Justice for the Disabled
Setting the precedent, a mother seeks legal redress for her Down Syndrome son in a society that still views people with disabilities as less than equals.
By Pang Hin Yue
THERE are words of blessing and there are words of condemnation. Housewife Rose Hoh found out the hard way. Last October, she broke down and cried for days after she received a letter from the defendant’s lawyer stating that her son, Ian Woh Ye-H’ng, 21, is “handicapped” and that he is, “suffering from Down Syndrome.”
Rose had sought legal redress following claims by an apparel company that her son had damaged a display unit at its boutique in One Utama shopping mall. Both mother and son were prevented from leaving the shop until the former paid RM500 for the alleged damage.
The letter goes on to state that Rose should know better than to bring him out, “knowing very well that her son could cause damage or injury to himself and to others and left her son to wander around our client’s boutique without supervision whatsoever.”
“People should not expect persons with disabilities to be confined to their home with the undignified excuse they will be safer,” contends B C Teh, chairman of the National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM).
He stresses that people with disabilities have as much rights as everyone else to be seen, to be involved and be part of the community.
Up until then, Ian and Rose who are regular shoppers at One Utama, had not encountered such hostility. “Generally, the sales people at the shops and the supermarket that we frequent are friendly with Ian. We had not expected to be treated otherwise when we stepped into the boutique for the first time,” says Rose.
The letter concludes that the defendant is advised to report Rose’s “attitude towards her handicapped son to the Welfare Department as she is incompetent to look after her handicapped son.”
Her eldest daughter, Woh Yi-Bin, a law student in the United Kingdom, who alerted the disabled community about Ian’s case, believes that the company had severely undermined her brother’s fundamental human rights. “I know my brother well. He makes himself unobtrusive and observes his surroundings quietly when we are out and about,” she writes in her email.
For Rose who loves her son dearly, the choice of words by the defendant’s lawyer cuts like a knife. Till today, her tears flow freely each time the matter is brought up. “I am shocked that in this day and age, my son is cruelly described as “handicapped” and that he is, “suffering from Down Syndrome as though he has a disease. It is very hurtful,” she cries. (According to the defendant’s court papers, Ian is described as one with “penyakit Sindrom Down” ).
President of Malaysia Down Syndrome Society, Wan Mohd Hanizan likens such negative labeling as one who is stuck in the 18th century. “It is absurd, unbelievable. Down Syndrome is not a disease. It is not acquired. It is a genetic disorder. It is regrettable that no lawyers have taken the trouble to check their facts with us (in the society),” he contends.
With family support and interventional therapies, he adds, there is nothing to stop people with Down Syndrome to pursue education and gain employment. A quiet and gentle soul, Ian is currently with Kiwanis Job Training Centre in Petaling Jaya.
There is no doubt that the online disabled community has gone viral about his case. Reading their chats, one gets the sense of outrage and disbelief that the rights of the disabled have been grossly violated.
Says Bathmavathi Krishnan, a representative of Malaysia Disabilities Rights Group, the case is a reflection of the low awareness, support and understanding of the rights of disabled in Malaysia. “Lawyers need to be educated on the rights of the disabled,” she asserts. It is a point which Bar Council had noted two years ago when it hosted a seminar on the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008.
Malaysia first visually-impaired lawyer, Mah Hasan Omar, who is also the president of Malaysian Confederation of the Disabled, concurs. Mah Hasan who was present in court last month to hear the proceedings , feels that the rights of the disabled vis-à-vis Persons With Disabilities Act 2008 have not been fully addressed in Ian’s case.
“The court should address the rights of the disabled. It is not too late. It is only the beginning,” he notes. (Rose is waiting for the written judgement before deciding on the next course of action).
Teh of NASOM points out that Section 26 of the Persons With Disabilities Act guarantees persons with disabilities the right to access to and use of public facilities, amenities, services and buildings open or provided to the public on equal basis with persons without disabilities.
Moreover, he says, under the Act, the onus is on the providers of such facilities to ensure accessibility to the disabled: “For the purpose of subsection (1), the government and the providers of such public facilities, amenities, services or buildings shall give appropriate consideration and take necessary measures to ensure such public facilities, amenities, services and buildings and the improvement of the equipment related thereto conform to universal design in order to facilitate their access and use by persons with disabilities.”
While he concedes that Persons With Disabilities Act 2008 have its shortfalls as there are no penalties for discrimination, he says it does clearly spell out the rights of the disabled. Both Teh and Mah Hasan are of the opinion that the Court can still make a difference. “The Court can enforce it,” adds Mah Hasan.
Penang-based Lawyer Lim Kah Cheng who specialises in women rights and disabilities issues, laments the dearth of lawyers who are well versed in special needs matters. The trend needs to be reversed so that they can better represent their clients on their rights in court, she says.
For Khor Ai Na who heads the Asia Community Services (ACS) and other support groups that are calling for an inclusive society, there is no let up to raise public awareness on the rights of the special needs people.
They believe in speaking words of blessing over the people with learning disorders. “We should celebrate their abilities rather than seek charity,” says Khor who has been working over 20 years with the learning disabled community in Penang.
At ACS , parents are empowered about their rights when they enroll their special needs children for the Early Intervention Programme.” We help them to speak up on behalf of their children at schools. As for young adults, it is about economic empowerment,” explains Khor.
As the presence and visibility of the learning disabled in the community increases, the public must learn to embrace them as they have as much rights to participate in the ordinary things of life, says advocacy group Dignity & Services executive director, Mettilda John.
At the same time, she adds, a fine balance needs to be struck that even as the learning disabled community is empowered on their rights, there must be also continuous efforts to educate them on the boundaries for appropriate social behavior and personal safety. All in the spirit of, “Can Do, Nothing is Impossible.”
With the growing number of people rooting for Rose and her family, she feels encouraged to step out and step up to champion the causes of the disabled. “My son and all the other disabled people deserve to be heard.”