Disabled during the pandemic: struggles and perspectives

Our society often promotes harmony and respect between people of different races, religions, ethnicities, but rarely for those with a disability. This is evident in our constitution where there cannot be discrimination against citizens on the grounds of race, religion, descent or place of birth, but not disability. Why is that allowed? How does our society view and treat disabled people?

Currently, there are four models for viewing disability: charity, medical, social, and human rights model. The charity model views disabled people as being dependent on others for survival, resulting in a reliance of the good will of others to support them. Our government currently practices this model as it views disabled people as pitiful and in need of financial support. The medical model only focuses on their impairment and says they are the problem to be solved. It assumes that they are incapable of functioning like a “normal” person and that their rights can be denied purely on their disability status.

The third model is the social model, which states that the barriers in society or environment limits a person’s ability, thus disabling them. Contrast to the medical model which says that a person’s disability causes them to become disabled, which reduces their quality of life. The former proposes that the solution is to remove the barrier, and ensure accessibility, such as building a ramp to ensure wheelchair users can access the building. The latter proposes that curing or treating the disability would allow the person to lead a more “normal” life. However, the social model fails at addressing the problems disabled people still face even when the barriers are removed. It does not concern itself with ensuring equitable access to services nor the impact chronic illnesses have on disabled people’s lives. For example, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) progressively weakens a person’s muscles, which can cause muscle weakness, and trouble walking. While society can be made as accessible as possible for them, it does not ensure most would live beyond 26 years old, or mitigate the pain it caused. Thus, this model only serves a small, privileged minority, who already have sufficient support systems but are inconveniently hindered by barriers.

The human rights model builds upon this and acknowledges the impact of impairments and accepts it as a natural aspect of human diversity. It also acknowledges that more has to be done than just removing mainstream barriers as not everyone has access to the same opportunities; thus, the government has a role to play in ensuring substantive equality and putting in legislation, guidelines, and standards that uphold, promote, and protect the rights of disabled people.

The question now is, what is stopping disabled people from fully participating in society? To sum up in one word – ableism. It is defined as discrimination and prejudice against disabled people. Ableism is perpetuated in various forms, all of which reinforce each other, such as stigma, discrimination in employment and education, inaccessible infrastructure, and ableist policies.

Firstly, while there are efforts to raise awareness about disabled people, widespread stigma or negative beliefs about disabled people still persist. As a result, they are not treated with respect and dignity due to false perceptions about their lives. Regarding discrimination in employment, employers are often reluctant to hire disabled people due to the additional costs associated with hiring disabled people, and their own prejudice against disabled people.

On a personal and related note, “reasonable accommodations” must be properly defined as the lack of clarity about it has resulted in what is deemed “reasonable” being viewed through the lens of the institution or employer, rather than what the student or employee deems reasonable to them. As each disabled person has different needs, it is best to provide according to what they require, and follow up to determine if additional accommodations are needed.Shifting our focus to the “new normal”, it has certainly brought about new challenges, and partially resolved existing ones. For example, online courses and meetings now allow people to study or work from home, and education materials are made available in electronic formats. Though this is frustrating considering disabled people had always been told that online meetings and Work From Home (WFH) policies were not possible, but it was granted immediately when the pandemic affected non-disabled people.

There also needs to be more support services for disabled people as the pandemic has cut off the already limited support systems available to them. This is evident in the current state of mental health care as in 2016, we have 360 psychiatrists for 31,660,700 Malaysians, which is a meagre 1.1 psychiatrist per 100,000 people. It does not help that during the pandemic, the welfare department has failed to conduct checks on the living conditions of disabled people and even cut off their financial aid without informing them.

Next, inaccessible infrastructure can cause significant difficulties, or even outright prevent access to facilities as disabled people are not factored into their consideration. For example, it is more dangerous for blind people to go out during the pandemic as the chances of touch contact would increase their risk of contracting COVID-19. Lastly, ableist policies are a culmination of the previous issues as it is deemed officially acceptable to discriminate against disabled people. Take for example, the recent issue involving a student who scored 9A in SPM, but was denied the opportunity to further their studies because of their disability. The reason this happened because the discriminatory policy follows the Ministry of Health guidelines, meaning it is legal to discriminate against disabled people. It does not help that Malaysia held reservations to the following articles on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD): Article 3, general principles; Article 5, equality and non-discrimination; Article 15, freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment punishment; Article 18 on liberty of movement and nationality; and Article 30 on participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure, and sport.

While the government has done work to promote the development of the lives of disabled people through awareness campaigns, job coach programmes, and Disability Equity Training (DET), there is more that could be done. Aside from failing to withdraw its reservations mentioned earlier, the first step is to reform the Person with Disabilities Act 2008. Many criticisms have been laid against it by others already, but in this article, the most important of which is that there must be penalties for discrimination against disabled people as currently, there is no legal obligation to abide it, but it is merely a choice. Furthermore, the Person with Disabilities Act 2008 stops anyone from suing the government as long as their actions were done in “good faith”, which is an admittedly vague and useless term. Lastly, the limited power of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities further weakens their ability to act against those who discriminate against disabled people.

There are numerous ways to resolve this, and this includes recognising that disabled people have equal rights, and there must be respect towards differences. The rights of disabled people to seek justice can be secured by reforming the Person with Disabilities Act 2008 to end discrimination against disabled people, and allow them to take legal actions against the injustice inflicted onto them. Entrusting more power to the National Council for Persons with Disabilities would also allow them to better enforce the Act, and take action against violators. Next, facilities, and workplaces must be made as accessible as possible to allow their full participation in society. Implementation or creation of new policies should be discussed with disabled people, especially when it may affect their lives. Disabled people should also be given equal opportunities to work as their disabilities should not be the reason why they are retrenched or rejected from applying at a job. Otherwise, they would be trapped in an endless cycle of poverty. Lastly, there needs to be improvements in the diagnosis, awareness, and support for disabled people as an estimated 4.1 million of them are not registered with the Social Welfare Department. If these steps are taken, it would greatly improve their lives and ensure that they can fully participate in society.

However, these are simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ableism, the real question now is what is the root of the problem? Capitalism is the root cause of ableism. But wait! What does it have anything to do with this? To understand this link, we must have a basic understand of how capitalism works.

Capitalism is a socio-economic system organised around generating profit for capitalists (or your boss). Capitalists are people who have private ownership of the production facilities, and hire workers to produce goods for profit. As capitalism is driven by endless competition, capitalists must constantly compete to maximise profits and outlast their competitors. To achieve that, they will need workers who are “productive”, which means they must require little maintenance, and can work long hours for as little pay as possible. Thus, capitalism segregates people into two groups: the exploitable, and the less exploitable. The exploitation of workers already has a devastating toll on the physical, and mental health of workers, but much more so for disabled people. It is compounded by the fact that disabled people find it difficult to achieve the same level of productivity as their non-disabled peers. While disabled people can contribute to society, its measuring stick for productivity is “how much profit can you generate for this little pay?”. Though arguably, the worth of a person should not be determined by how much they contribute to society; otherwise, we would have to get rid of children, babies, and old people! Either way, supporting the needs of disabled people is costly, which makes them less likely to be hired over a non-disabled peer with the same qualifications. Supporting them would eat into their profit margins and naturally makes them unwilling to hire disabled people. Therefore, the employer offsets this cost by pushing their responsibilities onto the state, requiring the setup of a meagre welfare system for the unexploitable. This also serves another purpose for the capitalists – to terrify the working class as they fear becoming “disabled”. Why? Because the safety net does not adequately protect them. This gives the ruling class control over the workers as they get to dictate the terms of employment as their options are to accept the poor work conditions or starve.

This is by no means the fault of the capitalist as the capitalist system compels them to act in such a manner. From the capitalist’s perspective, it is in their self-interest to maximise profits, and minimise costs. Disabled people bring additional costs or burdens to the table as they require accommodations, whereas non-disabled people do not need such support. Thus, it would be cheaper to hire non-disabled people instead. As a result, capitalists are less likely to hire disabled people, which perpetuates poverty among disabled people, resulting in the perception that they are pitiful and helpless. This in turn prevents them from participating in society as they cannot support themselves. Job coach programmes do exist to make disabled people more employable, but they will still not be valued as much as non-disabled people due to their access needs. Although some capitalists do hire disabled people, they are usually valued because they can outperform their peers for lower pay, or if their disabilities are not considered a major hindrance to profit acquisition in the short-term. Their vulnerability and expendability are most obvious during any crisis as they are often the first to be retrenched. This is also evident during the COVID-19 pandemic where disabled people and elderly people were considered acceptable casualties to the coronavirus.

“Normal” people already struggle to survive under this grueling system, as evident in the rise of mental health issues, suicide cases, and low pay for dirty, dangerous, and demeaning (3D) work. The pandemic has simply made these issues clearer, and worse for large swaths of society. This capitalist system has to end as exploitation and oppression is baked into it. When we understand the conditions disabled people face, we too will understand another component of how capitalists keep us in line. This will give us greater insight into understanding and tackling the capitalist system that devalues and punishes people for simply growing old, getting into an accident, or being disabled. It is time that we stand in solidarity with disabled people as their struggles are our struggles too.

Yap Xin Yit
Disability Justice Working Group,
Pemuda Sosialis,
Parti Sosialis Malaysia






Capitalism and Disability by Keith Rosenthal

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