Sunday, August 05, 2012

Disabled By The Able-Bodied



Hi all, here is a terrific column by senior editor of The Star June HL Wong on disability. What's even more incredible about her - which she didn't mention - is that this amazing woman is the one who got me started with Wheel Power in the first place!

Read on folks, . . .  


Wednesday August 1, 2012

Disabled by the abled

So Aunty, So What?

American comedian Jerry Lewis might have joked about it – ‘Pity? You don’t want to be pitied because you’re a cripple in a wheelchair? Stay in your house!’ – but there’s nothing funny about being denied access to most things the able-bodied take for granted.

IT’S Saturday night and the mall is packed. The crowd is building up in front of the lifts and everyone is watching eagle-eyed to see which lift doors will open to take them up or down.

Getting in requires strategy: you place yourself close to the doors, ease in as soon as you can, sometimes not waiting for people to exit even. Otherwise, you might just miss the ride.

That’s what the able-bodied do. Now imagine if you have someone in a wheelchair. You would think people would be nice enough to give way, right?

Forget it. If anything, when they see someone in a wheelchair, people will deliberately stand in front of the wheelchair and thereby effectively cutting off access to the lift.

No, when you have someone in a wheelchair, you need a different kind of strategy. You push the wheelchair as close to the doors as possible. You also look mean as if you are prepared to run over toes; and that’s a real possibility because you will need space to reverse the wheelchair into the lift.
Lots of other people don’t understand that. But just think: when you enter a lift, do you stand facing the back of the lift or you turn around to face the doors? So why do you think a person in a wheelchair should not do the same?

Indeed, I speak from personal experience. I am not in a wheelchair but I certainly spend enough time pushing someone in a wheelchair and believe you me there are pitifully few places that are disabled friendly.

Forget taking the wheelchair-bound for an evening “stroll” because in most neighbourhoods, except maybe in some new, swanky and gated ones, there aren’t even paved sidewalks to do that.

Shopping malls are your best bet because of their long, flat and generally smooth floors.

Even then beware: There are many hidden obstacles and inconveniences. For one, walkalators can be scary because the front wheels can get caught at the end of the walkway.
Scarier still are the disabled toilets because they are predictably dirty, wet and missing soap and toilet paper.

A sad irony, again from experience, is the shocking state of disabled toilets even in hospitals. The able-bodied can roll up pants, hover over toilet bowls in wet, filthy loos.

But what if you have to sit down to do your business? How would you feel if the toilet seat is missing and there isn’t even toilet paper to line the porcelain rim?

Access ramps at many hospitals are so steeped and sharp-angled, you really have to be strong to prevent the wheelchair from crashing. No way can a disabled person manage to wheel him or herself up or down such ramps.

The bad planning extends to the doors which are usually narrow and difficult to open.
But really, it doesn’t need a lot to make it easier for the disabled. All it takes is a bit of thoughtfulness and common sense. If we need an example, I will point south.

When I needed to take my dad to Singapore’s National University Hospital (NUH), I never worried about getting a wheelchair for him. There were always plenty parked in convenient bays at every entrance. And unlike here, you don’t need to hand over any ID to take one.

At NUH, every clinic and department has automatic sliding doors and the toilets are pristine.
Yes, I am on a bit of a warpath today because so many things make my blood boil where accessibility and facilities for the old and disabled are concerned.

As mentioned earlier, the shopping mall is usually the safest bet if we want a day out with my dad. My family tends to go to Gardens Mid-Valley Megamall simply because it has decent parking and long, smooth stretches of corridors with lots to see and do. Other families have the same idea. So on a weekend, it’s like Wheelchair Central there.

Even then, as I said, it’s a struggle to get into the lifts and the state of the toilets is always suspect.
So I worry for my dad and for myself because we are a nation that is slowly but surely tottering towards old age.

It has been reported Malaysia is expected to reach ageing nation status by 2035 with the number of people above the age of 60 making up 15% of the population. (According to the United Nations definition, a country with 10% of its population above 60 is an ageing nation.)

But do we need to wait for that to happen before we really provide safe and easy access for the disabled and the elderly? What about the ones who need such facilities right now?

True, it’s probably better now than say 15, 20 years ago. Awareness is higher and there are some basic concessions to the disabled like special parking lots. For that, I am to say The Star has played a key role.

We are the only newspaper to have regular columns on disability, first with Anthony Thanasayan’s Star2 column, Wheel Power, and more recently, with Ida Nerina whose column, Crazy, Sexy, Honestly, appears in Star2 on Sunday. Both are wheelchair users.

Anthony started writing almost 20 years ago. Today he is a Petaling Jaya City councillor and influencing PJ city policies and practices regarding the needs of the disabled. Ida, who is an actor, director and producer, is adding her voice from her unique perspective.

So there is progress but mostly on the facilities, the so-called hardware. But ultimately, like our recent stories on Ugly Malaysians and their rude behaviour, it boils down to people’s attitude and sense of civic-mindedness and decency.

Animal rights activists often quote Mahatma Gandhi for their cause: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

I would like to say that nation’s greatness and moral progress should also be judged by how we treat the old and the infirm for the simple reason that all of us, if we live long enough, can become either or both.

> The writer belongs to the sandwich generation: baby boomers who still have children to raise on one side and ageing parents to look after on the other. Sometimes that can be quite a tight squeeze.

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