IN 2006, the government announced the ambitious plan for Syarikat Prasarana Negara Berhad to purchase 1,000 buses for Klang Valley to be managed and operated by Rapid KL. This was good news as it would vastly improve the public transportation system with an increase in routes and better frequency.
Up to that point, all the buses in Klang Valley, or the whole of Malaysia for that matter, were not wheelchair accessible. The only public transport that was accessible was the Putra Light Rail Transit. Even then, disabled people had difficulty getting to the stations due to poor connectivity in the built environment and non-existent accessible feeder bus service.
Since Rapid KL was starting afresh, we thought it was a good time for them to introduce wheelchair accessible buses. Imagine our dismay when we discovered all the new buses had two steps at the entrance and exit. There was no way for wheelchair users and even someone with mobility impairments to board safely and conveniently.
It was only after two large protests by disabled people that were widely covered in the print and broadcast media that Rapid KL decided to engage disabled people in making the buses accessible. After years of consultation, negotiations, feedback and many redesigns, Rapid KL finally rolled out low-floor buses fitted with ramps and reserved space with wheelchair restraints in 2011.
All the new buses managed and operated by Rapid in Klang Valley, Penang and Kuantan since then are accessible including the double-deckers and MRT feeder buses. All this bad publicity and costs in refurbishment could have been avoided if Rapid KL had analysed the ridership to see that disabled people too need to use public transport to move about. The failure to engage all stakeholders before buying new assets to serve the public did not make good business sense.
Fast forward to 2017. I was stranded for one hour inside a Malaysia Airlines plane at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok upon arrival. The ground staff did not prepare a cabin wheelchair to facilitate my disembarkation in a timely manner. The issue first appeared in this column, followed up in the news section and then went viral on Facebook. It was subsequently picked up by other newspapers.
After a meeting with the CEO of Malaysia Airlines, he decided the company should improve its services for disabled passengers, admitting there were gaps in services and facilities. A Priority Guest Management unit was established and tasked with looking at ways in making improvements in this area.
Apart from fine tuning processes and procedures in consultation with disabled people, all customer-facing staff of the airline were trained on disability equality and etiquette, and safe methods to assist disabled passengers. The 16-month training programme saw 4,300 staff from all stations in Malaysia trained.
There was positive feedback from cabin crew who were happy they acquired skills they could use in their work and passengers who were pleased to be given proper assistance. All this was done in close consultation and dialogue with disabled people, who were themselves passengers as well.
When the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) held the Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival in August last year, they invited disabled people to do an audit of the premises to make sure the proper accessible facilities are in place. To ensure that all the volunteers on those days were able to assist disabled visitors, they underwent a one-day training for that purpose.
Earlier this week, I attended the Theory of Change Workshop organised by Unicef Malaysia together with more than 30 other individuals, who are working in the field of disability rights in various civil society organisations. The purpose was to evaluate the organisation’s flagship initiative called #ThisAbility that has been ongoing. The feedback and outcome from the workshop will then be developed to shape Unicef Malaysia’s future strategies in mainstreaming disability inclusion across all its programmes.
There are lessons to be learnt from these stories. Disabled people are part of society. There are an estimated 4.8 million of us in Malaysia. As the population grows, so will the numbers of disabled people. We are one of the largest minorities cutting across ethnicity, age, and gender. As such our views on issues affecting us do matter.
But disabled people are not the only stakeholders when it comes to disability issues. Parents, caregivers, medical professionals, social workers and anyone directly or indirectly involved are stakeholders as well. They must be consulted too to get a complete picture of the situation.
It is only in engaging and involving all stakeholders that proper planning, implementation and deployment can be successful. As disabled people and non-disabled people who are working in the field, we are subject matter experts on issues relating to disability. We are able to provide advice and suggestions on what is needed and what can be done. Making arbitrary decisions can be costly, as proven by Prasarana’s initial purchase of buses.
Personally, I like it that large organisations are seeing the importance in stakeholder engagement in their planning processes. There is no need to reinvent the wheel and make mistakes along the way. Like the wheel, we are already here. Use our knowledge, insight and experience, and develop from there. With proper consultation, we surely can achieve a more disability-inclusive society in a shorter timeframe.