Monday, January 30

Stand up and be counted

1

THE Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 (PWD Act 2008) has been in force for five years. One of the main complaints against this Act is that it is non-punitive. Many of us see it as toothless because there are no penalties for non-compliance or acts of discrimination against disabled persons.

Truth be told, my life has not changed for the better since 2008 where access to the built environment and public transport is concerned. There is no urgency from the government and its various agencies to improve the situation.

Although there is now a fleet of accessible buses serving the Klang Valley, many disabled persons are unable to get to bus stops from their homes. There are simply too many obstacles and safety hazards along the way.

One thing I realised is that the government only does as much as is demanded, and sometimes less. If disabled persons do not ask, it is very likely that the needs will be overlooked.

It is interesting to analyse how the accessible buses in the Klang Valley came to be. RapidKL, the government-owned public transport company, announced in 2006 that 1,000 buses were being acquired to support the revamp of routes.

None of the buses were accessible. All of them had at least one step at the entrance. Wheelchair users could not board. Those with mobility impairments had difficulties climbing the steps. Buzzer locations were also not standardised for the convenience of persons with visual impairments.

A group of about 40 disabled persons, including myself, held a demonstration to protest against our exclusion from public transport at a bus hub in Kuala Lumpur. At the demonstration, a RapidKL spokesperson announced that 100 accessible buses equipped with ramps would be delivered the following month.

When there was no news of the buses after three months, an even larger group of disabled persons held another demonstration just a hop away from Malaysia’s most modern and largest transit hub, Kuala Lumpur Sentral, on the significantly symbolic International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

After several lengthy dialogues with the Ministry of Transport and RapidKL, 100 accessible buses began to be rolled out in stages five months later. These were low floor buses with manual flip-out ramps and kneeling capabilities that could lower the bus for easier access.

To date, the public transport system in the Klang Valley is still far from perfect. Not every route is covered by these buses. A lot more still needs to be done to make walkways and bus stops accessible. However, the point I want to make here is that if disabled persons had not protested, none of the RapidKL buses would be accessible now.

Therefore, it is clear that there is a need for all disabled persons to come out and demand to be treated equally. We cannot expect others to speak out for us. If we ourselves are not interested in protecting our own rights, nobody will bother to give it us.

There are different areas where disabled persons can be involved. We can choose to become activists, advocates or educationists. There are differences between these three. A person working on disability rights issues may don any of the caps depending on the situation and purpose.

An activist often takes the radical path of organising and participating in public demonstrations to garner maximum visibility and impact to highlight issues. On the other hand, an advocate uses persuasive means like dialogues and negotiations to push for reforms behind the scenes.

A more recent addition to the movement’s arsenal is Disability Equality Training (DET). It is disability education for non-disabled persons and an empowerment process for disabled persons. DET can be very effective in changing attitudes and garnering action to make society more inclusive.

I have been involved in all three at one time or another and was fortunate to have been able to learn from several leaders in the disability movement. Whether we become activists, advocates or educationists, it is a matter of preference and skills. What is most important is to realise that we can effect change and take that first step to become involved in disability issues.

Truth be told, changes have been slow in coming as not many people are active in advancing disability rights in the country. And of those who are involved, many become burnt out after a while from having to take on too many challenges at one go due to the lack of support from the community.

Are disabled persons able to enjoy the seven rights of accessibility listed in the PWD Act? If the answer is in the negative, why are we not doing something about it? The push for equality should not be shouldered by a few. It is the responsibility of each and every disabled person whose rights have not been fulfilled to stand up and be counted.

Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.

Note: With reference to my column last week titled ‘Universal Design’, I would like to acknowledge that the Seven Principles of Universal Design were developed by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. Any omission of that fact is unintentional and regretted.