Monday, April 22

Zombies in our midst


The toilet for disabled people is up the short flight of steps and to the left.

I AM a fan of the American television series ‘The Walking Dead’. The gripping story tells of survivors living in a post-apocalyptic world where the entire global population was infected by an unknown pathogen with no cure yet. Humans turn into zombies when they die or get bitten by another zombie. These zombies are attracted to noise and scent, and amble around mindlessly looking to devour humans and other living creatures with the survivors trying to ward them and other rival survivors off.

It’s one of those things I waste time on when I really have nothing to do. The storyline is straightforward and doesn’t require much thinking. While the television series is science fiction, I have to say we do have similar mindless humans living in our midst. They are like zombies, doing things without consideration for purpose and consequences. As a result, other people are needlessly inconvenienced by the result of their lack of analytical and critical thinking skills.

I happened to have a first-hand encounter of this mindlessness recently when I was invited to conduct a disability-related services training workshop in the central business district of Kuala Lumpur. Since the hotel where the training was to be held is near my wife’s office, I asked her to go over to check the place out beforehand, and especially to see if there is an accessible toilet as I have to be there on two consecutive days.

She went to the hotel during her lunch break and asked one of the front office staff about facilities for disabled people. I was perplexed when I received a photo of a flight of steps from her. I asked her if that was the one and only way to the toilet for disabled people. She recounted how she climbed the three steps that led to the lobby lounge. Tucked somewhere beside the lounge, she found a door affixed with the wheelchair logo indicating it was for disabled people.

She asked the staff how a person who can’t walk is supposed to use the toilet only to be told it was an old office building that was converted into a hotel and that the layout was limited by the existing structure. I contacted the organiser about the issue and was assured there was another toilet on the conference room floor that I could use.

As I discovered later, the other toilet wasn’t designated for disabled people. It had a glass door which could shatter if hit by the footrest of a wheelchair. The lock was a tiny contraption that required good hand function to operate. Inside, there were no handrails and grab bars to aid in transferring from wheelchair to toilet seat and vice versa.

Luckily for me, my wife could come over to assist me each time I needed to empty my bladder. I couldn’t have managed it by myself. Moreover, the toilet on the conference floor is not open to the public at all times. It was locked after the event. I had to get a staff member to open it for me when I wanted to use it.

While waiting for my wife to pick me up after the workshop on the second day, I managed to speak to a staff member about the matter. He noted that he had spoken to my wife a few days earlier. From our conversation, there was no indication the hotel was looking to resolve the problem although I did provide solutions on how the toilet could be made accessible to wheelchair users.

Poorly designed facilities that are supposedly accessible to disabled people in public places are plenty. Near where I live, there is a tactile guide path that leads right into a lamppost. I have also come across many ramps that are too steep even for non-disabled people to use.

A number of doors for accessible toilets have knob handles. These are difficult to operate for people with hands that have weak grip. That was how I got trapped in a toilet at the airport one time. I had difficulty turning the round knob after using the toilet.

Luckily a passer-by heard my calls for help and alerted the cleaner to come unlock the door. While waiting for the cleaner, I somehow managed to turn the knob. That was one embarrassing moment and also an example I use to emphasise the importance of installing proper fixtures for such facilities.

One of the most ridiculous designs of an accessible toilet I have ever seen was in a hypermarket in Penang. Upon entering the toilet, I found the foldable grab bar firmly anchored to the ground.

It is supposed to be attached to the wall beside the toilet bowl. The mistake was never rectified for a long time even after numerous complaints were made to the management.

I thought that took the cake but I was wrong. These three steps to the toilet for disabled people trumped it. This is one of the reasons why we disabled people are reluctant to get out of our comfort zone sometimes. It’s not that we have hang-ups about being seen in public. Rather, the effort we need to expend in overcoming the multiple barriers can be too overwhelming to make it worth the while at times.

As for the hotel, there is no excuse for anyone to make a glaring mistake like this. It was renovated and opened for business late last year. The accessible toilet was included just to comply with the requirements of the Uniform Building By-Law 34A without giving much thought to its usability. To do something like this is blatantly breaking the law and mocking disabled people at the same time.

Unlike in ‘The Walking Dead’, the zombies that built these senseless facilities can be cured and should be cured lest they continue with their mindless ways. The people who designed and built such a useless facility should be reprimanded. The local authorities should order the hotel to make right the errors failing which they must be penalised until they comply. It would be a great injustice to disabled people in Malaysia if they are allowed to continue with this infraction without any punitive measures.