I recently attended a workshop to discuss how financial services providers could contribute to making the world a better place for persons with disabilities. The first day started typically enough. Icebreakers. Bla bla. Then we were split into groups – by design, each group one person with a disability. Mine had a man who is blind.

And so began a week of revelations.

I had never known a blind person in my entire life. Our groupmate works as a counselor in the Welfare Department. He takes the bus and then the train to his office every morning. He has a wife, also blind, and three children. “I have too many blind friends, we tend to hang around another,” he said. None of his children, however, are blind. How does he explain blindness to his sighted children? “They kind of pick it up as they go along. But the danger is that sometimes I may accidentally tread on my infant daughter.”

In the course of our group work, we had to carry out little social experiments to understand firsthand how (in)accessible our environment is to a person with disabilities, one of which was to take a walk through the mall with our blind groupmate to carry out basic financial transactions. Here is a map of our journey (Click to enlarge):

Journey Map

In my 3 years of work in…developmental stuff…I have grown accustomed to collecting information from a distance – research papers, surveys, interviews, lots of Googling. The “needs” of “underserved segments” – rural communities, poor urban households, “the disabled”, paddy farmers – are curated, and then the fragments compacted as tightly as possible into Powerpoint slides. We come across terms like target groups. Clients. Customers. Beneficiaries.

Looking at our blind groupmate squarely in the face, accompanying him on a casual walk to carry out the most mundane of errands, the word “beneficiaries” suddenly seemed kind of awkward. Is this man whom I have been so liberally labelling a beneficiary? Beneficiaries…as if we so magnanimously granted them a benefit. As if they owe us for merely providing them a walkway with guiding blocks so they can make it to the LRT station in one piece without having to ask some grumpy commuter for help. Us, the kind benefactors who made such ill-suited schools and malls and restrooms in the first place, and then compensate by concocting euphemistic names like “OKU” (Is it disabled person or person with disabilities?), applying tender adjectives like “special”, pasting stickers of stickmen in wheelchairs on doors…But then forgetting to teach service staff how to converse with an “OKU” without fidgeting uncomfortably or trying to avoid eye contact (And with a blind man, no less! How ironic!).

Now if the world were built by blind men, if society was 85% disabled and 15% able, as opposed to the reverse reality, things just wouldn’t have been designed this way. Isn’t that so fascinating? It never pays being the voiceless minority. Most certainly not in this country.

Age is not to be devalued to being JUST a number. That it is a number is of such importance, because our days are numbered. And if our days are numbered then age is a number on the way to the end of that finite series of numbers.

And, knowing that and possessing perhaps a bit of self-worth, inevitably leads to an avalanche of self-examining questions – am I a good enough person? Have I read enough? Am I wise? Am I too proud? Should I be more forgiving? Am I loved or am I loving enough? Am I happy? Am I too jealous, too angry, too impatient? Am I still dreaming or have have I really even begun at all? Will I ever get anywhere if I keep on with my careless, procrastinatory habits? Am I a crap writer? What can I do about being a crap writer? Why does my neck and lower back ache, should I begin to exercise? What do I know? Am I dumb? What happened to my resolve to become an erudite smart aleck, all-knowing on the ways of the world, with a side ability to sing like an angel?

It’s rather disorienting, returning to a late, quiet Sunday night in KL after what seemed like longer than one weekend singing in Penang. There is a hovering sense of estrangement. Yet nothing has changed, of course, because it’s only been 3 (wonderful) days. The condominiums still rise over the city in their shadowed, yellow-chequered grace. The buses and taxis are still bullies. The turn signals of all my fellow drivers still seem to be out of order. I feel the familiar pleasure of noting the pub downstairs is still open as I do every time I’m home late. But still I feel tentative, as if I am slowly reacquainting myself with practised routine.

This is what it’s always like, at the end a choir production. One bubble bursts, I reluctantly disentangle myself and step back into my other. I stifle the unrestrained shrieking and re-adopt polite, ingratiating tones. I throw off the costume, I don the metaphorical suit. It’s a tiresome process sometimes. It shakes my ability to concentrate on my thoughts.

So my ninth consecutive year of singing in a choir has drawn to a close. The question now is whether there will be tenth?

What about reading? What about writing? What about dreams…but which dream? But what is life without the regular envelopment of a warm, ringing, 8-part chord that is perfectly in tune?

I would like to graciously refute the rather hasty insinuation in an article in The Star, RM2,500 salary should be enough for fresh grads, say experts (7 Oct 2014), that perhaps young graduates buy a car because it is cool, and that in pining for such a “luxury” we may have forgotten how to live as students. I will do this by telling you a story, which will help you understand why I myself decided to get a car.

I used to live very near the PWTC LRT station. Heres a typical daily LRT journey to work and back: I walk out in the morning. It’s raining. As I cross the pedestrian walkway from the mall to the station – a gap in the in the walkway shelter leaves me wet. Even the umbrella is no match against the torrential Malaysian rain. Wonderful, because I have meetings and choir practices lined up for the week, and catching a cold is not ideal. And thanks to fast-accumulating grimy water pooling in the pavement dents and cracks – my RM40 shoes get wet, which means they will spoil within the next month. RM40 doesn’t get you any shoes that don’t peel open crocodile-style almost immediately after a good soaking. But as a fresh graduate, I don’t feel deserving of expensive shoes – so on to my next RM40 pair, then!

Thankfully the LRT is frequent and generally on time.

Then the journey home. At Bandaraya there are no escalators. But that’s alright, I can live with that – young ‘un who lacks exercise due to my sedentary, desk-bound lifestyle. But poor elderly lady next to me, huffing and puffing up the stairs. My mother has arthritic kneecaps. I think of her, and feel thankful my parents have a car to travel in. Its no wonder people push like savages to get into the LRT on crowded days, without waiting for others to alight – everyone is hot and bothered and dying to sit by the time they get to the platform.

I reach PWTC. I walk out through the quiet walkway towards the road. It’s dim; because the fluorescent lights are inexplicably off though it’s about 10 pm at night. I look at my non-designer, RM60 handbag, consider my vulnerability as a woman, and feel slightly creeped out, thinking of the stories I’ve heard about slashing and snatch theft – I know at least 3 people directly who have been victims. I think of my aunt’s broken collarbone and fear for my own. As I approach my (rented, thank you) apartment block, I see the two usual drug addicts (Sometimes, in the mornings, I see them answer nature’s call while sniffing glue), still, dark shapes guarding the lane opening, like gargoyles at the entrance of a haunted castle. I hurry past, down the lane, past the guardhouse.

Safe zone at last.

I hope from this story you see why a car – a Myvi, 1.3 – bought with the assistance of my retired parents, was deemed a necessity, not a luxury, to me and worth tightening the belt, worth sacrificing a savings margin for. Many reasons. Feasibility. Health. Peace of mind. Safety. Above all, safety.

Now, I don’t earn RM2500. I earn a moderate amount more than that. But I feel it’s unjust to reduce the very real issue of the rising cost of living versus incomparable wages to merely blaming – what? A mere slip of judgment? An attitude problem? – of an entire generation of ambitious, assertive young people. The same people who, by the way, need to feel a reason – that is grounded in reality – to remain in Malaysia so we can be the nuts and bolts to this engine of growth that will help Malaysia achieve our 2020 ambitions. I hope mutual understanding on both our parts can be forged as we make our way there.

But of course I don’t pretend to speak for a generation. I speak for myself and more than a few people I know – and wouldn’t you agree, dear sir, that every voice counts?

Few things are more soothing
Than the shy sigh of steady showers
Stately silhouettes under sudden lightning
And stony skies that sulk and thunder
Over shivering shapes of sodden trees
While the world prepares to go to sleep.

And then the early morning blooms
Into brilliant beams of beatific gold
That break the baleful, binding gloom
And slip between billowing folds
To blanket bedding in blazing warmth
And halt the dreams of sleeping forms.

Landscapes

Imaginary

May

Minute after minute, and no stillness in between.

November 2014
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