Malaysiana: Three Stories on Disability for BADD

Sometime when I was home earlier this year, my dad and I noticed this Indian man struggling with a walker in our housing area. He wasn't very old, and we'd seen him, walking, sort of tottering, past our road, along the football field, down a road which has several road bumps, because it's a one-way street passing through several.

One day, Dad and I were driving home to get something, and driving back out, and we saw this guy past our road. My dad slowed down, and said, "Young man, would you like a lift? Where are you going?"

He replied, in Malay, "the train station." He slurred a bit, but was still understandable.
My dad said, also in Malay, "We have to go to our house first and get something, but if you wait here, we'll be right back and we'll drive you there."

So we did, and I got the door open for him. I watched him handle himself as he sat down first, folded his walker neatly, pulled it into the car right next to him, and he adjusted himself in as I closed the door on him. His movements were slow and awkward, to me.

When we were off again, my dad asked for his name, and if he didn't mind, what had happened?

His name was Nagarajan and he had been in a motorbike accident a couple years back. He had been on the highway, and a car had hit him. He was paralyzed for several months, and it was only recently in the past few months he was even able to move. Since then, he had been exercising himself to the point where he could walk and carry himself.

I forget the details, but I remember clearly him telling us that on the days he worked, Nagarajan walked two hours, from the bus station to the train station. In the hot, equatorial sun. It can get to 35'c in the afternoons. But he didn't mind; he liked being able to exercise; it made up for the months he couldn't move. My dad asked where he worked. He worked at the train station. In Malaysia, some of our public toilets have maintenance costs offset by collecting twenty sen from people who use it. Folks sit outside the toilet, at a small table, collecting the coins. Sometimes they make change. They also sell tissue paper. Nagarajan did this at the train station. He had been living at his uncle's, and since he had started being able to move, his uncle had been telling him to leave. He now lived with his mother.

When we got to the train station, my dad took a ticket from an Indian lady, and drove up to the wheelchair ramp which led directly to the toilet area. I opened the door for Nagarajan and he helped himself out and I closed the door behind him as he started his way towards his post, where two guys were already waiting. When my dad drove out, the lady at the ticket booth told him, next time, "don't bother getting a ticket, if you're only bringing him in." She knew who he was and knew my dad was just dropping him off, so she waved my dad away and lifted the bar for us without taking money (usually it's RM1.50 per entrance for an hour).

I've seen Nagarajan a couple more times after that. He's another person in the landscape, not a special super-tragic case, although my dad probably gives him rides whenever he's in the car and passing by. It makes me wonder about the community he has (our communities are quite separate, through race and class). I've always noted that the "lower", manual labourer working class to be somewhat closeknit compared to my middle-class community which can get very snooty.

Maybe when I go home this summer, I'll see him again.

When blogging was still a new and trendy thing, my brother was fond of reading one of them. I can't remember who it is, something like Xiao Xiao. She was a lifestyle blogger, apparently very funny. and she had such a huge readership, that she had ads on her site (new at the time!) and had a sponsorship from Coca-Cola or something, worth several thousand, or some ridiculously high amount like that.

However, a huge internet debate was sparked when she said she didn't believe that special measure should be taken for handicapped people, because it was too costly and wasted resources. Because of this, there was a general outcry, and she lost her sponsorship. My brother and some other fans of hers were upset about this, and he said she was just being reasonable - it IS expensive to make the accommodations and she didn't deserve to lose her sponsorship - which was a LOT of money - over saying that.

I remember disagreeing with him. However, I was also fifteen at the time, so while I knew what he was saying was wrong wrong wrongity wrong, I didn't know how to argue against economics. Which is what it feels like a lot of arguments about Malaysian-Chinese middle-class values boil down to. (My dad, bless him, is not really like this, although he did stress the importance of saving money as much as possible.)

If I had known then what I knew now, I would have countered the argument by demanding what the hell he meant that it was morally sound to deprive people of the right to mobility just because it would save some people money. I would have roundly condemned Xiao Xiao, and said that the decision made by her corporate sponsors to revoke the funds was the right one, because that sort of attitude is harmful. She had a huge platform and was one of the forerunners of lifestyle blogging, and that she espoused and helped entrench such a cruel attitude towards a group of people that had enough trouble already on her huge platform, likely helping other people justify their own ablist views, was simply unbelievable.

But I didn't because I didn't know how to. My dad didn't know how to counter the argument either. So we both said that it was wrong anyway.

Now I know why.

Government schools in Malaysia are, in retrospect, some of the most inaccessible places in Malaysia. Students have to climb stairs - there are no lifts. There are classrooms on the ground floor, where the science labs, art room, workshop, and staff room are, but most of them are on the first and second floors. I have never seen a wheelchair user in my school.

I do remember, however, that there was a boy in my school. He was in the form below me and he had to use crutches. As a result, the teachers accommodated him by assigning his class one of the classrooms on the ground. (Note to North Americans: In our school system, the students do NOT change classrooms for each subject. It's the teachers who move around. Thus, one would have the same classmates all the damned time, for an entire year.)

I would see this boy, his crutches strapped to his arms, move slowly to his class. He was permitted to sit in the classroom while we were at assembly, and also during recess (we weren't allowed to be in class during recess). He was usually accompanied by a friend or two. I only remember this latter fact, because towards the end of the year, these friends were lauded during the school assembly for being such good friends, staying by his side when he needed them, helping him out throughout the whole year.

I always remember this as being in Form 2 when it happened, because the next year, I was in Form 3, meaning I was in the morning session (for upper-secondary students) and he in the afternoon session (lower secondary) , so I wouldn't have seen him around at all. The thing is, though, sometimes I remember it being around that dusky time before dawn when I visualize the memory of him. So if I didn't see him the next year, it might not have been because we were in different sessions, but because he had left the school, possibly for another, more disability-friendly school.

Many government schools are built as cheaply as possible with the assumption of a student population that is completely able-bodied. I actually do not know how students with disabilities in Malaysia get their education, but I do know they exist, and that they can find ways to get jobs. People with visible disabilities do not have much of a presence, although I can recall a columnist in a local paper who wrote extensively on disability issues, being a wheelchair user himself, but I don't recall if I ever read anything he wrote. They are on the periphery of consciousness, unless one directly works with them, and while I hesitate to say that they are ignored altogether, the truth is, they probably are by the general able-bodied public.

When assembly was over, we went on with our lives, and I guess we kind of forgot what had even happened that morning and who was lauded. We Malaysians are famous for our "tidak apa" attitude. Roughly translated, it means "no matter", and can also mean "no big deal," especially for things that inconvenience us that we feel we can do nothing about. It's often used when someone gets angry and someone else is trying to calm them down, to convince them that it's not worth getting worked up over and too concerned about. These days, it also signifies nonchalance, disregard and apathy.

Sadly, many of us have a "tidak apa" attitude towards disability as well.

But sometimes I think about my reaction to Xiao Xiao, and about the boy with the crutches and his friends, and about Nagarajan and how easily he becomes part of a working landscape with folks who support him, standing up when he approaches to let him have their seat for his shift. And it becomes more believable that we could, as a society and nation, change our infrastructure. It becomes a less impossible dream. 


  1. Yes, tidak apa just about sums it up. Good post, I enjoyed your observations.


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