Q&A: Anthony SB Thanasayan: “We have a disability act but it’s got no bite at all”

Author: PM editorial | Date: 20 Jan 2016

Petpositive’s founder on job opportunities for wheelchair users in Malaysia

Anthony SB ThanasayanAnthony SB Thanasayan is a disabled rights campaigner and founder of Petpositive – a non-profit organisation which offers animal-assisted therapy for the disabled and elderly. Now in his early fifties, he has been a wheelchair user since the age of 14 and says that while things have marginally improved for wheelchair users in Malaysia during his life, there is still so much more that can be done. He spoke to People Management about what Malaysian employers can do to reach out to the country’s disabled workforce.
Are organisations in Malaysia are doing enough to encourage job applications from people with disabilities?
Definitely not. They say they are, and there have been some efforts made, but they are missing the point. When they talk about job opportunities, they don’t really look into transportation. A lot of disabled people can’t leave their houses to get to work. It’s too expensive to take a taxi and it’s virtually impossible to go by bus.
 
A lot of people in wheelchairs are not qualified because they haven’t been to school. The schools are not wheelchair accessible, so they can’t get an education. The government really needs to improve their skills, give them proper education, look into home tutoring and send people over to their houses and teach them how to use a computer.
 
Accessibility in the workplace is also bad. The toilets are not accessible, there are steps to go up and down. We expect people to help us, and they will try their best but in the end they will tire out. Organisations really need to make their buildings accessible so that people can go to work by themselves and go home by themselves.
 
Even the incentives they give disabled people to go to work are far too low. They give a monthly allowance of RM350, which is just too low to support a person to go to work.
 
So it’s a problem that starts from an early age?
Yes, the government has promised to make primary schools accessible. Some of them are now but most still aren’t - so they are not keeping their promise.
 
The government should subsidise the price of computers for disabled people who want them, so they are not some fantasy toy. And they should teach them how to use them.
 
Does having a wheelchair make it significantly harder to find a job in Malaysia?
Yes. A lot of blind people have been able to get masters degrees but you will rarely find, in fact are almost no people in wheelchairs who have studied at higher learning institutions. And it’s because there is no access.
 
Does the government have any programmes or schemes in place to make buildings more accessible?
They do, but they aren’t serious enough. I don’t see any effort by the welfare department to engage with the local councils and work with them. It’s the local council’s job to change the environment and make the pavement accessible and make the buses accessible, and to make buildings accessible.
 
How does Malaysia compare to other countries in terms of wheelchair access?
We have improved, but Singapore is the leader. They have done a lot of good things and much more than in Malaysia. Malaysia can do a lot more but it’s about priorities. We [the disabled] are not a priority – we are some kind of charity group. [Physics professor] Stephen Hawking visited Malaysia many years ago and we talked about how great he is, but they fail to realise what helped make him great – the facilities, the computer.
 
We have a disability act but it’s got no bite at all. It’s not enforced and if we have a problem, we have to get media attention: go and see a minister, then the minister will come in like a hero and try to save the day.
 
I would like to see disabled ministers, or ministers with disabled relatives, because that’s what it takes to get change. Even our car parking spaces are stolen by rich customers driving BMWs or Mercedes-Benz and the shopping complexes don’t want to do anything about it because they are seen as important customers.
 
Are there places employers can go to for advice if they want to make their workplaces more wheelchair accessible?
There are some organisations I’ve worked with which are making buildings accessible and employ the disabled. But we get compartmentalised, and people think we can only work at certain places. If companies really want to make a positive change, they must go to the disabled organisations and talk to people with disabilities, listen to their problems, and come up with solutions.