Blind World Magazine

All too often, an abundance of words is matched by an absence of deeds.

December 03, 2005.
Bangkok Post Editorial.

Those hard to please might find fault with our fledgling underground system but there is one thing about it that makes it a role model for future mass transit system development. We can take pride in the full access it provides for the disabled, a feat it has achieved in a country where less than one per cent of buildings are easily accessible and the rest of the public transport system poses a nightmare for the physically-challenged.

This proof that we can cater to disability issues if we try hard enough will be a major theme as we, and the rest of the world, today mark the 13th international day set aside by the UN for the disabled. Another topic of discussion and concern will be the avoidance of stereotyping. Special days such as this one do have an unfortunate tendency to do that. They tend to generate sympathy by underlining the differences between groups of people instead of concentrating on the similarities, which defeats their whole purpose.

It doesn't matter if the difference is the colour of a person's skin, how they dress, the way they speak or if they walk with a white cane or are confined to a wheelchair. We should be looking beyond the cane or wheelchair and seeing the person, not the disability. By concentrating on the disability or anything contrary to the norm, we are ignoring their other qualities, however much we might not consciously intend to. That is one reason why disabled people dislike being referred to as "handicapped". It lays emphasis on what a disabled person cannot do, thereby giving more importance to the negative aspects of the person, rather than the positive.

Governments throughout Asia are guilty of this as well. They have long paid lip service to providing more opportunities for the disabled to help themselves but, all too often, an abundance of words is matched by an absence of deeds. Solutions are not perceived as urgent and there is a lack of awareness of just how many people are affected by this institutionalised apathy. It is a lot. About 370 million disabled people live in Asia and the Pacific, with 238 million of them in the working-age group. Several million are in Thailand, although the precise figure is unknown.

They do not want handouts or compassion but rightly feel entitled to more consideration. Most of their problems are caused by sins of omission such as the lack of ramps at store and office entrances for wheelchairs (or ramps that are too steep), specially-designed toilet facilities, signs to assist people with hearing impairments and voice messages to help those who cannot see well. Glass doors which are dangerous if unmarked. The hazards they face of trying to cross moving lanes of traffic and dodging potholes, missing pavement slabs, building materials and negotiating kerbs. Overpasses are not for them. Toilet entrances are often too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through. Places like markets, department stores and public and privately-run transport services should also cater to people with disabilities. Many do not.

Services provided by state authorities are underfunded and inadequate, which is characterised by defective wheelchairs, brittle canes and inferior hearing aids. Their lives would also be greatly improved if they were given more vocational training and unbiased access to the job market. Also needed is specialised education and fast and efficient medical services and counselling.

Another priority is training in today's technology which can pose challenges, none of them insurmountable. These have been partially countered with such innovations as Braille keyboards and PDAs for the blind, and type-enlarging screens for the visually impaired. For many people with disabilities, technology means the difference between going to work and being unemployed. The number of jobless among the disabled is still far too high. Some blame for this can be attributed to an attitude problem among employers who are worried about the responsibility, potential sick leave and financial burdens.

To paraphrase Churchill's plea to Roosevelt, their message today is: "Give us the tools and we will do the job." For tools read "the means and opportunity to improve ourselves." What could be a fairer or more reasonable request than that?

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