[WATCH] A new political journey for Kevin Cutajar

Gozitan MP Kevin Cutajar is no newcomer to politics but inside the House he is Malta’s first blind MP. He wants to be a beacon of hope for those like him

At age 13, Kevin Cutajar lost his eyesight following a sickness. He says he endured the trauma of losing his eyesight for five years until technology enabled him to be able to read texts and pursue his studies // PHOTO JAMES BIANCHI
At age 13, Kevin Cutajar lost his eyesight following a sickness. He says he endured the trauma of losing his eyesight for five years until technology enabled him to be able to read texts and pursue his studies // PHOTO JAMES BIANCHI
A new political journey for Kevin Cutajar

As a young man, Gozitan MP Kevin Cutajar would ask friends and volunteers to tape-record a reading of his textbooks.

Blind at the age of 13, following an illness, the Ninu Cremona Junior Lyceum student saw his world come to an end, enduring a trauma which he says, lasted five to six years – an even greater challenge than losing his eyesight.

Still in his teens, with facilities for the disabled woefully wanting, Cutajar found solace when a software company developed a programme that could read electronic texts, allowing him to conclude his secondary education and overcome a crucial milestone in his development despite the trauma of his blindness.

In the misfortune he faced, this technological silver lining was soon becoming the blueprint of all digital advancement. “When I finished my studies, technology advanced, and the use of talking computers, laptops, electronic texts started becoming the norm,” the 40-year-old lawyer, who prior to his degree in laws also read for an honours degree in Italian and German, says.

“Disability has taught me that every challenge is there to be overcome,” he says.

Indeed, Cutajar had to be destined for greatness: at a young age, he is already a PN ‘veteran’ on the Xaghra local council, re-elected through three terms, ran for the MEP elections in 2014, and only recently co-opted to the House of Representatives to take up the vacant seat of David Stellini. And it was in sheer controversy that the seat became the hotly-contested prize for the PN’s rival factions, with party leader Adrian Delia’s supporters in the PN executive narrowly winning a first vote for Jean Pierre Debono, before the election was nullified.

Cutajar was awarded the seat by acclamation after Debono withdrew from the contest due to shortcomings in the executive committee’s vote.

Cutajar has described his co-option as simply the will of the electorate. “The electorate was clear. Following David Stellini’s election, it was Kevin Cutajar’s time to step into the role,” he says.

“If I can relay the message that disabled people can still succeed in politics, the better. I don’t find anything wrong with delivering that message… This is not my first experience in politics. The starting point should be that you enjoy what you are doing and that is the message I want to send to young disabled people.”

Already in 2014, Cutajar, then running for MEP, had candidly written about how the “blind candidate” had to be even more careful than any other candidates because his inability to see could put him in embarrassing situations. Writing in The Malta Independent, he acknowledged the importance of form in politics, but insisted that substance was fundamentally important. “A blind candidate must always ensure that he is prepared and well-informed before appearing in any media, precisely as in the case of any other candidate.”

A founder member of the Gozo Aid for the Visually Impaired, which is run by blind people, Cutajar walks to the House of Representatives unaccompanied. His walking stick plots out his immediate course yet the young MP’s trajectory is one of straight lines and sharp turns, a topography charted inside his mind. Cutajar is no token MP, yet he will arguably be expected to give the disabled the stronger voice they deserve inside the House, even though he says his new role goes beyond simply proving himself.

“All I want to do is show that a disabled MP can work as regularly as any other MP, without everything done by the disabled person in parliament being hailed as some extraordinary effort,” Cutajar said. “The focus should not be on me, but on my contribution to improving the community as a whole.”

The Renzo Piano parliament in Valletta will not be restrictive to Cutajar’s mobility, even though the newness of the building may not be entirely adapted for everyone. “Accessibility varies according to disability, and so accessibility for a person in a wheelchair is different from someone who is blind, but adaptation procedures are slowly rolling in and we are on the right track,” he said.

Asked if the introduction of personal assistants for people with disability should be considered in parliament, he said that he is in favour of assistance as long as it does not lead to dependence.

“Similarly, to other aspects of a disabled person’s life, I believe that independence should be the ultimate goal, and if such assistance leads to individuality, yes, I am in favour,” he said.

The debate on persons of trust aiding disabled people while voting was also a missed opportunity for political parties who still fear abusive practices by those accompanying persons with a disability inside the polling station.

Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that countries should guarantee the ‘free expression of the will of persons with disabilities as electors and to this end, where necessary, at their request, allowing assistance in voting by a person of their own choice.’ Malta is yet to introduce such rights, with disabled people willing to vote but unable to, being aided by commission representatives.

Cutajar blamed the inability of parties to introduce these rights on the prevailing mentality towards disabled people reigning in Malta. “We still have this attitude towards people with disability that they should be protected. Yes, we are disabled, but that doesn’t mean we will be necessarily abused of. If I chose the wrong person to trust, then the responsibility is mine. Nobody should have the right to dictate that for me.”

“There is always a chance of getting abused of, and that would be another obstacle I could overcome. We have our intelligence, we have our will and we have the capacity to think. Give us the chance to prove ourselves, and we will show you,” Cutajar, who filed court action on the issue in 2006 against the government and the Electoral Commission, says.

Cutajar doesn’t want to stop there. “I would go on to say that we should push towards electronic voting, where through an electronic system the voting options can be read out to you. I can’t understand why the country is dragging its feet on the issue.”

More in National