(File pix) Mohamad Ridzuan Mohamad Puzi of Malaysia celebrating after winning the men’s 100m T36 at the Rio Paralympics. AFP Photo

THE Paralympic Games is the world’s biggest sporting event for athletes who have impairment of movement, muscle power and vision as well as learning disabilities.

Referring to the athletes as “disabled” is not a true reflection of their fighting spirit.

For example, the four visually-impaired Paralympic runners in the 1,500m race had just beaten the timing of the Olympic champion last month.

The extraordinary achievements of national athletes Mohamad Ridzuan Mohamad Puzi, Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli and Abdul Latif Roml in clinching gold medals, breaking world records and setting new Paralympic records are a testament to what human power can achieve despite limitations, and suffering from intellectual disabilities and cerebral palsy.

The trio brought glory to the country as Negaraku was played for the first time at the Olympic podium, not once but thrice, and all in a day.

Simply put, it took three gold winnings for the nation to take notice of our Paralympic athletes.

Many have written to say that the trio deserve monetary prizes.

Well, if they have to put in double or triple the effort of able-bodied athletes, then shouldn’t the rewards also be doubled for them?

In fact, past and present Paralympians, including past silver and bronze winners, should be given recognition that is long overdue.

Coaches and trainers need to be rewarded for having nurtured special talents without inhibitions.

According to the 2014 Unicef report, there are 445,006 persons with disabilities registered in Malaysia (this does not reflect the actual number) and 29,289 children with disabilities registered as of 2012, with seven categories of disabilities: hearing, visual, speech, physical, mental, learning difficulties (such as autism, dyslexia, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and multiple disabilities.

The Persons With Disabilities Act protects the rights of people with disabilities (PWD) to have access to public facilities, transport, education, information, employment, recreation, sport, healthcare and other humanitarian aspects. There is no national policy for children with disabilities.

Though on paper it may appear good, the reality proves otherwise.

Not all government offices, private buildings and eateries have ramps to facilitate wheelchair-bound people, or toilets designed for people with physical limitations. Not every bus is fitted with ramps.

PWDs are also not the first choice for employers, and many have to turn to other options to obtain a living, including becoming street musicians, selling handicrafts or meals in stalls, which is also evident in the lives of our Paralympic athletes.

Back then, there was not much social awareness in schools on how to respect peers with disabilities or who appear different from the rest.

During my schooling years, we were given forms seeking donations for the Spastic Children’s Association, which provided services to children with cerebral palsy, and we got a car sticker in return, without knowing what it was all about.

There was a school for the deaf next to my primary school in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, but we never visited them. It was through sharing insights with family members, and reading and encounters that I began to have a better understanding about this people, who were no different from us.

Only few schools enrol visually impaired students, and it was during my Form Six year in a school in Kuala Lumpur that I had firsthand experience mixing with students who were visually impaired, but excelled in studies and sports.

These students were attended to by trained teachers. Inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream schools foster unity, promote acceptance of people with different needs and overcome discriminatory reactions.

But how many schools have teachers trained to handle special children or cater to children with different learning needs?

Do schools have inclusive programmes to enable children to work together?

Not all parents can afford to send their children with disabilities to special education schools or learning centres.

The Unicef report has identified that mainstream schools lack qualified teachers, professional support, tailored curriculum, disabled friendly facilities and technological devices, for a smooth delivery of education to children with special needs.

Many of us would have come across table calendars and greeting cards designed by mouth and foot painting artists. These are special talents often left unnoticed.

There are many national bodies, councils, associations and support groups that provide services and work for people and children with disabilities.

However, there needs to be a shift from a charity perspective to a more inclusive one recognising the rights of PWDs.

We grew up learning about the achievements of famous personalities who overcame their disabilities, including Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller and Beethoven.

We also grew up being told that those children with special needs are special creation of God with immense talents, but as a society, are we giving them the opportunities to live a dignified life, let alone nurture their potential to excel?

S. MATHANA AMARIS FIONA,

Puchong, Selangor