By Jana Farook

Examine every aspect of the world around us, from the ubiquitous printed forms and written letters that must be filled in before any request or benefit is processed to the design of most buildings and roads and it is evident that the world is designed for the able. This puts anyone with a disability at a serious disadvantage. The cumulative impact of these disadvantages can reduce quality of life and even life expectancy.

However as I learnt from my visit to the Malaysian Association for the Blind, blindness does not determine capability nor does it cap potential in fact for a significant number of the blind, visual impairment is not the most central aspect of their identity. Moreover their blindness is as unique as their own divergent personalities, because contrary to popular belief blindness is not a binary with complete vision and complete blindness at opposite ends, rather it is a spectrum.  Not only are there degrees of blindness but there are also variations within that range for instance some may have blind spots but otherwise clear vision others may be blind but have color perception, movement or even form perception. According to the World Health Organization only 15.88% of people who are visually impaired, face complete blindness.

For most of us given how much we rely on our sight it is hard to envision with any authenticity living in a world without it. From the wordless gestures we use to communicate with each other such as body language and shared smiles to the other endless visual cues we use to gain information about our surroundings such as newspapers, books, road signs, maps, traffic flow & scenes, we are constantly relying on our sight. The blind however have to develop an alternate means of interacting with the world. This is where organizations such as the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) help by stepping in to provide tools that the blind need to reach their potential and live independent lives.

Major D.R. Bridges, a former soldier who was blinded in service, established the Malaysian Association for the Blind in 1951 with the vision of establishing an organization that would provide the visually impaired, opportunities to enjoy the same quality of life as the sighted, and enable them to participate in everyday society and life.

Today the MAB offers many different services and facilities for its members ranging from vocational training courses such as massage, computer programing and industrial work and woodworking courses to job placement services and braille-publishing services and a braille library, to ensure its members can gain access to all the latest textbooks and materials. It also offers sports and recreation services such as judo courses, gymnasiums, and Ping-Pong for its members.

Of these services one of the most significant in terms of helping the blind in rural areas participate in every day society is the “Community Based Rehabilitation” program, which consists of a home visit by the MAB to assess the needs of the individual concerned and the provision of onsite rehabilitation services and vocational training based on the initial assessment. The association also runs an in-house rehabilitation program whereby members from across the country are provided with food and board in order to attend and complete various training and rehabilitation programs at the Gurney Training Centre for The Blind, in Kuala Lumpur.

The organization is also engaged in advocacy programs that aim to increase awareness among the public, government departments and corporate organizations about the need for accessibility in built environments and the impact of this on the economic independence of the visually impaired. As part of this program the association has provided advice and checked the accessibility features of various projects such as KTM stations, Rapid KL stations and various other buildings and roads. It also offers training programs to help improve the level of service offered by frontline staff in organizations such as hospitals and airlines.

However just like many other NGOS the MAB suffers from a lack of financial resources. As an interview with Dr. Jacqueline Sarlah Emmanuel, the manager of the MAB’s Services Unit reveals, despite a significant grant from the government every year the organization still requires additional funding to maintain its services at current levels and to deliver new and additional services required by its members. The volunteer program run by the organization although an enriching and informative experience for its participants can only go so far in helping to alleviate the organization’s funding issues, because as even a cursory inspection of the MAB grounds will reveal it is in dire need of resources to upgrade it’s ageing infrastructure.

Despite these challenges it is clear that if Dr. Emmanuel is any indicator of what a MAB member is like the organization will survive. Her final words to us before concluding the interview and rushing off to deal with one of the many demands on her time is to remind us that sight is a gift to be valued and to take care of it. As one of the tens of thousands of Malaysians who have lost their sight due to causes such as diabetes, corneal and retinal disease she is well placed to speak on the issue.

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