Amanda (Hwei Zen) Kong
Community Development Manager – Make it Right Movement
Diagnosed with congenital glaucoma at birth which resulted in visual impairment, Amanda champions the rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) in Malaysia. Amanda is the first blind woman to qualify as an Advocate and Solicitor of the High Court of Malaya and is also a frequent speaker and panelist on topics surrounding disability rights.
1. In a nutshell, please tell us a little about your career journey until this point.
I was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma at birth, causing blindness. I graduated with a Class I LLB (Bachelor of Laws) from the University of Liverpool, UK in 2015. I am a qualified but non-practicing advocate and solicitor in Malaysia. I choose a career in the legal field as I would like to advocate for and make a difference to the PWD community in Malaysia, given the accessibility barriers which hinder their full integration with society in various life aspects. Hence, I joined the Make It Right Movement (MIRM), the CSR arm of the BAC Education Group, the largest private tertiary education provider in Malaysia in 2019 as a Community Advocate for PWDs. My primary portfolio focuses on advocacy and promotion of PWD rights and welfare, where I curate and implement community development projects geared towards diversity and inclusion of PWDs in Malaysia. I was promoted to Community Development Manager in January 2022, and my portfolio expanded to include curating, overseeing and managing community engagement initiatives geared towards creating a sustained positive impact in accordance with the UN SDGs, which covers areas including poverty alleviation, women empowerment, promotion of child rights and welfare, mental health support and awareness and advancement of rights for refugee communities in Malaysia. As a PWD Advocate, I head the Disability Working Group of the Malaysian Bar Council Human Rights Community and is part of the Steering Committee of the Child Rights Coalition Malaysia (CRCM), focusing primarily on advocacy for children with disabilities.
2. Who is your role model and why?
I believe that life is a constant learning process, and one should learn from shared experiences and be adaptable and flexible. That said, I have many role models in life – either personally or professionally – and it is hard for me to narrow it down to one individual. I am grateful to the people who have supported me thus far throughout my personal and professional life, and I am glad that I am able to learn from them through their experience and channel their aspirations in life in achieving my life goals and make a difference to the community. Given the pick, I would say that my greatest personal role model is my Mum, Allison Won, who has shown me that life can be meaningful despite my disability. She perseveres as a parent with disability and ensures that I have the opportunity to integrate with society in general. For instance, she decided to enroll me at an integrated school instead of sending me to a school for the blind for my primary and secondary education, so that I have early exposure of interacting and socializing with people who are non-disabled. She dedicated her time to learn Braille and taught it to me at a young age, so that I was able to muster the basics before I enroll in primary school. She is also my biggest pillar of strength, my best friend who understood and supported me physically as my “eyes” and emotionally. I truly learnt a lot from this wonder woman!
From a professional context, my role model is the CEO of the Make It Right Movement (MIRM), Brian Lariche, who has extensive experience in community development and CSR consultancy. He has been my mentor and supported me in my professional development at MIRM. From a shy and introverted law graduate, I have learnt to develop my public speaking skills and build self-confidence, the 2 most essential skillsets of a Community Advocate. He also ignited my passion to champion causes that I believe in, and “walk the talk” by making a difference to communities in need through holistic and practical solutions that is sustainable in the short and long term. He empowers the MIRM team (myself included), who are 50% PWDs to tap into our potential, focus on our abilities and not disabilities and made reasonable accommodations by being adaptable and flexible to cater to our needs in ensuring that we are able to maximise our skillsets. I certainly learnt a lot from him – a well read and well-travelled individual with a turf of knowledge and community experience with dynamic ideas in enriching communities and transforming lives through community development and engagement!
“I would say that my greatest personal role model is my Mum, Allison Won, who has shown me that life can be meaningful despite my disability.”
3. What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken and what’s your greatest career achievement?
The biggest risk I took: pursuing a career in the legal field, a road less travelled by the blind community in Malaysia. My perseverance was awarded when I graduated
with a Class I LLB (HONS) from the University of Liverpool, UK. I was also the only blind female lawyer who has been called to the Malaysian Bar as an Advocate and Solicitor. I am truly grateful to Brickfields Asia College (BAC) and the University of Liverpool that provided me with the opportunity to pursue my higher education and bridge accessibility barriers by accommodating my needs to ensure that I was able to settle in and make the most out of my educational journey.
Biggest career achievement: joining the Make It Right Movement (MIRM) as a Community Advocate and subsequently Community Development Manager. It gives me joy to learn that I was able to make a difference to PWDs in Malaysia through community engagement projects, such as diversity and inclusion workshops, Disability Equality Training (DET), capacity building and professional workshop to help them transition towards self-sufficiency and advocacy via laws and policies to ensure that PWDs in Malaysia shift towards the rights-based model rather than the charity/welfare model.
4. In a short sentence – what would you tell your 18-year-old self if they could see you now?
Keep empowering yourself successfully.
5. How has your personal journey shaped the way you navigate your career?
Given the accessibility barriers I faced, especially in accessing education and employment opportunities, I realized that the PWD community in Malaysia are often left behind and discriminated. This stems from the stigmatization towards PWDs in Malaysia, and the lack of community awareness on the challenges faced by this community and the support they would require in order to fully participate in all aspects of life. Hence, breaking stigmas by “thinking out of the box” and removing accessibility barriers through practical and holistic initiatives should be the way forward in mitigating the current landscape to create an inclusive society in shaping a better tomorrow for the PWD community in Malaysia. I have dedicated my career towards this cause and will continue to do so, utilizing my life experiences to champion for a better future for the PWD community, because who better to stand up for the community than someone living within said community? I believe that this cause should be championed by the community for the community.
6. What is one myth or misconception surrounding disability that you want to see debunked?
PWDs lack the capacity to do anything themselves and need constant help/support from others. My personal experience: people usually start a conversation with my colleagues/friends when they want to enquire about my preferences for meals, how they can assist me when travelling, etc. They constantly worry about the “politically correct” term to address a PWD, for example, whether it would be appropriate to call a PWD “a disabled person” or “special needs individual” or “individual with special/different abilities’”. This made conversations with PWDs awkward, and lack of awareness on the needs of PWDs also made them “assume” that PWDs need constant support, whilst some PWDs are able to have a certain degree of independence and is fully capable of carrying out tasks or daily activities on their own.
“Keep empowering yourself successfully.”
7. How has connecting globally with people in other countries/regions influenced your thinking or approach?
Understanding the inclusive practices in other countries through exchange programmes and regional workshops enable me to design and adapt current practices in my country to cater to the needs of the PWD community. By choosing to complete my law degree abroad in the UK, I am able to experience firsthand the transitioning process towards living independently, as I left my comfort zone to experience living and studying as a PWD in foreign soil. This enabled me to understand the challenges faced by PWDs and figure out practical ways to mitigate these challenges, which I would then share with the community by encouraging them to take the first step by moving out of their comfort zone and realise their aspirations. Participating in global workshops/forums enable me to broaden my network and explore potential collaborations with international organisations to drive diversity and inclusion in Malaysia. My work at MIRM also enable me to do the same, given our network of over 200 local and global partners, whereby the biggest pillar champion is diversity, equity and inclusion of PWDs, focusing particularly on access to education, employment, information and technology, mobility, transport and other social aspects such as mental health and wellbeing.
8. How do you think driving inclusion in your country or region differs from other parts of the world? Are there unique challenges or opportunities?
Currently, PWDs are treated with sympathy rather than empathy, and there is still a long way in awareness-raising in breaking common stereotypes associated with this community, given the lack of understanding of the community landscape by society in general. PWDs are shown compassion instead of empowerment, hence the lack of independence on their part and the “entitlement” attitude that most of the PWDs in Malaysia find hard to break away from, given the way they are perceived and treated. Some are also reluctant to move out of their comfort zone and evolve with time, hence slipping through the cracks, especially in terms of information and technology in the context of the blind and visually impaired community. Besides, laws and policies governing PWDs in Malaysia should be redrafted (what I am working towards as the Head of the Disability Working Group under the Bar Council Human Rights Community), as the current legislation does not protect PWDs against discrimination and there is a blanket immunity against the government which protects them from any actionable claims by PWDs should there be an offence/accident which results in injury/loss. Hence, I would said that driving diversity and inclusion in Malaysia is an uphill battle, but it is possible in the long-term through sustainable initiatives and efforts by the government, NGOs and community advocates, working together with PWDs towards embracing equity and creating an inclusive society for all.
9. What are two pieces of key practical advice that you would give business leaders and allies to drive disability inclusion in business?
I) Practice empathy, not sympathy. Always look at the bigger picture – focus not on disabilities but look at what the person’s abilities. Empower PWDs to maximise their potential by providing reasonable accommodations to cater to their needs, be adaptable and flexible; do not support them purely based on compassion.
II) Keep an open mind and practice inclusivity – prepare to have open dialogues with PWDs to better understand their challenges and needs; ask them what they need instead of assuming the same.