The latest #RYTHMConnect episode tackled weaving inclusive mindsets into the fabric of society.
“The only disability is when people cannot see human potential,” said Debra Ruh, an American advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs).
This powerful statement served as the ideal opener by RYTHM Foundation’s Chairperson, Datin Sri Umayal Eswaran, to the latest episode of #RYTHMConnect, the Foundation’s online conversation series with partners, subject matter experts, and social activists on topics that matter.
Themed “Building A More Inclusive World” to commemorate Autism Awareness Month, the all-inclusive conversation hosted by Datin Sri Umayal tackled weaving inclusive mindsets into the fabric of our society.
Guests at the most recent #RYTHMConnect episode were Anne Sivanathan, Secretary of the National Autism Society of Malaysia (NASOM); Mohd Adli Yahya, Founder of the Autism Café Project; and Malou Caluza, deputy chairperson of QNET, the e-commerce subsidiary of the QI Group. RYTHM is the social impact arm of QI.
The discussion zoomed in on how we can become a more inclusive society, whether in schools, the workplace, and our communities. The dialogue was all the more fascinating for the personal anecdotes by Adli and the Hong Kong-based Malou, each a parent to a son with autism.
Datin Sri Umayal asserted that a more inclusive world where every individual’s potential is recognised and nurtured is needed.
“Accessibility benefits everybody, not just the differently-abled,” she said. “Autism acceptance emphasises that autistic individuals deserve welcoming communities, inclusive workplaces and schools, and equal opportunities.
“It also encourages us to celebrate autistic individuals just as they are and learn to be more accommodating to their behaviours and needs. So, let’s help change attitudes and create a society that works for autistic children and adults, or ‘superpowers’ as I see them.”
The speakers were candid in defining inclusion from their own experiences.
“To me, inclusion is a rights-based value,” Anne said. “If we have this value regardless of who we are, we will start thinking about the rights of children and young adults with different abilities.”
Malou echoed the sentiment. “I see inclusion as a community where everyone is recognised and matters regardless of their abilities, and the same opportunities exist for everyone,” she said.
“From my son Luqman’s perspective, inclusion is a vehicle for him to move forward in his life,” Adli said. “I want him to enjoy his life, do the things we all do and live to the fullest.”
Adli added that acceptance and inclusion were far from realities in Malaysia. “If Luqman applies for a government or private sector job (with typical individuals), who do you think wins?
“When they need to lead their own lives, who will give them the opportunities? And if there are opportunities, will they be enough?”
As an advocate of inclusion for the past 25 years, Anne said preparation for the transition process should begin early for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
“Such things should start when assessed (at a young age) to determine their disorder. Then, start with early intervention programmes and strength identification so it won’t be a problem when they join the workforce,” Anne explained.
With RYTHM’s push for education for children of all abilities, Datin Sri Umayal noted a result of recent research by Malaysia’s Universiti Malaya for the Foundation. “The initial findings focused on the mindset and attitude of teachers, some of whom said they can’t handle the differently-abled and that they slow (typically-abled) kids down.”
Estimates put one in 100 children worldwide born with autism, with the disorder prevalent across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
The differently-abled make up 15% of the world population, totalling about a billion people. Yet, they are left out of society in many ways.
In addition, studies estimate that the unemployment rate for autistic people is 85%. Roughly two out of three people with autism do not have jobs, preventing them from fulfilling their potential. Inclusion in society has never been more critical than it is now.
The speakers suggested that civil society plays a more functional role in acceptance and inclusion.
“Awareness is one thing, but acceptance is another. You don’t have to be best friends with the differently-abled but at least understand them,” Anne said.
“You can learn about autism from a book, but nothing beats the experience of being with them,” Adli chimed in. “At the café, I encourage undergrads to volunteer with us because they will be the CEOs and CFOs of the future.
“Understanding those with autism and other disorders from a young age paves the way for a better future for the differently-abled.”
Malou offered her take on an aspect of her son Erwin’s journey. “We need teachers and places that honestly support them by spending time with them. The teachers who made a difference for Erwin were the ones who took the time to know him and understand his abilities.
“Erwin learned to swim and even competed in special games because one coach noticed he loved the water. We need people like this who will not judge them,” she related.
Adli said the Autism Café, which employs eight individuals with autism, had proven that the differently-abled are productive. “Our team creates meal packs and can bake. So, if you have looked at them as needing help, the differently-abled are now helping others. Creating the opportunities for them is our responsibility.”
Within this context, Datin Sri Umayal referred to a World Bank finding that social inclusion improves how individuals and groups participate in society and how it enhances the ability, opportunity and dignity of those disadvantaged based on their identity.
“People tend to perceive individuals on the spectrum or other disabilities as entirely dependent on others and lacking the ability to contribute economically or socially,” she added.
The panellists offered the audience some insightful takeaways.
“As Mahatma Gandhi said, we must be the change we want to see. So, let’s not talk if we are not ready to make a change,” Anne said.
Malou suggested that parents persevere in advocating for their specially-abled children.
“One of the greatest things you can do is advocate for them and not be afraid. Do not be discouraged from asking all the questions even if people look at you differently and give you stares.”
Datin Sri Umayal concluded the talk with a quote by Pete Wharmby, an autistic speaker, writer, and advocate. “More than simply being aware of us, we want people accepting us for who we are and appreciating us for our difference.”
She added, “We must all respect, embrace and include the differently-abled in our lives. They are all superpowers, and we must help them achieve their potential. We are all humans capable of showing everyone love, kindness, compassion, and patience.”
Watch the ‘Building A More Inclusive World’ discussion in the video below:
Autism – also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) ̶ constitutes a diverse group of conditions related to the development of the brain. Characteristics may show in early childhood, but autism is often not diagnosed until later.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), societal attitudes and the level of support provided by local and national authorities are essential factors determining the quality of life of people with autism.
“Autistic people are often subject to stigma and discrimination, including unjust deprivation of healthcare, education and opportunities to engage and participate in their communities,” WHO says.
Moving from awareness to inclusion is essential to creating an accessible world for the autism community. Here are some tips to make autism acceptance and inclusion going:
Focus on strengths instead of challenges. It is easy to focus on the challenges that an individual with autism faces, but shifting that focus to their strengths can have an impact – even in employment. “If you hone in on their abilities, that could open a whole new world for the differently-abled. They have shown they can be productive individuals if you give them the opportunities,” says The Autism Café’s Adli.
Include neurodiverse individuals in your circle. Although autistic and non-autistic individuals have different social world views, sincerity and compassion can foster a valuable bond. Experts suggest taking the time to get to know them and being around them as much as possible. They also recommend that neurotypical friends practice patience, communicate clearly, and not treat people with autism like a project.
Show your support through advocacy. Spreading the word about how to take steps for acceptance and inclusion helps continue to grow the environment that supports people with autism. “It is not just about supporting someone with autism by wearing a t-shirt, although that is a good conversation starter,” says NASOM’s Anne. “We need the power of young people with their social media strength. They are the game-changers,” adds Anne, who is also CEO of the inclusion programme, The Inclusive Outdoor Classroom.
Don’t dismiss, but learn and educate. Are you wondering how you can explain a differently-abled child’s unique behaviour to your child? “Understand the disorder before you attempt to explain it to your child, says Anne. “Speak to that child’s parents saying, ‘I noticed your child is behaving differently. Can you explain why? I want to know and want my child to play with your child.’ Take that bold step or start reading up on disorders.”