THROUGHOUT the 28 years that I have been using a wheelchair, I have always faced significant problems whenever I am out and about. The built environment and public transport system in Malaysia are severely lacking in accessible facilities. That is the main reason I do not go out as often as I wish to.
The enactment of the Uniform Building By-Law 34A (UBBL 34A) has not changed the situation much. This by-law requires that public buildings built after it came into force provide access for disabled people. Buildings built before its commencement must be retrofitted with such facilities within three years.
More than 15 years after the by-law was gazetted by the various states, disabled people still face the same problems in public buildings. All the local governments, the bodies responsible for implementing the by-law, must take the blame for not strictly enforcing it after so many years.
While newer buildings having better facilities, they are far and few in between. Moreover, there is a lack of connectivity in the form of walkways and public transport between these buildings, making them “islands of accessibility in an ocean of barriers”.
In this respect, the UBBL 34A should ideally include the requirement for the street environment to be made barrier-free as well to ensure an uninterrupted passage from point to point. There should also be a law to make public transport accessible. At the moment, these two are the missing links in the circle of mobility that hampers the free movement of disabled people.
This is in sharp contrast to Japan where I spent two weeks attending training on independent living with two other wheelchair users from Malaysia. The infrastructure there was mostly barrier-free. The street environment, public buildings, trains, monorails and buses were all accessible to disabled people.
I could move from place to place conveniently without the fear of being stranded halfway. The two weeks there for me was like being in paradise. For the first time in my life as a wheelchair user, I experienced an unprecedented sense of liberation. I was like a bird suddenly set free from the confines of a small cage.
In the mornings, a van with wheelchair lift would pick us
up from the apartment where we were staying to take us to the Human Care Association in the city of Hachioji for our lectures. This is the first independent living centre in Japan. It was established in 1986.
In the evenings, we went back to the apartment by train and monorail. All the stations are equipped with elevators and stair lifts, and also portable ramps for wheelchair users to get on and off the trains. Walkways are paved with tactile tiles to guide blind people. The entire journey was so seamless that I could actually travel by myself without assistance if I so desired.
The day after I returned to Kuala Lumpur, I went around the city. What awaited me was a reverse culture shock. Every step of the way was fraught with barriers. I could not get into buses and LRT stations. Broken pavements and the lack of kerb ramps made moving about extremely gruelling even with assistance from my girlfriend. Truth be told, I had to struggle for a while trying to adjust to life back home.
I am not alone in facing these difficulties. Disabled people all over the country have been experiencing the same problems for decades. Our mobility is severely restricted. Our quality of life is affected as a result.
Without a barrier-free environment, we are unable to get out from our homes safely. Without accessible public transport, we are unable to move around conveniently.
We lose out on education which in turn limits our employment opportunities. Without work, we have to
depend on our family for support. This cascading effect strains our families’ financial resources and lowers productivity all round.
Malaysia boasts of building world-class infrastructure like the North-South Expressway, Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the upcoming Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit. These projects are all very impressive by any standards.
However, they mean nothing to disabled people when accessible facilities in all the cities and major towns leave much to be desired. From Kuala Lumpur to Kuching to Kota Kinabalu and to George Town, disabled people are hard pressed to move around freely like I did in Tokyo. There are simply too many obstacles all over the place.
The right to access and use these facilities is recognised in the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008. Furthermore, Malaysia has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that acknowledges those same rights. As a member state to the convention, Malaysia is bound to ensure that disabled people have access on an equal basis with others to these facilities.
Malaysia can easily make the built environment and public transport system inclusive of disabled people. We have the resources and expertise to achieve it. All it takes is to expand the relevant laws and the political will to put those laws into action. And in the absence of that will, the powers must be held legally responsible for failing to uphold their commitment to protect the rights of disabled people.
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