Six myths about learning disabilities and OKUs


KUALA LUMPUR, March 21 ― The case of Ng Pei Ven who killed a motorist in a car accident after driving against the traffic flow on the North-South Expressway last week has exposed several myths among Malaysians about people with disabilities.

The 19-year-old’s exact disorder is not known, but she was reported to have an OKU card stating that she has “learning disabilities”. OKU is a Malay acronym for Orang Kurang Upaya, meaning a person with disabilities.

Ng was charged with drug abuse last Friday. Police reportedly found amphetamine in her urine sample.

Some social media users questioned how Ng could be a part-time model and how she could get a driving licence if she was a person with disability. Some also said she did not “look” like a person with disability.

To dispel the myths about learning disabilities, Malay Mail Online spoke to clinical psychologist Dr Chua Sook Ning, mental health advocate Hasbeemasputra Abu Bakar, and Aezza Masri, a 39-year-old woman whose family members have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

1. Learning disabilities and ADHD are the same

Dr Chua, who is also founder of mental health community organisation Relate Malaysia, said specific learning disorder covers impairments in reading, writing and math.

“It's more about difficulties in using academic skills. It has nothing to do with how someone looks like, or inattention or anything,” she said.

Dr Chua said specific learning disorder and ADHD are completely separate disorders and questioned the speculation and unconfirmed statements that Ng could have suffered from ADHD.

ADHD is categorised under neurodevelopmental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5), along with specific learning disorder, intellectual disability, communication disorders, autism spectrum disorder, and motor disorders.

2. People with disabilities can’t drive

Dr Chua said it was fine to have a careful evaluation of people with certain risks, but expressed concern about the stigmatisation of mental disorders and blanket statements that people with OKU cards shouldn’t drive.

“That's jumping the gun and unfair for many people,” she said.

According to the clinical psychologist, a 1993 US study that claimed that people with ADHD were almost four times more likely to get into an accident has not been replicated in more recent studies.

Dr Chua cited a 2013 Norway meta-analysis of 16 studies that rebutted the 1993 study.

The Norway study found that ADHD drivers had a relative risk of 1.23 when controlling for “exposure” (i.e.: the distance one has driven, which is an important factor as ADHD drivers tend to drive more than non-ADHD drivers), the exact risk for drivers with cardiovascular diseases.

Mental health advocate Hasbeemasputra said people with mental illnesses or learning disabilities could drive as well as those without, but noted that some conditions may require additional safety checks or a different format of testing before getting a driver’s licence.

“I am unsure about Malaysia, but in the US, those with ADHD may be given tests in a different format to minimise the inattentiveness. But this does not mean those with mental disorders or learning disabilities don't or can't drive as well as anyone else,” he said.

3. People with disabilities can’t work (like modelling)

Hasbeemasputra, who has Type II bipolar disorder, said he has been holding down the same job for over three years. He manages a coworking space.

“Having a mental illness or a learning disability, like gender and ethnicity, shouldn't be a barrier for gainful employed. I haven't been job hunting in a while, but I have come across stories of discrimination against persons with disabilities, so let’s see how it goes when I go back into the open job market.

Hasbeemasputra Abu Bakar says the government should remove reservations to the United Nations’ Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities. — Picture courtesy of Hasbeemasputra Abu Bakar

“But, people with mental illness and/or learning disabilities have been presidents, prime ministers, mathematicians, scientists, models et al,” said the 43-year-old, citing former UK prime minister Winston Churchill who had depression, and actors like the late Carrie Fisher, Catherine Zeta Jones, Russell Brand and Stephen Fry who have bipolar disorder.

Aezza Masri (pen name) has dyscalculia (difficulties learning math) while her husband has ADHD. Their six children have been diagnosed with ADHD, dyscalculia and also dyslexia (reading difficulties) but she said she encourages her children to do what they like and to do their best.

“My ADHD daughter is currently into drawing and creative writing. She’s frequently asked by her teachers to recite poems in school events. Well, I cannot blame her because the talent seem to run in the blood. I myself started writing radio drama scripts and some song lyrics since secondary school before,” said Aezza.

“In fact, we have a lot of public figure(s) with learning disability such as Adam Levine, Robin Williams, Tom Cruise, Howie Mandell and they are very famous people worldwide. If the world can accept them. Why not us here in Malaysia?” she added.

4. People with mental illnesses/ learning disabilities are lazy, stupid, violent

Aezza said the most hurtful misconception was believing that people with learning disabilities were making excuses because “we don't look like a typical OKU”.

“The people with learning disability are often mistakenly regarded as least compassionate, lazy, bad, rude and stupid. There are people who think that people with ADHD don't care about others because they don't seem to pay attention on things being said to them,” she said.

Hasbeemasputra said the most dangerous myth was that people with mental illnesses were more prone to violence.

“But it's actually the other way round. Statistically, people with mental disorders are more often subjected to violence rather than perpetrators of violence, besides being more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged,” he said.

5. OKU cards are only for those with physical disabilities

Aezza said one can get an OKU card if one has learning disabilities, which is normally used for education purposes.

“Children with ADHD needs to be taught with special methods of learning. There were nasty rumours that some apply to get allowance from the Social Welfare Department of RM150 per month. What people failed to understand is that amount was nothing compared to what we have to spend monthly for education, medication, therapies and other expenses we have to provide our children of ADHD,” she said.

According to Hasbeemasputra, the OKU card is an identity document issued by the Social Welfare Department to those who have registered as a person with a disability.

“It serves as an identifying document in OKU-related transactions with government bodies and GLCs (government-linked companies). Some disabilities will get certain types of affirmative action, depending on the disability.

“So if you have a physical disability, you can get rebates on road tax renewals for your OKU registered vehicle ― just present the OKU card to JPJ [Road Transport Department] when you deal with them. My medication and treatment for bipolar disorder is subsidised by the same mechanism, but I don't get rebates from JPJ because I am not a physical OKU,” he said.

6. Just deal with it and try harder

Dr Chua said Malaysia needed to have better support systems for children with learning disabilities.

“If someone is not doing well in school, consider they may have a learning disability and have assessments for the child. Because of our low numbers of school psychologists, learning disabilities aren't assessed,” she said.

She also called for students with learning disabilities to be given more time to complete an exam or assignment, as well as extra coaching.

“Given correct accommodations like extra time or extra coaching, they can succeed. They can be very successful in their chosen skills,” she said.

Hasbeemasputra urged the government to remove reservations to the United Nations’ Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which according to the Malaysian Bar, were Article 3 (general principles), Article 5 (equality and non-discrimination), Article 15 (freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment), Article 18 (liberty of movement and nationality) and Article 30 (participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport).

“Removing our reservations to the CRPD would go a long way in creating a safer ethical and legal space for persons with disabilities,” he said, describing the reservations as effectively making people with disabilities “second class citizens”.

He also urged employers to recognise mental illnesses as medical conditions and said they should be covered by health care plans.