THE first time I attended an international conference on disability, I was awed by the sheer number of disabled people gathered in a single place. Altogether, there were 3,500 participants from around the globe. It was the Disabled Peoples’ International World Assembly in Incheon, South Korea. I was invited to present a paper on Independent Living in Malaysia.
The moment I arrived at the venue, the Korea International Exhibition & Convention Center (Kintex), I spotted two rows of accessible parking spaces. There were at least 30 lots located near the main entrance of the building. This was a disabled driver’s paradise. I had started driving then and looking for a parking space back home was always a hassle. It was either misused by non-disabled people or none were provided.
The sprawling complex had several accessible toilets but it was obviously insufficient for this large number of people. I was most impressed that the organisers were mindful to ensure the comfort of participants by setting up 10 accessible portable toilets outside the building. That was the one time I never had to worry about not finding a toilet. They were clean, spacious and well-maintained.
Incidentally, I was invited to speak on Independent Living in Malaysia again at the Asean Disability Forum Conference held at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur earlier this week.
The participants were from member countries of the regional grouping. The floor where the ballroom and function rooms were located had only one accessible toilet. I had to wait for 30 minutes for my turn to use it.
I have no bladder control. When it is filled up, it will leak, which was exactly what happened that day. I had drank a little too much while making the presentation because my mouth was dry. This is caused by the medicine I take to treat my overactive bladder. The medicine is a two-edged sword. While it is supposed to reduce the frequency I need to urinate, it also makes me drink more to overcome the dryness in my mouth.
Fortunately, I was wearing adult diapers. I usually put one on when I am out and for moments like that when I am unable to get to a toilet in time. Ideally, my bladder should be totally drained every three hours with a catheter to prevent urine from flowing back to my already diseased kidneys and causing further damage. That is the reason I make sure I know where the toilets are in places that I go to.
I spend about 20 minutes emptying my bladder each time. With the amount of time I need, which is also the average duration required by my disabled friends, one toilet can only accommodate three users per hour. Using a public toilet for this length of time is not an issue normally but when there is a large concentration of people who need to use the same facility, it could turn into a messy situation.
Many accessible toilets in Malaysia are poorly designed, even those in luxury hotels and upmarket shopping malls. The most common mistakes are doors that open inwards, fixtures that cannot be operated by less functional hands, toilet bowls that are too low and mirrors that are too high. Other times, they are used as storerooms for cleaning utensils and chemicals.
I once asked a cleaner at a shopping mall why she kept mops, pails and detergents in the accessible toilet. She said that there was no other place for her to keep those items and promptly pushed them aside to let me in. Even then, I had difficulty using the sink. Bottles of detergents under it prevented me from getting close to wash my hands.
The most ridiculous installation in a toilet I ever came across was at a hypermarket in Penang. The flip up grab bar is useful for transferring from wheelchair to toilet and vice versa. It is installed on the wall parallel to the toilet bowl. In the case of the hypermarket, the bar was secured to the floor.
The sight was as frustrating as it was flabbergasting. Who in his right mind would do something like that? It has no function and is an eyesore to boot. The grab bar on the left should also be attached with the vertical bar placed at the front instead of at the back. Its purpose is for users to pull themselves up with it. I found out later that complaints to the management were disregarded and nothing was done to rectify the mistakes.
Toilet facilities are integral in a modern civilised society for privacy, hygiene and health purposes. It is even more crucial for disabled people with health issues. Designing and constructing one that is accessible is not difficult. All it takes is the understanding of why specific fixtures are needed and how they are used.
I hope that one day in the near future, the standard of accessible public toilets in Malaysia can be on par with those in Japan and Korea in terms of practicality in design, maintenance and cleanliness. Disabled people should not have to worry if the toilets at places we go to are usable. It would certainly make our time out more enjoyable.