Always an afterthought
Will conditions for the disabled in this country ever truly improve?
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.