Al­ways an af­ter­thought

Will con­di­tions for the dis­abled in this coun­try ever truly im­prove?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - OPINION - MALINI DIAS star2@ thes­tar. com. my Touché is a monthly col­umn in which team Star2 shares its thoughts.

OH, the irony. When Malaysia’s Par­a­lympians were be­ing feted for their ac­com­plish­ments ear­lier this week, a post popped up on my Face­book feed de­cry­ing the dif­fer­ence between toilets for the dis­abled and the able- bod­ied at a lo­cal shop­ping mall with two il­lus­tra­tive photos.

The lat­ter are pretty, colour­ful and didn’t seem to have any doors, just invit­ingly wide open door­ways 90° ( with a turn to hide the in­side from view); the one for the dis­abled has an ugly wooden door with a knob. A door that was closed in the posted photo. Aes­thet­ics aside, shouldn’t it be the toi­let for the dis­abled that has wide open door­ways through which it would be easy to ma­noeu­vre a wheel­chair? And how would some­one who has weak mus­cles, say a se­nior with arthri­tis, grip and turn that door­knob?

The post has lots of com­ments about other ways in which our pub­lic spa­ces are not at all friendly to­wards the dis­abled. One poster men­tioned that while some places offer wheel­chairs for rent, you have to make a sub­stan­tial ( al­beit re­fund­able) cash de­posit. To which an­other poster asked, “Why? Be­cause they think the dis­abled per­son is go­ing to run off with the chair?!” There are sto­ries of dis­abled toilets kept locked ( again, why?!) and left dys­func­tional and un­re­paired.

There is even a spe­cific code, MS1184 Code of Prac­tice for univer­sal de­sign, that pub­lic spa­ces are sup­posed to com­ply with but which re­mains largely ig­nored.

None of this is new, of course. Wheel­chair user and dis­abled is­sues ac­tivist An­thony Thanasayan be­gan writ­ing about ac­ces­si­bil­ity is­sues in Star2’ s Wheel Power col­umn in the late 1990s. In 2008, Malaysia signed the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Rights of Per­sons with Dis- abil­i­ties and rat­i­fied it in 2010. Our own Per­sons with Dis­abil­i­ties Act passed in Par­lia­ment in 2008 and came into force in 2009.

And still, in 2016, we’re shak­ing our heads over the lack of some­thing as ba­sic and nec­es­sary as pub­lic toilets for the dis­abled.

Per­haps the Par­a­lympians’ achieve­ments will help put dis­abil­ity ac­cess front and cen­tre in the na­tional dis­course. In fact, sports have been called a “great con­ven­ing fac­tor” when it comes to mak­ing the pub­lic aware of dis­abled needs.

In a story The Star ran last year dis­cussing the 25th an­niver­sary of the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, the Amer­i­can State De­part­ment’s spe­cial ad­viser for per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties Judy Heu­mann re­called how be­ing en­cour­aged to take part in sports af­ter she be­came dis­abled as a teenager helped her.

“Sports have been ef­fec­tive in high­light­ing the abil­i­ties of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and bring­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­ity to­gether and out into the pub­lic arena and made us vis­i­ble to the gen­eral pub­lic,” she said.

But, par­don me for be­ing a cynic, I can’t help feel­ing that af­ter their mo­ment in the lime­light, our Par­a­lympians, along with other dis­abled peo­ple in Malaysia, will fall back into the shad­ows and 10 years from now, we will all still be shak­ing our heads over the lack of proper toilets for the dis­abled.

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