Mohamad Ridzuan Mohamad Puzi (left) and Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli (right) after winning their events at the 2016 Paralympics. Reuters pix

There were plenty of firsts for Malaysia at the recently concluded Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

For the first time in the history of our country’s participation at the Games, three of our athletes saw the Jalur Gemilang hoisted above the rest during the flag-raising medal presentation ceremony.

It was also the first time Malaysian competitors held the revered gold medal in the palm of their hands. An icing on the cake, the nation also watched for the first time a Malaysian woman winning a medal in the athletics competition at the Paralympics.

While the names of Mohamad Ridzuan Mohamad Puzi, Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli, Abdul Latif Romly and Siti Noor Radiah Ismail will forever be etched in our sporting folklores and history books, these achievements have clearly more than opened our eyes to not just our fellow Malaysians’ athletic abilities.

More importantly, perhaps for the first time, the entire nation witnessed the hitherto unobserved capabilities of disabled individuals in bringing our societies closer to one another.

For a fleeting moment, we did not see a cerebral palsied or an intellectually-challenged individual. All we saw was a group of talented Malaysians doing their utmost best to bring pride and joy to our beloved country.

Yet to be candid about it, how many of us were aware of these sportsmen and sportswomen’s existence before their accomplishments in Rio?

Although the Rio outing may have improved our views and our understanding of physical impairment, how much do we know of the daily challenges faced by the estimated three million people living with disabilities among us?

The World Health Organization's World Report on Disability states that more than a billion people in the world today experience disability, of whom 15 per cent of the world’s population or between 110-190 million experience “very significant” difficulties.

The report stated that: "People with disabilities have generally poorer health, lower education achievements, fewer economic opportunities and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. This is largely due to the lack of services available to them and the many obstacles they face in their everyday lives."

There is no denying the hard truth that people with disabilities face difficulties in accessing basic services such as employment, education and transportation.

Yet, each day around the world, people have and continue to overcome physical and intellectual disabilities to become icons and luminaries in their own rights.

Putting aside their limited motor skills, mental disorders, physical impairment or chronic diseases, individuals including Albert Einstein (learning disability), Vincent Van Gough (mental illness), Thomas Edison (learning disability and deaf), Beethoven (deaf), Stevie Wonder (blind), Nick Vujicic (born with phocomelia — without arms and legs), Robin Williams (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and of course, Stephen Hawkings (motor neurone disease) had unquestionably contributed greatly to their fields of study and chosen professions.

Back on our shores, while we have the Persons with Disability Act passed by the Parliament in 2008 to help regulate and protect the rights of disabled people, there is still a long way for us to go in terms of truly embracing this segment of society into our daily lives.

As appropriately pointed out by the Disability at a Glance 2015 report published by United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, “the right to work is fundamental to being a full and equal member of society, and it applies to all persons, regardless of whether they have a disability. A decent job in the open labour market is a key bulwark against poverty. It also enables people to build self-esteem, form social relationships, and to gain skills and knowledge.”

First off, we have clearly failed to achieve the earlier announced target by our government of having one per cent of the total civil service jobs to be allocated to people with disabilities.

Last year, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim expressed her concerns that only 3,741 people with disabilities had jobs in the public sector out of the country’s million-over civil servants back then.

Yet, it is not the responsibility of the government alone to provide the much-needed employment opportunities as the private sector must also play its part.

Unlike in the United Kingdom — which has made it mandatory for employers with 20 workers to have at least a three per cent workforce comprising disabled persons, and in Brazil where companies with more than 1,000 employees need to have at least five per cent of their staff from the disabled community — we definitely have a long way to go.

I am not saying Malaysians lack sensitivity towards the disabled.

Observing the multitude of special facilities such as ramps, elevators and toilets for the handicapped within many of our building amenities and public transportation services clearly shows that catering for the special community has been an enduring conviction by our developers and building facility managers.

What is lacking is the all-encompassing acceptance of these individuals into our workplace, education eco-systems and socio-economic environment.

Rolling off from our latest sporting feats, I am not aware of many academic institutions in the country that have set up an active sports and recreational programme for wheelchair-bound students.

Walking around some of these schools and universities, I have also not seen many offering specially accommodated toilets and rooms, let alone being equipped with the required tutors or having the necessary hearing, reading or learning aids for these students’ daily educational needs.

On the employment side, people with disabilities should be considered and treated the same as their able-bodied counterparts.

Although faced with specific limitations, these individuals unquestionably offer a wide range of skills, experiences and capabilities to the workplace.

An information technology expert need not be someone who ran the 100-metre race in 10 seconds and the legal adviser need not be able to jump 12m above ground level.

Yesterday, our Paralympians received a heroes' welcome from the prime minister and were later taken to the country's capital for a 10-kilometre parade.

They earned it and deserve our standing ovation.

With more than
15 years in journalism and a masters in Counselling Psychology, Azura Abas is always drawn to the mystery of the human mind and behaviours