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Celebrating neurodiversity – but do we even know what it is?

Disabled and neurodivergent individuals are just like us: they only want to be treated the same way as their fellow human beings

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For many months now, our nation has been in partial or almost full lockdown, with many hoping that all will end well and the nation will gradually return to normalcy.

While our politicians and many other long for our ‘normal’ lives to resume, some of our fellow members of society have almost never felt what it is like to be ‘normal’ or even to fit into our neurotypical society. They are members of the atypical – or better known as the neurodiverse – community.

This is a community of people who have dyslexia, dyspraxia (a neurologically based physical disorder) or ADHD or they are on the autism spectrum or have other neurological functions.

More often than not, they have been discriminated against and omitted from our typical social structure. If ordinary people have already felt overwhelmed by their inability to cope with the pandemic and the never-ending lockdowns, we can only imagine what it is like for the neurodiverse community.

In truth, many of the atypical community have been left formally undiagnosed due to a lack of awareness and some degree of denial by their ‘normal-behaving’ families until they reach adulthood.

Fuelled by this widespread lack of awareness, those in the atypical community frequently struggle to navigate within our typical way of life.

As part of Aliran’s effort to be inclusive, we recently teamed up with the neurodiverse community to foster and promote awareness. An online forum was held on 9 July 2021 (8pm – 9.30pm) with the aim of enlightening participants on the existence of such individuals and how ‘normal’ individuals could help make atypical individuals less left out.

Five panel members were invited to provide insights on the current state of neurodivergent individuals in Malaysia and how the education system can help such individuals to become self-sufficient.

The forum, divided into two sections, kicked off with burning questions directed at the neurodivergent panel members. The speakers agreed that little support was provided to them in the past, and the vicious cycle remains: they are deprived of career opportunities and thus are unable to live independently in Malaysian society.

In the second section, Dr Low Hui Min, a speech-language pathologist, maintained that the government has to reform the current education system and discard the one-size-fits-all approach to disabled students.

Neurodiversity manifests itself differently in different people. Hence, neurodivergent students should receive an education based on their abilities and traits rather than being boxed into a common education category.

Dr Low stressed the need for them to adapt to society, but accommodations must first be put in place for them.

During the feedback session, it was apparent that few people in society are aware of neurodiverse individuals. ‘Ableism’, a phenomenon which dictates that high-functioning neurodiverse individuals perform on par with typical individuals, was not widely known among the audience at the webinar.

The overall response from the webinar participants was encouraging: some said they had gained new knowledge about neurodiversity and the people who are dealing with it daily. They also expressed their willingness to reach out more to such individuals in the future. Although the forum lasted less than two hours, it left an impression on the audience.

The reality of the disabled and neurodiverse community still looks grim, with low employment, constant discrimination in the workforce, and society generally still refusing to acknowledge their needs.

Ableism has made its way to deceive us into using the term ‘differently abled’ as a positive term. But this term is just another way of perpetuating the ableist idea into the disabled community. By using the term differently abled, we choose not to acknowledge what the neurodiverse lack and we fail to accommodate their needs.

Disabled and neurodiverse individuals are just like us: they only want to be treated the same way as their fellow human beings.

But times are a-changing, tides are shifting and the voices of the disabled and neurodiverse individuals will only get louder as they reclaim their rights as fully fledged deserving members of the Malaysian community.

Ivan Ooi and Judy Fong are from the USM School of Educational Studies while John Fong is an Aliran executive committee member

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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