How dis­abled­friendly is Malacca city?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING -

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.

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