By Rashiqah Annuar and Azeem Abu Bakar

Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, wearing mismatched socks at a cabinet meeting, marked World Down Syndrome Day on March 21 with a touching post on social media. He paid tribute to his niece Aisha, who despite suffering from Down Syndrome, is a “smart, funny, beautiful and confident public speaker”.

The minister’s comments commendably shifted the national spotlight to our disabled citizens at a time when most Malaysians are concerned about “bread and butter” issues ahead of the general election. Most of us know someone who is directly affected by disability, and government policy towards this important segment of the population needs much more public debate.

More importantly, Malaysians need to understand that people with special needs are just as capable as any of us, if not more so. The late Stephen Hawking was a leading physicist despite suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Hawking’s life is an inspiring example of what people with special needs can achieve, but it’s not the only one.

Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs were both were dyslexic. Even our very own athletes, Mohamad Rizuan Mohamad Puzi, Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli and Abdul Latif Romly, made Malaysia proud by winning gold medals in the Rio 2016 Paralympics.

The current government appears to recognise the need to nurture Malaysians with special needs. On March 20, Prime Minister Najib Razak launched Permata Kurnia, a programme that helps enhance awareness about autism in Malaysia and provides early involvement to help autistic children develop their potential.

What caught our attention was five-year-old Izz Imil Shahrom who joined the Permata Pintar National Gifted Centre in UKM. Despite being diagnosed with autism and hyperlexia at a young age, Izz is exceptionally good at solving mathematical and chemistry problems, which are mostly questions for secondary school students. Impressive!

We applaud programmes such as Kebajikan Rakyat 1Malaysia (KAR1SMA) and Permata Kurnia for empowering young children’s talents and capabilities. Everyone should be given an opportunity to live out their dreams and succeed regardless of their physical condition.

Nevertheless, real progress towards a truly inclusive society depends on a more robust policy framework and bipartisan political effort.

In the upcoming election, we urge contesting parties to offer real solutions to Malaysians with special needs. Recently, Pakatan Harapan’s chairman admitted that the opposition coalition’s manifesto policies about people with special needs were vague. Similarly, the PAS manifesto briefly mentions plans to establish a support system based on “the abilities and potential” of those with disabilities. This will not suffice!

We hope to find more concrete measures in the Barisan Nasional manifesto which has yet to be revealed.

The Organisation for National Empowerment (ONE) calls on all parties to offer specific and structured plans to assist this community. They need to explain how they will help in terms of training, income generation and support services for people with special needs.

Potential solutions need to make Malaysians with special needs feel included in society and able to participate in the economy just like any other citizen. There should also be an awareness campaign so that the public can understand the needs of special individuals. This is particularly important as with greater understanding and buy-in, everyone will self-initiate assistance to the community, above and beyond what has been provided by the government.

Even businesses, restaurants, and Uber are now hiring people with special needs. These initiatives are known to have increased the level of confidence of these individuals and have helped include them in the economy. This practice should exist in all entities, organisations, businesses, NGOs, and government bodies by default.

However, for this to be the norm, we need to continue educating everyone about the importance of creating an inclusive system for the special needs community. It will greatly help if parties competing in the elections show political will by assuring us specifically how they will go about doing it.

Every Malaysian should be given the opportunity to harness their abilities and talents. With the proper equipment, help and spirit, we can move #ForwardTogether to become a more compassionate and inclusive country where nobody gets left behind.

Rashiqah Annuar and Azeem Abu Bakar are members of the Organisation for National Empowerment (ONE).

Originally published on Free Malaysia Today on Friday March 27, 2018.