Etiquette when interacting with disabled people – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 24 May, 2014

Etiquette when interacting with disabled people
by Peter Tan. Posted on May 24, 2014, Saturday

MY wife and I can only do our grocery shopping on weekends. We buy enough vegetables, fruits and other supplies for the following week. This is also the time when the shopping mall we frequent is packed with other weekend shoppers.

What I dread most about this weekly routine is waiting for the elevators. They are always full. Sometimes, we have to wait between 15 and 30 minutes for one that I can get into. There are no other ways for me to move from one floor to another except to use the elevator.

There was one time when after waiting for the longest time, the elevator doors opened to reveal that there was sufficient space only for my wheelchair. My wife decided to take the stairs in order not to waste any more time.

As I got in, someone grabbed the push handles of my wheelchair from behind and turned it against the direction I was manoeuvring.
“Please don’t push my wheelchair,” I told him.

“Don’t worry, I know how to handle a wheelchair,” he replied as he continued manoeuvring and almost ran the front wheel over the toes of the passenger beside me.

“Stop!” I said sternly but he ignored me.

Exasperated, I raised my voice to tell him off, “Don’t touch my wheelchair!”

It was only then he reluctantly released his grip and muttered, “I was only trying to help.”

Do not get me wrong. I am always grateful for people who are willing to help me. There have been situations when I required help going up a steep ramp or holding the door open and considerate people were kind to extend assistance to make it convenient for me.

However, it is not correct to assume that disabled people are always in need of assistance. Most times, we do not. When we decline a helping hand, please do not be offended and take it personally. In our determination to realise our participation in society, we try to be as independent as we possibly can in our activities.

The wheelchair is part of my personal space. It should be respected like how we respect the personal space of the people around us. We do not simply intrude and touch the people around us or insistently carry their handbag for them. Likewise, one should not grab or touch any part of the wheelchair for the same reason.

As for the unpleasant experience in the elevator, not only was it rude to forcefully push my wheelchair despite my requests not to, it was also dangerous and could have caused me to lose my balance and fall, or injure other passengers.

When intending to provide assistance to a wheelchair user or someone with mobility impairment, always ask: “Can I help you?” If the person needs it, the next question should be: “How can I help you?” The same goes for helping a blind person. Always ask if assistance is required and how it can be rendered. Do not assume.

Learning to communicate effectively is useful when interacting with disabled people and reduces the chance of misunderstandings. Here are some simple tips that could be useful.

For a conversation that is going to last more than a couple of minutes with a wheelchair user, it is better to do it at eye level by sitting down on a chair or kneeling on the floor. It is uncomfortable for us to have to look up for an extended period of time.

When speaking to a blind person, it is polite to introduce yourself first. In a group conversation, identify yourself before speaking. Address the blind person you are speaking to by name. Otherwise he may not know you are talking to him.

The majority of non-disabled people, and even disabled people, do not know sign language. That should not stop us from communicating with a deaf person. The easiest way, short of learning sign language, is by using pen and paper. There have been instances when my deaf friends and I communicated by typing out our conversations on the computer or smartphone.

Be patient when holding a conversation with a person with a speech impairment. Let the person finish speaking. Do not attempt to complete the sentence halfway. It is all right to ask the person to repeat if you did not get it the first time. It is also all right to use alternative communication methods if you still have difficulty understanding after repeating.

While disabled people are always open to a good conversation with new friends, let not the first question be “What happened to you?” It is an awkward question especially from someone we just got acquainted with. Would you like it if someone you just met asked you personal questions? Such subjects are best left to the time when you become better acquainted with us.

And most importantly, speak directly to the disabled person instead of the companion or assistant, or even when there is a need to communicate through an interpreter. Being disabled does not mean that we are not able to speak for ourselves.

These are just a few samples of disability etiquette. People with different impairments may require different interactions. This is still a learning process for me as I delve deeper into the various kinds of impairments.

All I can say is that it will get easier and the interaction more natural once you get to know disabled people better. You will realise that we are just like you and everyone else. It is through mutual understanding and respect that we can create a society that is more accepting of diversity and encourage inclusion.

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Stickers of inconvenience – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 17 May, 2014

Stickers of inconvenience
by Peter Tan. Posted on May 17, 2014, Saturday

WOMEN, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim announced last week that the Road Transport Department (JPJ) started issuing accessible parking stickers early this month. She was reported to have said that 987 disabled persons have been identified as having driving licenses and are entitled to receive the stickers.

The lack of information in the news report on the requirements and process to apply for one led to speculation and confusion. Officers from the Department of Welfare (JKM) later unofficially clarified in Facebook that in Phase One of the roll out, the focus is on physically disabled drivers who are registered with the department, holding a valid Class A or A1 license and are driving JPJ approved modified vehicles.

Senator Bathmavathi Krishnan also circulated to NGOs and individuals the standard operating procedures (SOP) of this initiative issued by JPJ. Apparently, the standardising of the stickers had been discussed in the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD) since 2009. She raised the matter again in the Dewan Negara in April. The Ministry of Transport in a written reply stated that the JPJ would give out the stickers beginning this month.

The local governments in Selangor and Penang have been giving out accessible parking stickers in their municipalities since 2009 and 2010 respectively. Vehicles with these stickers are allowed to use government managed parking spaces free of charge. However, disabled persons from other states have to resort to printing the stickers themselves or buying them from stationery shops.

Therefore, centralising the issuance and standardising the stickers is a good move. It allows for easy identification of vehicles that genuinely need to use accessible parking spaces. The implementation and enforcement of this system leaves much to be desired though.

In a discussion with my friend Wang Siew Ming, who is a paraplegic and drives a car with hand controls, he pointed out that the SOP states the modified vehicle must be registered in the name of the disabled person and classified as a disabled person’s vehicle.

Both our vehicles were registered under our spouses’ names and under a different category. We were of the view that the JPJ does not understand that not every disabled person can afford to buy a car or qualify for a bank loan. That alone disqualified our eligibility for the stickers.

He further added that JPJ requires a medical report for the conversion of Class D to Class A license. The process to obtain the medical report by itself is another tedious affair. All in, he counted that we will have to go to the hospital five times to get this document, from making appointments to see the doctor and therapist, undergo the evaluation and finally to collect the report.

I was issued with a Class D license after I passed the driving test although I had submitted the required medical report. Imagine the hassle I have to go through again to have my license converted due to this oversight by the JPJ.

The stringent conditions will make it very difficult and inconvenient for many drivers in a situation similar to mine to qualify for the stickers. It leaves us no choice but to continue using the unofficial ones we have been using all this while.

Disabled people in this country drive because of one simple reason. The public transport infrastructure is largely inaccessible to people with mobility impairments. Owning a car is not easy for many of us who generally have lower income and higher expenditure due to our conditions apart from the costs of petrol and maintenance for our vehicles. Other family members usually have to bear part of this burden. But that is what we have to do in order to move around. Otherwise we would be stuck at home.

Fitting the vehicle with a hand control device is not cheap. Getting it approved by the JPJ is tiresome. The running back and forth to get documents endorsed and the car inspected is an endeavour that demands a great deal of time, patience and effort. I know because my wife and I went through that process. We were luckier in the sense that Wang was there to help us with the documents and advised us along the way as he had gone through it earlier.

The main purpose of standardising the stickers was to prevent the misuse of accessible parking. The issuance of these stickers without a corresponding law to penalise abusers is an exercise in futility. With the responsibility of enforcement falling back on local authorities which have not been effective in stemming the problem, nothing much will come out of this as far as I can see. It must also be pointed out that many private car park operators are also half-hearted in ensuring that the accessible parking in their premises are not misused.

As far as I can see, this initiative was poorly thought out. Disabled members of the NCPWD who were supposed to represent the interests of the community have failed to advocate effectively to the JPJ in this matter.

What was supposed to protect our rights and make our participation in society more meaningful is miring us in bureaucratic red tape instead. The application procedures are disabling and tedious to fulfil. To some degree, it is even discriminatory as non-disabled drivers are not put through the same rigorous prerequisites.

One of the ways to solve the problems of misuse is to have the government gazette all accessible parking irrespective of whether they are publicly or privately owned to be strictly for the use of disabled persons only, reclassify the stickers to permits and issue it to all who are eligible, and make it an offence punishable under the JPJ Demerit Points System. No permit, no parking; it is as simple as that. Phone numbers of the enforcement agencies should be put up at these parking spaces for the public to report abuse of the facility.

Unless and until there is a radical change in policy and action within the government to dismantle all the officious attitude when dealing with matters of disability, disabled people will have to contend with all these systemic barriers. The disabled members of the NCPWD including Bathmavathi are in a position to chip away at those barriers and they should not let this opportunity to do that go to waste.

To become more effective representatives, they should also conduct regular dialogues with the community. It is only in engaging with us that they can truly understand the problems that we are facing. They can begin by taking note of our grouses against this issue and advise the JPJ to simplify the conditions for disabled persons to obtain the stickers.

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The annehs of my childhood – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 10 May, 2014

The annehs of my childhood
Posted on May 10, 2014, Saturday

THE crisp ringing of the bell preceded his arrival. He rode in soon after through the rickety gateway on his bicycle, a black doctor’s bag securely fastened to the back carrier. The soft sweet scent of his hair cream permeated the air as he alighted and kicked the stand to park the bicycle upright.

That was the time of the month when anneh (brother in Tamil), as we fondly addressed all men of Indian origin, came to cut the hair of the children in the house. It was a large brick and timber structure erected on a foothill. We were living in a rented room there.

Anneh was a middle-aged man with wavy hair that was nicely slicked back. His neat white shirt was untucked over a white dothi that was pulled up to his calves so that he could pedal without getting it soiled with grime. He let it down as soon as the bicycle was parked.

The usual wooden chair was brought out from the house for this occasion. A small stool was added to elevate our diminutive bodies to an appropriate height for our hair to be conveniently trimmed. When the first child was ready, anneh would open his magical black bag. As kids, we were always fascinated by the items it held inside.

First out was the long flowing barber’s cloth that he fastened around our neck. Next came the clipper and a comb. The clipper’s steel teeth made it look menacing. There was no need to indicate what hairstyle we wanted. It was all the same – trim the fringe, and slope on the back and sides with no sideburns.

His other implements were a pair of scissors for snipping, a straight edged razor for shaving off the stubble and a powder puff for applying talcum powder to soothe the skin afterwards. The 15-minute haircut cost 50 cents. This was in the early 1970s. For comparison, a packet of nasi lemak was only 15 cents then.

The barber together with his compatriots formed the bulk of itinerant tradesmen who actively plied their business in many neighbourhoods during those times. They provided interesting breaks for us from our dreary children’s games of marbles, hide and seek, and hunting for spiders among the undergrowth. Whenever they were around, we would stop playing and crowded around them to watch the activity, whatever it was.

The anneh whom I always looked forward to seeing was the one peddling kueh. He would come by every few days. We could hear him calling out: “Kueh, kueh” in his distinct accent shortly before his arrival. He walked with a unique rhythmic gait that made carrying the heavy load easier.

On one end of the stout pole that he expertly balanced on his shoulder hung trays and trays of Nyonya kueh, while the other end held a charcoal brazier, a pot of fish gravy, bowls, cutlery and ingredients for asam laksa. Watching him lift up each tray to display the colourful kueh underneath was like magic to the kid I was then. They never failed to make me salivate. My favourite was kueh talam, which my mother would buy for me without the need to ask.

Another colourful character who made his rounds almost every day was the karung guni man, so called because of the gunny sacks he carried on his bicycle. Long before recycling was a household word, he was already buying and trading in used bottles and newspapers to be reused and recycled.

If there was ever an expert on driving hard bargains, it must be the karung guni anneh. He would haggle over every last cent for just a few soiled bottles. I always enjoyed watching my mother trying to get a better price for the items she wanted to sell to him.

After the deal was struck and settled, he would pack all his purchases carefully into the many brown gunny sacks he had with him, secure the sacks to the back of his bicycle and call out “Botol, botol” again as he rode off to announce his presence to the other houses in the neighbourhood.

In the late evenings, the milkman would ride in with a large brass container to deliver fresh milk followed a while later by the roti man with his unusually loud ringing of the bell, the large cabinet behind him laden with breads, buns and other pastries. And then there was the coconut trader who came every month. He was adept at climbing the towering trees with just a rope around his ankles for leverage to pluck coconuts growing at the fringe of the compound.

Collectively, these tradesman made life convenient by bringing their services to our homes. We could even earn some small change for selling used bottles or produce growing in the compound to them. Sadly, the itinerant barber and kueh man have now become a thing of the past. They were so much a part of my childhood. We also do not get to see the Indian roti man and milkman that often any more, their roles gradually taken over by neighbourhood bakeries and supermarkets nowadays.

While some things have changed irretrievably, some have not. After all these years, I still like to have my hair cut by Indian barbers who thankfully have survived the march of time and moved on to operate in the comfort of air-conditioned premises. The flashy upmarket hair salons and quick haircutting services just do not give me the trim for slope on the back and sides, the way I would be happy with, my pickiness perhaps influenced by anneh’s faultless handiwork on my crowning glory four decades ago.

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