Making hospitals accessible – a few steps at a time – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 9 November, 2014

Making hospitals accessible – a few steps at a time
Posted on November 9, 2014, Sunday

Participants of DET workshop presenting their action plan.
Participants present their action plan at the workshop.

HOSPITALS, with their high concentration of wheelchair users, are the last places disabled people would expect to face problems. This is where we go to first for treatments and follow-ups.
However, we’ve often had to contend with multiple barriers while there.

Looking for parking at most government hospitals is difficult on weekdays, more so accessible ones that disabled people can use because these are even more limited. This is one of the reasons why my blood pressure is always elevated when going for check-ups apart from the anxiety of having to wait for a few hours before getting to see a doctor.

A mother with a disabled daughter recounted one such experience to me one day. She drove into an accessible parking space near the entrance to the hospital. Just as she was about to open the boot to take the wheelchair out, a security guard approached them.

He told her she could not park there. The spaces with wheelchair symbols painted on the ground were reserved for vehicles with disabled drivers only. When she asked him where she could park, he told her to drop the child at the entrance and park elsewhere.

The suggestion of leaving a severely disabled daughter to fend for herself was unconscionable. What if she could not find parking after searching for half an hour? What if her daughter needed attention in her absence?

Her protests fell on deaf ears. He was insistent. That was the instruction from the management. Faced with the dilemma, she decided it would be safer to get a parking space first and then get her daughter out from the car. At least she would not be left alone and unattended.

From whatever angle we look at it, allowing one group of disabled people to use parking while denying another group with similar needs smacks of discrimination and goes against the spirit of inclusion that all disabled people have been fighting for.

Having heard too many similar complaints from disabled patients and their carers, a group of occupational therapists from the University Malaya Medical Centre in Kuala Lumpur were determined to resolve the problem.

They drew up a six-month action plan with the ultimate goal of getting the management to allocate more accessible parking spaces. If everything goes well with their proposal, an entire floor will be available for vehicles with disabled people going for their doctors’ appointments and therapies, regardless of whether they are drivers or passengers.

The plan was one of the four that were drawn up during the one-day Disability Equality Training (DET) workshop held last week. It was a collaboration between the hospital, Welfare Department and my training outfit.

Eighteen participants comprising medical officers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists from the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine went through a step by step process in getting to know disability from the perspective of disability rights.

The second group drew up a plan to equip the surau on every floor with chairs. This simple yet thoughtful gesture can make a lot of difference for people who cannot stand for too long during prayers. A suggestion to include instructions and materials for alternative methods of ablution was later incorporated into the plan as the tap for this purpose is located in a narrow space not accessible to wheelchair users.

The next two groups were concerned with the accessibility of training facilities for patients. The third group noted that the kitchen counter in the domestic room was too high for wheelchair users to use conveniently.

They proposed to either have the counter lowered or add another one that is lower, depending on the budget they could procure.

A heavy door can pose significant difficulties for patients with mobility impairments to move between rooms.

The fourth group proposed to make all doors in the wards easier to be opened. They plan to start with the door at the Independent Living Unit.

What I particularly liked about this workshop is that the participants being in the field of rehabilitation are acutely aware of issues that normally appear as minor to other people but may make or break the independence of their disabled patients.

With that in mind, they were meticulous with their analysis of the barriers in the environment and came up with ideas to improve the facilities or remove existing obstacles. All the four actions plans were feasible and can be realised within the six-month time frame.

They are the medical professionals who have been providing excellent outpatient rehabilitation services to me and countless other disabled people at one time or another. In all honesty, I dare to place the continuing care of my health in their hands without any reservation. It was therefore a privilege to be able to work with them in making the hospital more accessible.

The head of Department for Rehabilitation Medicine Associate Professor Dr Nazirah Hasnan was pleased with the outcome of the workshop. She has agreed to a review on the action plans after six months and has proposed three more workshops next year for the staff in other sections of the department. This will certainly keep me busy for a while.

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Of legacies, memories and a good Samaritan – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 2 November, 2014

Of legacies, memories and a good Samaritan
by Peter Tan. Posted on November 2, 2014, Sunday

Baby dresses made from pineapple fibre.
These pineapple fibre dresses are now likely over 80 years old.

MY mother was a bit of a hoarder, not the scary kind but of things that were of sentimental value to her. This can be seen from the things that she kept.

Among them were baby mittens she knitted for me, three tiny dresses made from pineapple fibre her mother hand-stitched for her and a rusty beat up cream crackers tin.

I brought these keepsakes along when I moved. Each item is a priceless gift from her. The dresses should be more than 80 years old now and are still in very good condition.

A blue plastic ice cream box has since replaced the rusty tin that held yellowed envelopes stuffed with old photographs, mostly black and white that were well preserved.

Just yesterday, I dug out the photographs for a book project I am working on. These were images of her taken through the years and dating as far back as the 1940s.

As I picked through them one by one, I tried to picture what life for her was like back then, piecing them together from the many stories she recounted whenever she was in a reminiscing mood.

When I was almost done with the sorting, I found several photographs of the time I was in the hospital, which opened another floodgate of memories. It was taken by the sister of a patient.

They had come all the way from Kuching for his treatment. Her name was Ah Moi. His name was Cheng Huat. I still remember them well after all these years because she was the most helpful person in the neurosurgery ward.

My mother did not know how to use the public payphone. Every evening, Ah Moi would accompany her to the lobby and help her make the call home to apprise my father of the situation.

She also seldom left the hospital. If she needed to buy something, Ah Moi would get it for her on the trips out to buy food and other groceries.

Most of us admitted to the ward were waiting for our turn in the operating theatre or recuperating from surgery. It was there that I witnessed people at their most vulnerable and human emotions at their rawest. Optimism and fear ruled our days.

We secretly cheered for those who were well enough to be discharged hoping that we could be next. On the other hand, someone could be there one day and gone the next. Uncertainties like that could wear down even the strongest.

There was a 10-year-old boy from Butterworth with an incontinence problem. He was accompanied by his mother. If his mother had not told us, we would not have known what was ailing him. He appeared healthy otherwise.

Typical of kids his age, he scampered all over the ward and would drop by my bed occasionally. His visits were welcome distractions from my anxieties.

I was immobilised by 16 pounds of iron pulling on my head. It was meant to realign my spine. The inability to move my head limited my sense of my surroundings. I heard more than I saw.

The occasional cries of a baby tugged at my heartstrings. My mother told me he had hydrocephalus, a condition where the head is enlarged due to abnormal fluid accumulation inside the skull. He seldom, if ever, had any visitor.

When I could sit on a wheelchair after surgery, my mother pushed me to his crib. My heart ached seeing him in that condition. The hospital must have been the only home he had ever known.

I reached out to stroke his tiny hand. He grabbed my finger. At that instance, we connected, the little one and I. Tears welled up in my eyes. That was the first and the last time I saw him.

I never knew what happened or where he was taken to after that. I did not want to know. I feared the truth. For days after that, I was expecting to hear his shrill cries. That would have indicated he was still around.

My mother and Ah Moi kept in touch for a few years after my discharge from the hospital but eventually lost contact.

Sometimes, I think of her and her brother, wondering how they are both doing and how lucky my mother and I were to be blessed by her generosity at a time when we needed it most.

I would cherish an opportunity to thank her personally for making my stay in the hospital with my mother more bearable. My mother would have had a difficult time coping had it not been for her.

Now that I have given more thought to the belongings my mother left behind, I realise how they have enriched my memories. I am sure they did the same for her.

That was why she put so much effort into keeping them in good condition for so long. Those were the links to her past and the people she valued.

They have now become my links to the past. I hope I can preserve them as well as she did, especially the pineapple fibre dresses and the old photographs that evoked so much in me.

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Lessons from my travels – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 25 October, 2014

Lessons from my travels
by Peter Tan. Posted on October 25, 2014, Saturday

TRAVELLING abroad broadens the mind. That is true. My trips to distance lands gave me valuable insights into the way of life in these countries.

Surprisingly, it was the handling of garbage at household and consumer levels that left a deep impression on me.

I spent two weeks attending a training session in Tokyo, Japan. The first thing I noticed was that the pavements and streets were clean. It was almost impossible to find indiscriminately strewn litter anywhere. No cigarette butt or used tissue paper was in sight.

As someone who needs to spend a little more time in the toilet, I was naturally amazed at how immaculately dry the public toilets were. I would not have felt disgusted like I would in the toilets here if I had to lie down on the floor. That was how clean the toilets were.

The Japanese penchant for hygiene is reflected in the nation’s serious attitude towards managing waste disposal. The host at the residential apartment where I lived took pains to explain the workings of the system.

Household waste cannot just be packed together and left outside for the municipal garbage collectors. They must be sorted and placed in coloured plastic bags, one colour for each category of waste: combustible and non-combustible waste, and recyclable items like plastic, metal cans and used paper. Recyclable bottles and cans must be cleaned before going into the respective coloured garbage bags.

A calendar in the kitchen indicated the days each type of waste would be collected. Waste other than those specified would be left behind.

There is even a guidebook outlining the lists of items for each category and policies for waste management for the particular area.

I did not know that disposing of garbage could be so complicated yet so systematic at the same time.

My second experience with responsible waste disposal was in Incheon, South Korea where I attended a conference some years back.

Autumn had just arrived. Mornings were chilly. I woke up earlier than usual to get ready and catch the bus for the 50-minute ride to the convention centre from the hotel.

Although I am not a breakfast person, the effort in getting up coupled with the long journey and the cold weather worked up my appetite.

Only a few food outlets were open for breakfast in the sprawling complex. My strict low-protein diet further restricted the already limited choices. I settled for a sandwich and orange juice from a cafe.

I parked myself at a table in a snug little corner and slowly savoured the very expensive sandwich. The hallway was a hive of activity as participants mingled while waiting for the programmes of the day to begin.

What I saw next was fascinating. The couple beside me, having finished their meal, cleared the table and wiped it clean. I peeked at them out of the corner of my eyes in order not to appear rude.

They methodically sorted the used packaging according to materials at a recycling counter, which had separate receptacles for used plastic cups, drinking straws and paper wrappers.

No wonder the tables were always clean even though the cafe was very busy with a long queue of customers waiting to order their food at the counter.

Like they say, “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” When I was done, I did the same. It felt awkward. Until then, I had never cleaned up when I went to self-service restaurants back home.

As I thought about it afterwards, it was not such a bad idea after all. If I played my part, it would translate to a clean table being immediately available for the next customer. It works both ways. I could be the next customer being greeted by a clean table at another time.

In Malaysia, Ikea’s restaurant has signs encouraging customers to clear their own tables before leaving, explaining that it is one of the reasons they are paying less for the food.

Tray stations are strategically located around the restaurant for this purpose. I later discovered this practice is promoted at Ikea restaurants worldwide.

When I last went there, many customers just walked away after their meals and left behind plates, cutlery and cups on the table either out of ignorance or indolence.

In the end, those who wanted a table had to clear it themselves or wait for the cleaning crew, which took a while because of the number of table that had to be cleared. This apathy is also prevalent at popular fast food restaurants.

The culture of clearing tables after meals at self-service restaurants and recycling our household waste is a practice worth emulating.

It is not about paying less for the food but about being considerate to others who come after us. It is about caring for the environment by reducing waste and ensuring that the environment is sustainable for future generations.

This is what I like about travelling. There is always something new and something good to be learnt from each journey.

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