between.
Disabled people don’t ask for handouts. They are hardworking and diligent.
Take Aslin for example. He excelled in wheelchair-racing, javelin, shot put and discus through sheer hard work and persistence. How many of us in his position can achieve as much?
The handicapped have feelings and pride as well. Like Aslin, they have no choice but to go public and appeal for jobs because, by their own efforts, they cannot find any. Nobody entertains their applications.
Life can be difficult for a handicapped person – physically, emotionally and psychologically.
I know how hard it can be after I went through a knee operation four years ago.
My surgery was minor, but the discomfort and pain I endured lasted for months. I could not drive for a month, had enormous difficulties in moving around, had to crawl up the stairs, had problems in using the toilet and could not walk for long periods without pain.
Even now, I occasionally feel pain from my knee to my backbone if I jog too much or exert myself physically.
For me, this experience is precious. It gives me first-hand knowledge on how it feels to be physically limited. However, my difficulties are temporary.
The permanently disabled, like those who have to be bound to wheelchairs for the rest of their lives, have to endure such hardships every day.
I am not saying that we should have pity for them to the extent of giving them everything they need. I am saying we should try to help them to help themselves.
One way of doing this is by giving them simple jobs.
There is no excuse for mega companies to not create posts of telephone operator, lift-operator, door-attendant, parking attendant or lobby receptionist to accommodate the handicapped who need jobs.
This is not just an act of corporate social responsibility. It is also not an act of kindness or charity but more to do with justice.
My encounter with the rich man showed that society had only made little advancement in the aspect of justice towards the handicapped despite its jumps in knowledge and technology.
The look of dejection on the three men still haunts me.
What is the point of being rich, successful, respected by society and have a good life if we do not have any sense of justice.
I am not trying to sound religious, but at the end of our natural life, we will be judged for the way we treat others.
Let’s give the handicapped people a chance to live a life of dignity. After all, this is what they ask. They don’t want handouts.
Government-linked departments, I feel, should be innovative and take the lead in finding employment for the disabled.
The Post Office, Road Transport Department, police, Customs and other government agencies can have allocations to employ disabled people to jot down complaints, sort out mails, open greeting cards, handle licence renewals and do paper work.
The Government should give big tax breaks to private companies that employ handicapped people en-masse.
Politicians should take the lead. They should hire the disabled as receptionists, telephone operators and clerks in their service centres.
Let’s give the disabled a chance. This is all that they ask.