Doing the mundane but needful to bring about change – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 30 November, 2014

Doing the mundane but needful to bring about change
by Peter Tan. Posted on November 30, 2014, Sunday

Donald Law and Peter Tan at the International Conference on Disability Studies in Kuching
Sharing a light moment with Donald Law before the conference.

DONALD Law and I got acquainted at a conference on disability in Selangor six years ago. With him being in Kuching and I based in Kuala Lumpur, we did not get to meet often.

Over the years, we’ve bumped into each other several more times at similar events but seldom had the opportunity to talk other than the cursory hi-and-bye encounters.

The conference we attended in Kuching last week was different. Spread over three days, we had ample time to hold decent conversations.

While chatting after the conclusion of the second day’s proceedings, Donald told me, “When I first met you, your hair was all black. You were taking about accessibility issues.”

That got my attention.

“Now you have white hair,” he pointed to the sides of my head where grey has stealthily taken over, “I still hear you talking about the same issue.” Those were hard hitting words. Whether they were said in jest or not, it was the painful truth. Progress on accessibility in the built environment and public transport for disabled people has been moving at a snail’s pace.

I am neither the first nor will be the last to talk on issues of accessibility. Many disability rights advocates before me have been actively pursuing this agenda. They have been pushing for it long before the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Malaysian Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 came into the picture.

When the first light rail transit system STAR LRT in Kuala Lumpur was completed in 1994, wheelchair users were barred from using the line as the rail operator said evacuation in the event of an emergency would be difficult.

That sparked outrage among wheelchair users who staged a street protest against the ruling, pointing out that none of the public transport at that time was accessible, making it difficult, if not impossible, to move around for those who do not have their own transport.

To add insult to injury, the government at that time concurred with the operator. Both the Minister and Deputy Minister of National Unity and Social Development were reported in the press to have said accommodating the needs of disabled people was not practical and that it would be expensive to include accessible facilities into the system respectively.

Subsequent to the protest, PUTRA LRT, the second light rail transit system announced provisions for disabled people had been incorporated into the design of all the stations and trains that were under construction then.

To date, PUTRA LRT remains the only fully accessible rail system in the country while facilities for STAR LRT and the KL Monorail (the other urban rail line built with accessible facilities) are being upgraded in phases.

History was to repeat itself 12 years later when disabled people were again ignored in the development of public transport system. Government-owned stage bus operator RapidKL announced the addition of 1,000 buses into the fleet in 2006 but none were accessible.

It took public protests and five years of negotiations and consultations to get the company to bring in 400 low floor buses fitted with restraining system for wheelchairs.

Even then, most bus stops do not comply with accessibility standards. They have yet to be upgraded and there are approximately 4,000 bus stops in the Klang Valley alone.

I shudder to think how long that is going take. As far as I can see, absolutely no effort has been put into upgrading any of them at the moment.

Advocacy for disability rights and equality is a long and tedious struggle. Imagine the amount of work that has gone into pushing for accessible public transport since 1994 and yet many of us are still nowhere near to being able to use it conveniently and safely.

Indeed, advocacy is like a deflated ball that needs to be kicked continuously in order to keep the momentum going.

Those of us who are committed to this endeavour know we have to be in this for the long run. We may not even get to experience the day when the built environment and public transport system becomes fully accessible in our lifetime.

Yet, we still soldier on with the realisation that if we do not do anything now, future generations will continue to suffer the fate we are experiencing now.

As most of the advocacy activities are concentrated in the Klang Valley, the slow changes happening are limited to that region only.

There is a lot more work that needs to be done with regards to access including education, employment, cultural life, and assistance in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies and other rights recognised under the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008.

Therefore it is necessary for advocates in other parts of the country, especially in Sarawak and Sabah to join forces and elevate the disability rights movement to one that is genuinely cohesive and effective at the national level. We need to speak with one voice to be heard loud and clear.

Donald is right. Advocates like me have been talking about these issues so many times that we sound like broken records.

We have no other choice. We need to do whatever is necessary to keep the issues alive. Unless there are more effective ways of advancing our cause, we have to continue using the tried and tested ways of garnering attention and getting our rights respected. If we keep quiet, nothing will happen going by past records.

Having said that, the government, with its wide-ranging powers and resources, can play an active role in hastening the process of inclusion and full participation by enacting laws that prohibit discrimination or establish a commission to investigate and take punitive actions against those acts, including government agencies without fear or favour.

The question now is whether the government is serious enough in upholding the rights of disabled people by taking proactive actions or do disabled people have to continue pushing for inclusion by holding street protests every time we want to get our voices heard?

Donald, here is hoping we do not need to wait until I have a full head of white hair before we get to see meaningful changes.

I know how boring it has become having to hear me give presentations about the same issues every time we meet at conferences.
Unless and until the situation changes for the better, you will have to bear with me still.

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Room with a view – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 23 November, 2014

Room with a view
by Peter Tan. Posted on November 23, 2014, Sunday

Datuk Fatimah, Dr Ling, Dr  Meekosha , Gill, Donald Law and Peter Tan

IN the serenity of the morning, the iconic Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building glowed golden in the embrace of the rising sun, perfectly complemented by the silvery whiteness of Fort Margherita just a stone’s throw away.

Greenery, man-made structures and paved surfaces slowly warmed up to greet another new day. The mighty Sarawak River glimmered as it wound its way to the South China Sea. A lone boatman steered his craft near to the bank, leaving an expanding wake behind.

Along the Waterfront, an old couple ambled, he holding a walking stick and she holding on to his other free arm. My wife Wuan came and stood behind me. We watched in silence from our hotel room on the sixth floor until their frail figures were eventually obscured by the canopy of the rain tree.

That was a loving and beautiful sight on our first morning in Kuching and one I do not mind waking up to every day. Indeed, it is great to be back in this beautiful city. What is even greater are the rekindling of old friendships and the forging of new ones.

We are here to attend the three-day international conference on “Disability Studies: Heading In The Right(s) Direction?” that began on Thursday. This was organised by the Centre of Excellence for Disability Studies (CoEDS) anchored at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Universiti Sarawak Malaysia (Unimas) and is the first and only institution of higher learning in Malaysia promoting the programme on disability studies.

I would like to note with appreciation that our journey to Kuching, lodging and participation in this conference were made possible by the generous sponsorship of Sarawak Consolidated Industries Berhad in close coordination with Director of CoEDS Associate Professor Dr Ling How Kee and Unimas Senior Social Work lecturer Gill Raja who made sure that my accessibility needs were met.

My contribution to the conference was a presentation titled “Where Rights Are Being Ignored & How Equality And Full Participation Can Be Realised” during the plenary session on the first day. The organisers had also allocated a two-hour slot for me to facilitate an introductory Disability Equality Training workshop for today (Saturday) which concluded a while ago.

After following the proceedings by the presenters comprising academics, researchers and advocates for the entire duration of the conference, I discovered that the field of disability studies is wider and more diverse than I previously thought. It involves the entire spectrum of life and living, cuts across all levels of society and affects more of those who are marginalised and disadvantaged by poverty.

The amount of knowledge shared in this conference was staggering. It was here that I was suddenly struck by the realisation my knowledge in disability is a mere drop in the ocean. The more I learnt, the more I found out how little I knew. This humbling discovery has again perked the desire to deepen my understanding in this area in order for me to do what I am doing more effectively.

A previous endeavour at pursuing disability studies through distance learning with a university in the United Kingdom renowned in this field fell through because I did not possess sufficient academic qualifications. Moreover the tuition fees for foreign students were beyond my affordability.

This time, I want to seriously consider how this renewed interest can be seen to fruition.

Since the day we arrived, Wuan and I have been fortunate to experience Sarawakian hospitality at its best. I especially relished meeting Welfare, Women and Family Development Minister Datuk Fatimah Abdullah. She is all the good things I heard so much about – that she is approachable, affable, unassuming and more.

Most importantly, Datuk Fatimah’s passion in working towards the inclusion and full participation of disabled people has earned my utmost respect. From the brief conversation we had, her genuine desire to change the situation for the better was apparent. I would love the opportunity to work with her and my peers in Sarawak to achieve that end.

Wuan and I are also blessed to have very good friends who took us out and fed us with delicious food in the evenings. We loved it. The flavours that are uniquely Kuching have made us want to savour more this city has to offer. And I am happy to have made new friends with the same orientation in advancing disability rights.

This is one conference that has enriched me in so many ways. Wuan and I cannot stay back to listen to the summation and witness the closing ceremony due to the timing of our flight back to Kuala Lumpur although I wish we can.

It has opened my mind to new perspectives that will prove useful to the advocacy activities and trainings I conduct in the future. Dr Ling and Gill deserve the credit for the transformation and opportunity to develop myself further by extending the invitation and arranging the logistics to enable me to attend this conference.

As I looked out the window for one last time before checking out, I know I will be waking up the next day missing the familiar scenes of the river and activities of the Waterfront. The next time we return, it will be to explore the heritage and follow the food trails the city is famous for.

Unknowingly and unsuspectingly, Kuching has grown into me. My life will never be the same again after this.

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Accessibility must lead to inclusion and participation – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 16 November, 2014

Accessibility must lead to inclusion and participation
by Peter Tan. Posted on November 16, 2014, Sunday

Wheelchair user outside the cinema
Photo shows my first visit to the cinema after 20 years in 2005.

DO you remember cinemas of old?

Those were the days when discarded kuaci shells and other whatnots crackled under our feet as we gingerly made our way to the seats.

Our olfactory senses were often rudely assaulted by the malodorous cigarette fumes intermingling with the smell of urine seeping from the floor because some parents were too engrossed with the movie to take their child to the toilet.

The stench and trash aside, wheelchair users intending to watch a movie would have faced great difficulty. Entry into the hall was always hampered by a short flight of steps. We had to be carried in and then park ourselves in the aisle as there was neither space allocated for wheelchairs nor seats we could transfer to.

These were clear cases of inaccessibility and exclusion. No consideration was given to accommodate wheelchair users in any way. The inconvenience dissuaded me from going to the cinema for 20 years.

Accessibility in public infrastructure allows disabled people to live independently.

The physical environment and public transport system must be easy to use, seamless from point to point and free from obstacles and hazards.

Likewise, information and modes of communication have to be made available in different formats like Braille, soft copy and sign language to encompass the diverse needs and make-up of society.

However, accessibility is not the be-all and end-all of improving quality of life for disabled people. My following experience will illustrate this point.

My friends realising that I have not been into a cinema for the longest time suggested watching a movie while we were at a shopping mall one evening.

The ticket counter staff confirmed there was a space for a wheelchair inside the cinema. He further noted that the spaces were only available in selected halls.

Cinemas have come a long way since I was last in one.

Where they traditionally have a single screen showing one movie at a time, the advent of cineplexes has revolutionised the cinema-going experience with multiple screens showing different movies simultaneously.

With this development, the premises were also made more accessible. I could get into the hall without needing to be carried and finally had a proper place for parking my wheelchair. That was my first impression.

But a look at the seating plan showed that it was isolated from other seats and close to the screen. That meant I had to watch the movie separated from my friends and not given the choice to select where I wanted to sit, consequently decreasing the enjoyment of being with my friends as a group.

Watching movies is as much a social bonding activity as it is for entertainment. Since we wanted to sit together, they suggested I take a regular seat instead.

For that, they had to carefully manoeuvre my wheelchair down two steps narrow steps where I then had to be transferred to the assigned seat. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the carpeted floor was clean and the air pleasant despite the inconveniences.

Inclusion is the process of accommodating all people regardless of race, age, gender, impairments and other characteristics without restriction of any kind so that they can participate in an activity if they so wish.

Although accessible to a certain extent, the cinema failed to look into the aspects of inclusion. The segregation of wheelchair users would have deprived me of opportunities to interact with my friends while watching the movie if they had not taken the trouble to assist me.

It would be better if the cinema could allocate space for wheelchairs next to regular seats for us to sit beside our companions. A simple adjustment like this can make a lot of difference to the enjoyment of the shows.

Cinemas should not stop only at accommodating wheelchair users. It must be extended to people with other impairments as well.

Subtitles are crucial for deaf people to follow the story in movies. Fortunately, movies playing in local cinemas display subtitles; not specifically for the benefit of deaf people but it serves the purpose nonetheless.

On the other hand, the quality of subtitles leaves much to be desired. More should be done to improve the accuracy of the translations to give a better context of the happenings on the screen.

As far as I am aware, no cinema in Malaysia has audio description as an option. Audio description is a feature providing voice narration describing the actions, facial expressions and goings-on in non-verbal scenes and is streamed via wireless headsets.

Local cinemas have to seriously look into incorporating this option as it will greatly enhance the movie experience for people with visual impairments, especially in parts where there is little or no dialogue.

Having said that, I stopped going to cinemas again four years ago. I like the vantage from the last row and buy my tickets online. The ushers at the cinemas always insisted that I occupy the wheelchair space and my wife sit at the back even though I informed them I could transfer to the seat I had paid for.

After the umpteenth time of having to explain at length why I refused to be seated separately from my wife, I decided it was not worth the effort and have our weekend spoiled by the recurring episodes of frustrations.

These situations in cinemas are just one facet of the many problems disabled people have to contend with. Facilities, activities and services in schools, workplaces, parks and places of worship all have issues that require similar attention.

Most importantly, there is a need to move away from the traditional notion that accessibility is the sole goal to be achieved to make it convenient for disabled people.

The implementation of policies on accessibility need to lead to inclusion. Otherwise, it is just work half done. Ultimately, inclusion must culminate in participation in civil, social, economic, cultural, religious and political spheres.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises that full participation in these spheres will result in the enhanced sense of belonging and bring about significant advances in the human, social and economic development of society.

Therefore in the structuring and delivery of accessibility, decision makers need to think with the end in mind that the objective is full participation. Disability rights advocates have to fully internalise this three-stage train of thought and then drive home the point to them.

When these decision makers are able to attain that level of reasoning and put it into practice, we can rest assured they have become powerful allies and the interests of disabled people in this matter will be well taken care of.

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