How disabledfriendly is Malacca city?
I HAD a terrific time earlier this month when I visited the beautiful and historic city of Malacca. As chairman of MBPJ’S technical committee on disabilities, I was eager to find out what the council had done – and is currently doing – to make their much-talked about national heritage city friendly to residents with disabilities as well as disabled visitors.
I couldn’t think of a more effective way to carry out my task than to make a spontaneous visit to the city. But not without taking an able-bodied assistant with me, just in case.
Our first stop was Christ Church in Malacca town which was built by the Dutch in the 18th century. I was disappointed to discover that the oldest functioning Protestant church to the country had no ramp for wheelchair access.
Thus I was forced to stay outside the church whilst scores of visitors walked in and out of the age-old building to appreciate its beauty from the inside.
When I asked one of the church officials why a ramp was not built for disabled tourists, I was shocked by his reply that “a ramp would spoil the beauty of this ancient building.”
When I pointed out that there were more than enough entrances to build just one ramp to allow tourists in wheelchairs and those with walking difficulties to access the building, he said that he would bring the matter up with the building committee.
I couldn’t help thinking how short-sighted he was to make such a statement about the usefulness of ramps.
Don’t these people realise that perceptions are changing as society ages and more people are strugging with disabilities brought on by old age, accidents and illnesses?
I have been to countries where wheelchair ramps are always provided as an alternative access for the disabled.
In heritage buildings, the engineers have cleverly constructed ramps in an ancient style to blend in with their natural surroundings. Excuses were never given to avoid providing access for the disabled.
Back to Malacca city, there were no disabled-friendly toilets within a decent distance from where I was. I did see a public toilet for the handicapped when I was travelling in my vehicle. However, that was too far away for my convenience.
The only parking lot for the handicapped that I saw was near the church. However, it was not as long and wide as a proper disabled parking lot should be.
The wheelchair logo on the ground was fading. One had to take a good look to notice it. Needless to say, this wouldn’t go well with drivers with poor eyesight.
Most of the pavements were inaccessible to wheelchairs. Frankly, they were also not good for walking. Luckily my assistant was with me to help me get around.
Because of the lack of wheelchair-friendly pavements, I was forced to use the road where my safety was compromised. At one point, I had to literally get off the road to allow a huge tourist bus to get past me.
In the 10 hours that I spent in the city, I did not come across a single person in a wheelchair. This is a clear sign of how hostile the city is to disabled and elderly denizens when it comes to access to the outdoors.
I must add that there appeared to be some attempts to make pavements wheelchairfriendly but these were scarce and not properly done. There were no guiding blocks for the blind, too.
Despite all these, I managed to take in unforgettable sights like the river boat rides and the colourful rickshaws, and sampled the mouth-watering fare that is unique to the city.
Disabled people, too, want to enjoy the marvellous sights, sounds and smells of Malacca.
WHENEVER I see a flight of stairs ahead of me, it sends a chill down my spine; this is how I feel being immobile and dependant on a pair of crutches.
Like many of you, I used to be able to walk without assistance, run up the stairs and move about freely. Thus I could never really comprehend what it is like to live with a disability until my ankle bone started to show signs of degeneration and required surgery.
So now, temporarily disabled for months, I depend on a pair of crutches and sometimes, a wheelchair to move around. I start to see the little things in a big picture.
As a young architect, I was oblivious to the fact that our local built environment does not accommodate people with special needs. Within our urban setting, there are countless aspects that may be trivial to healthy individuals but a nightmare for those who have special needs.
Two weeks ago, I went to a nearby clinic which was located along a row of shophouses. When I reached the clinic, I realised that there was no suitable access for the disabled. There was a short flight of stairs with no handrails, in front of me. If I were to attempt the stairs, I may risk falling into the drain.
Given no choice, I took a deep breath and started hopping up the staircase with the aid of my crutches. Unfortunately, the riser was too high and I tripped and fell. It broke my heart. It wasn’t because I was embarrassed about falling in public; rather, I was ashamed of the fact that as an architect, someone in my line of work actually designed those high steps without considering the needs of the disabled.
For days, the question of integrity weighed heavily upon me. We have building by-laws and regulations governing the needs of the disabled, yet these are not strictly observed at all times.
There are many small details that are overlooked in our building designs. For instance, when I stood at the doorway of a KL clubhouse, I could not decide whether to take the staircase or the steep ramp. Either way, I risk falling because the ramp was paved with slippery floor tiles.
Also, many doors in public places, especially washrooms, have door closers which keep the doors closed at all times. So how does someone who uses crutches, open the door to the washroom since both her arms are already supporting her body? This is something which I have yet to figure out.
It also got me thinking when a close friend shared how her aunt who is visually impaired finds it difficult to use the washroom. In our country, the squatting water closet is common. To make things worse, it is always wet and slippery. I wonder how the blind avoid falling into those squatting water closets as not every place has a disabled-friendly washroom.
In my house, the biggest challenge comes from my bathroom. I cannot bend down or reach high up for towels and toiletries when I am holding onto my crutches. The bottle of shampoo or face towel will always be just a few centimetres out of reach. At times like these, I can’t help feeling disappointed with how things are built.
Many of our wardrobes and cabinets are of full ceiling height. Take a minute and think: if you were in a wheelchair, there is no way you can reach the top shelves. I can only sit in my wheelchair and stare at the things I would like to get.
Recently I was at a shopping mall in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. I was heading back to my car when I realised that the main entrance to the car park for people with special needs, was blocked by cars which were parked indiscriminately.
A similar incident took place in another local mall. I parked my car at a corner lot so that I could easily access it. Upon my return, I noticed that another car had parked illegally next to mine, blocking access for my wheelchair. Yes, I know that parking lots may be limited in most local shopping malls but there are spots which have been left empty for a valid reason. The next time you want to park illegally, blocking ramps and access, please think again. Do consider that the next person who comes by may be visually impaired or a wheelchair user.
For those who use crutches, every step takes a lot of effort. This became painfully obvious to me during a visit to a local medical university. The signage in the car park was confusing, pointing me to the wrong direction, so it took me over 20 minutes to find access to a lift. Ever passing minute on crutches wears me out, so imagine a good 20 minutes of hobbling around. To add to my horror, the lift which took me to the ground floor required me to go down a flight of stairs, cross the driveway and up another flight of stairs to get into the building. At this point, I was left bewildered. Has this medical university been designed just for those who are fit and healthy?
To put it in a nutshell, being able-bodied and blessed with good health, we sometimes overlook the little things in a big picture.
Food for thought: have you ever notice that most fire escape routes in buildings are staircases, so how do people with special needs escape in times of trouble? I wonder…
But life has its bright side, too. In these difficult conditions, many strangers have been kind to me. Thank you to the drivers who stopped and allowed me to pass without honking when there is no pedestrian access. Thank you to the kind souls who tried to guard me in case I fall while going up the staircase. Thank you to those who opened doors for me because my arms were occupied. Thank you to the gracious ones who gave me right of way when they saw me in a wheelchair.