Monday, August 8

Of driving and public transportation

0

WITH the public transport system largely inaccessible to disabled people, we have to look for alternative modes of transportation. We are usually dependent on family and friends to take us out. That can be inconvenient as they have to apply for leave from work and there is only a fixed number of days off in a year that one can take.

Those of us who are severely impaired need assistance to get in and out of the car. As we cannot transfer independently, we have to be carried bodily and carefully manoeuvred onto the seat. With flailing limbs in tight spaces, this is a task that puts both the helper and disabled person at risk of injury. For a time my cousin had to do that every time we went out.

When no one is available to help us, we just have to stay at home or wait for weekends. But there is only so much we can impose on other people. They have their own lives, families and errands to take care of. Weekends are rest days and it would be insensitive and inconsiderate to expect them to sacrifice all their weekends for us. Therefore, for some of us, our trips out are mostly for medical check-ups and other essential appointments only.

Those with good hand function prefer to drive or ride a motorcycle out of necessity rather than anything else because it is the only way to move about. I am fortunate in the sense that I am able to get into the car with little help and drive even though I have weak hands.

Other than scrimping to pay for monthly instalments, petrol and maintenance, we have to deal with a series of other problems. The process for a disabled person to get a driving license and a car with a suitable hand control attachment is a tedious one. All these require great expense, effort and time to accomplish.

To apply for a learner driver license, the Road Transport Department (JPJ) requires that we fulfil several conditions. First, we need to get a medical report certifying we are fit to drive using a vehicle modified according to our physical abilities. Therein lies our first problem.

The hand-control kit allows a disabled driver to activate the accelerator and brake pedals via levers or cables. The models available locally are very limited. As far as I know, only three models are widely used in the country.

Each model caters to drivers with different degrees of hand function and can cost from RM2,000 upwards excluding installation. Therefore many of us do extensive research and ask friends who are driving first before even thinking of going for the medical evaluation, checking out if the car and the selected kit are compatible.

Getting the medical report is not a once-off affair. I had to go to the hospital three times to get the medical report: once to see the doctor, another to see the occupational therapist and the last to collect the report.

Next comes the search for a mechanic to install the kit after which it must be inspected and certified by the JPJ’s automotive engineering section and Puspakom. Two visits to the automotive engineering section are required, once to submit the application and another to collect it.

After that, the car has to be sent to Puspakom for an inspection. The final step is to submit the car registration card with the inspection certificate for endorsement by JPJ. When all that has been done only then can we think of taking driving lessons.

This process of getting a medical report to having the attachment approved by JPJ can take up to a year. Seeing how convoluted it can be, people with less patience and perseverance, and the resources to visit these government departments multiple times, would have given up halfway. This difficulty is also the very reason why some disabled people do not send their vehicles for certification.

I personally feel that the entire process can be simplified and the steps reduced. What was supposed to help us with our independence is being made difficult by bureaucracy and no consideration for the great inconvenience we have to go through.

To make matters worse, each time we change car, we have to go through the entire process of getting a medical report and certification for the vehicle from the JPJ all over again. The JPJ should listen to the grouses of disabled people in this matter by reducing the red tape and perhaps set up a one-stop centre where all required transaction can be expediently completed.

Disabled drivers holding the OKU card and a valid driving license are entitled to 100 per cent exemption on the excise duty for the purchase of one national car with the condition that it cannot be sold or transferred for a period of five years. Additionally, disabled drivers need only pay a nominal fee of RM2 per year for learner, probationary and competent driving licenses, and a nominal fee of RM1 for road tax per year.

Despite the difficulties I had to go through, I must say that being able to drive has vastly improved my quality of life. Where I would otherwise have to be stuck at home all the time, I am now able to travel all over the peninsula more conveniently for leisure and work.

Still, there were times when I wished I could use public transport. At the very least it will greatly reduce repetitive strain injury on my shoulders caused by transferring in and out of the car. The injury manifest itself as shoulder pain and may require surgery to correct at its worst and many more months of recuperation and rehabilitation afterwards. This is a problem that afflicts all long-term wheelchair users.

All said, driving cannot be a substitute for an efficient and accessible public transport where disabled people are concerned. Many of us cannot afford to own a car or do not have the capability to drive. I foresee the day when I too will not be able to drive any more due to the worsening condition of my shoulders. When that happens I will have to depend on buses and trains. That is why I am actively advocating for an accessible public transport system for my own sake and that of others who are in the same predicament.