Thursday, May 23

An activist’s work is never done


The recently built walkway near the writer’s house where the ramp was replaced with a three-inch kerb.

THIS story began a long time ago. Please bear with me as I recount the events that led to the frustration I am feeling now in chronological sequence.

In 2006, I fell off a kerb and onto the road while my wife was assisting me to manoeuvre around a lamppost that was installed right in the centre of a walkway. Passers-by helped to put me back on my wheelchair. I was fortunate there was no traffic at that time and to have escaped with some superficial scratches only.

I filed a complaint with the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council and copied the letter to the Department of Local Government and several related ministries, governmental agencies, and disabled people’s organisations.

I lined out the hazards and difficulties I had to face each time I wanted to go to the shophouses a few hundred metres down the road. There were no kerb ramps for me to get on and off the walkways. Because of that, I had to go on the road and risked getting knocked down by passing vehicles.

When I had assistance, like in that incident, where I could get on to the walkways, there were always obstacles along the way. There was always something to make even a short journey tedious. Thoughtlessly installed lampposts, signboards, and other street furniture, broken pavements, and uncovered drain holes were some of the hazards I had to contend with.

The council did nothing to remove the offending lamppost even though the Department of Local Government had instructed the council to take action on the matter. After waiting for one year, I filed another complaint. Nothing from the council again.

Deciding that I had waited long enough, a few friends and I, who were all wheelchair users, went to see the state assemblyman for our constituency. We handed him a copy of the complaint. He agreed to go on a walkabout of the area with us to see for himself the problems we had been facing.

After the walkabout, he managed to secure an allocation to upgrade a 500-metre stretch of the walkway. Eight kerb ramps were constructed to ease the access of wheelchair users and also for parents with prams and senior citizens.

We later discovered the upgrades were not up to the standard as recommended in the code of practice. Nevertheless, we were happy that we could finally use that stretch to go to the shophouses without hindrance and without the fear of untoward incidents.

We approached the new state assemblyperson to increase the accessibility of the housing estate when there was a change of government in 2008. The council organised a forum for us to bring up our issues. I made a presentation of many of the barriers that were impeding the free movement of wheelchair users in the area.

The council promised they would upgrade the infrastructure in the housing estate in stages. The goal was to make the area a model of accessibility that could be emulated and recreated in other housing estates within the municipality. I thought that was very progressive of the council.

The road was widened from two lanes to four lanes earlier this year due to a large commercial cum residential development. The walkways were dug out. The drains were covered over and walkways were built over them. I assumed the council would have ensured accessibility was maintained as it was a requirement under the Uniform Building By-law 34A. The local authorities are the custodians, implementers, and enforcers of this piece of legislation.

Imagine to my horror when I found out the kerb ramps for the new walkways were replaced with three-inch kerbs. Further down, a fire hydrant, a lamppost, and a flight of steps partially blocked the path. One section of the walkway was completely removed with no space even for pedestrians, who had to walk on the road instead.

Just when we thought we have made progress, we regressed badly. From no accessibility, we managed to get it done, and now we are back to square one. The Ampang Jaya Municipal Council is such a disappointment. If I dare say, most local authorities in the country are the biggest transgressors when it comes to matters of accessibility for not enforcing the by-law and for not complying with the by-law.

I have not had time to deal with this as I have too many things on my plate at the moment. This is so exasperating. This is also the reason many activists are burnt out. Never mind that many of us do this at our own expense, time, and effort. Our work is never done. We have to do the same things over and over again, year after year. We took one step forward but many steps backwards. To say that I am upset at this is an understatement.

I wished there were easier ways of doing this but having dealt with the council before, I can foresee this is going to be a long and drawn out struggle all over again. I will need to find time to strategise with my fellow activists. I pray for strength and wisdom to deal with this matter without tearing my hair out.