Around the world in 54 weeks
Destination 6: Malaysia
A gentle voice greeted me on the phone. He was concerned about how I’d make my way to Kuala Lumpur’s suburbs. I jotted down his precise instructions on a boarding pass and stepped out to find Anthony Arokia. Every time I felt lost, a glance at my reincarnated pass brought me back on track. A couple of trains and a taxi ride later, I reached Assunta Hospital. Arokia found me in the lobby. He welcomed me with a smile and suggested we look for a quiet spot to chat. I found myself jogging to keep up with him. His wheelchair did nothing to slow him down. I, on the other hand, bumped into pillars and people till we reached a lobby. “How do your parents feel about your journey? They must worry about you,” he said. Arokia has an 18-year-old daughter and his concern mirrored my father’s dilemma.
As the president and founding member of ‘Mobiliti Malaysia’, a door-to-door transport service for people with disabilities, Arokia aims to bridge the gap between inaccessible public transport system and easy access to public places. The company provides a simple yet much-needed service for differently-abled people, a sort of freedom of movement. So far, Mobiliti has 850 registered users in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.
Arokia is also actively involved with more than 20 organisations advocating equality for citizens with disabilities. He has advised Paralympics committees, airline staff, civil servants and educational institutions on design, sensitisation to create a barrier-free society.
As I listened to him talk about the simple changes required in buildings, transport and public policies to bring differently-abled population into the mainstream, I realised I didn’t know many people with disabilities. All through school and university, I had one differently-abled classmate. She was a beautiful girl called Smitha, we were both 12 and she was marginally mentally challenged. Her mother fought the school system to keep her in a class appropriate for her age. And between Smitha’s desire to learn and her mother grit, she did just fine.
Arokia rued the indulgence of parents with differently-abled children. It was at 16, due to a septic lumbar puncture, that he became paraplegic. He stressed that, “you have to give children skills and confidence, not mollycoddle them. Tell them, they will be able to live rewarding lives, regardless of their disability”. He understands: his family had to make the transition from having an able-bodied son to one confined to a wheelchair. “It’s the environment that disables you. You can learn to overcome the physical challenges but what good is it if your environment is inhospitable?”
As our meeting drew to a close, he offered to drop me to the station. I shook his hand, trying to match his grip. I stepped out of his sweet ride and felt grateful for so much. And then it struck me… there really should be a lift or a ramp up to this platform.
Tithiya Sharma is on a year-long journey across the globe to find 100 everyday heroes — and hopefully herself — along the way