By Dr Donna McDonald, Convenor of the Disability Studies Program, School of Human Services and Social Work

A Las Vegas-style billboard with flashing neon bulbs spelling out my name and beaming my photo greeted me at the entrance of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), Kuching, Sarawak, when I arrived on 7 November to deliver a day-long series of seminars on disability services, disability rights and inclusive research from social work academics, students, representatives of local disability service providers and parents of disabled sons and daughters.

Associate Professor How Kee Ling, Director of the Centre of Excellence in Disability Studies, (UNIMAS), and author of “Indigenising Social Work: Research and Practice in Sarawak” organised the Kuching seminar following her visit to Brisbane in October where she delivered a keynote address on disability research at a social work symposium hosted by the University of Queensland. In her Brisbane presentation, Dr Ling spoke about the urban/rural divide in health services in Malaysia, thus drawing parallels with the Australian experience of difficulties in the equitable delivery of health services.

Dr Ling also observed that disabilities are conceptualised and understood very differently among the diverse cultural groups in Malaysia, which comprise two regions –Peninsula Malaysia, and Sabah and Sarawak located in the Borneo Island–and which have a population of 28.25 million people comprising Malays, Chinese, Indian, the indigenous groups Iban, Bidayuh; some 26 other groups in Sarawak, the Kadazan-Dusuns & Bajaus and many other smaller groups in Sabah.

Such culturally diverse approaches to disability also arise in Australia within our multicultural society and among remote Indigenous communities where other pressing priorities such as education and housing claim their attention ahead of disabilities. Consequently, on learning about my role as the convenor of disability studies in the School of Human Services and Social Work, Dr Ling invited me to Kuching to speak about Australian perspectives on disability.

Australian and Malaysian comparisons

The exuberant welcome in Kuching set the tone for the day during which the audience asked perceptive questions drawing out the comparisons between my Australian experiences with the local Malaysian experiences. One scholar who is blind challenged me on my discussion of the rise of the disability rights movement in the USA and Australia. “That’s fine in liberal democratic societies, but how do we make it happen here in Malaysia?” he asked.

Malaysia is a federal constitutional elective monarchy comprising thirteen states and three federal territories overseen by an elected king as head of state and an elected prime minister as head of government. While it is essential to be mindful of the implications of the different political systems, the Malaysian parents’ personal stories evoked the universality of loving pride in the achievements of their disabled sons and daughters in the wake of family struggle and hardships.

Associate Professor Ling and I will build on our partnership to improve the quality of lives of people with disability in our respective countries by continuing our exchange of experiences and identifying potential joint research projects. This is consistent with Griffith’s Asia Strategy and with the Federal Government’s Asian Century policy.