Malaysians meaner towards children with mental disabilities, Unicef study shows

Nikhil, 8, and Janna, 12, participants of Unicef’s 'ThisAbility Makeathon 2017', at Petrosains, KLCC on October 5, 2017. Nikhil’s team developed a camera/iPad remote control assistive device, which can be fixed to a wheelchair. The assistive device allows a person with limited strength and dexterity to control a camera with a 360-degree turning circumference using an iPad and joystick. Janna’s team made a wheelchair hook, which allows a walking frame to be attached to the back of a wheelchair. — Picture courtesy of Unicef
Nikhil, 8, and Janna, 12, participants of Unicef’s 'ThisAbility Makeathon 2017', at Petrosains, KLCC on October 5, 2017. Nikhil’s team developed a camera/iPad remote control assistive device, which can be fixed to a wheelchair. The assistive device allows a person with limited strength and dexterity to control a camera with a 360-degree turning circumference using an iPad and joystick. Janna’s team made a wheelchair hook, which allows a walking frame to be attached to the back of a wheelchair. — Picture courtesy of Unicef

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 16 — A Unicef study in Malaysia showed participants displaying greater negativity and stigma towards children with behavioural, mental and intellectual disabilities than physically disabled ones.

The research by the United Nations agency titled “Childhood disability in Malaysia: A study of knowledge, attitudes and practices” noted that people were more likely to be accepting and responsive when they could clearly identify that a child had a disability, than towards a child with a “non-observable” disability that they found difficult to understand.

“Caregivers and service providers reported that children with behavioural disabilities were frequently perceived to be ‘badly behaved’ and children with mental disabilities were called ‘crazy’, ‘stupid’ or ‘clowns’ and were often mocked,” said the study released recently.

“One mother from Selangor suggested that she felt ‘lucky’ that her son who had cerebral palsy was ‘cute’ and did not have behavioural issues, so people were more accepting of him. Similarly, a mother of a child with Down syndrome in rural Selangor expressed gratitude that her child’s disability was ‘not the hyperactive ones’.

A knowledge, attitude and practices (KAP) survey in the Unicef research showed respondents were far more accepting of living in the same neighbourhood as a child with disabilities and for their child to have platonic or romantic relationships with someone with disabilities if the disability was physical, compared to mental and behavioural disabilities.

A total of 96.5 per cent of survey respondents said it was acceptable for their child to be best friends with a child with physical disabilities, compared to a child with behavioural disabilities (53.1 per cent) or one with mental disabilities (39.2 per cent).

On living in the same neighbourhood as a child with disabilities, 97.4 per cent of survey respondents reported that it was acceptable if the child had physical disabilities, higher than if the child had behavioural disabilities (72 per cent) or mental disabilities (57.8 per cent).

On the level of acceptability for their child to marry a person with disabilities, 72.1 per cent of survey respondents found it acceptable if their child’s spouse had speech disabilities, followed by hearing disabilities (69.6 per cent), visual (63.7 per cent), physical (60.7 per cent), learning (57.7 per cent), behavioural (24 per cent) and mental (13.1 per cent).

“In the qualitative data, ‘hyperactive’ children were similarly singled out as the least acceptable friends or playmates. An Islamic leader in Selangor explained, ‘To socialise there are no problems, but still it depends on the disabilities. Some of them [children with disabilities] are uncontrollable so in order to let them freely socialise, maybe in a controlled situation then yes. For the mentally retarded even the hospital is separating them, so why would we do any different?’” said the study.

The Unicef study observed that children with physical disabilities were more likely to have friends and to develop more positive relationships than their peers with other types of disability.

“That is me and my girlfriend and she is mute. I brought my girlfriend to see my parents. When my parents saw us, my parents got really angry, my father even had a pistol with him. My mother was also very angry; she was carrying a spatula.

“They cannot accept her because she has a disability. But my girlfriend is very cute and has two dimples, so I can accept,” said an adolescent without disabilities in a workshop in Kelantan, who illustrated and explained how his parents reacted to meeting his girlfriend with disabilities.

According to the research, stigma not only affected family members of children with disabilities, but also peers and service providers.

“It was clear that in mainstream schools, many students did not associate with their disabled peers or include them in activities because they were fearful ‘that they will be taunted for playing with the cacat’,” said the study.

Workers from community-based organisations (CBO) and rehabilitation also reported discrimination related to their work.

“One CBO worker explained that his family and friends were critical of his work with children with autism, and asked ‘They [children with autism] are crazy, why are you still with them, why do you still sit with them and face them?’ Another reported that members of her community thought she was ‘contagious’ because of her work with children with disabilities.”

The Unicef study ran from January 2016 to September 2016, comprising a quantitative knowledge, attitude and practices (KAP) survey among the general public and those with and without experience of children with disabilities, as well as qualitative methods like in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with key informants and stakeholders, and workshops for children and adolescents.

Data collection was conducted in Selangor, Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak. Eighty KAP surveys were administered in each of the four states with a total of 320 respondents.

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