When the trouble-makers make the difference

by Alvan Yap

A few years ago, I made a plea for our MRT and buses to be made accessible to our citizens in wheelchairs and was told not to make trouble by one of our ministers. I was tempted to tell him that he should spend one day in a wheelchair. I am sure the experience will remove the calluses from his heart.

These lines by Professor Tommy Koh are seared in my mind. They come from his feisty exchange of letters with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in the Straits Times Forum way back in 1998.

For certain folks, especially those in the disability community, I bet the passage of time has not diminished the letter’s impact, nor dimmed their memories of the frisson of excitement and that slightest glimmer of hope when Professor Koh’s letter appeared. Oh wow, finally, somebody important and high up was looking out for us, and even openly speaking up for us! The professor’s letter was also noteworthy for being a rare, biting public rebuke of government policy then.

The series of letters between the professor (who is currently our ambassador-at-large) and LTA can only be described as a ‘frank exchange of views’. In turn, the tone and substance of LTA’s reply encapsulated everything about the official attitude towards people with disabilities that did not sit quite right with us.

Oh well. Let’s not pull punches. The reply from LTA rankled, from its suggestion of a dedicated — and potentially costly — transportation service for wheelchair users (which would also have denied them equal access to public transportation), to its skepticism that the government should foot the retrofitting bill to make the MRT wheelchair accessible, to implying that advocates for the disabled were an “emotive” and “chest-thumping” lot unable to grasp practical and financial realities.

We were indignant, we were upset and yet, in the end, many among us were quietly resigned. This, we lamented, was how things had always been and would be — we couldn’t do anything.

Fortunately, not everyone thought so.

The times they are a’changing
‘Trouble-makers’ from across the spectrum — from the disability community and VWOs, from civil society, from among civil servants, and from the ranks of the political leadership in the government — saw and understood how unfair and outdated such polices and mindsets were, and the need for things to change.

More crucially, they felt strongly enough about it to come together and work to make sure things did change, and for the better.

In November 2012, a press release from the Ministry of Social and Family Development quoted the acting minister on the occasion of Singapore’s long-awaited signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD):

Singapore agrees with the spirit of the Convention. Signing the Convention underscores our collective commitment to do even more to improve the lives of persons with disabilities — in areas including early intervention, education, employment, adult care and accessibility. We will make steady efforts towards this worthy and meaningful goal.

This marked a tsunami of a change in official attitudes and policies. But even before the government had put pen to paper on the CRPD, other ripples and waves had already eroded once-immovable mindsets and smoothened the path towards greater equality and rights for people with disabilities in Singapore.

‘Inclusive society’ has been the buzzword du jour in government, corporate and social circles, ever since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made it the cornerstone of his 2004 National Day Rally speech and which became a recurring theme in subsequent rallies.

We have had two National Master Enabling Plans laying out in detail and depth the needs of people with disabilities in Singapore and recommending measures to meet these, and more — to aim to fully integrate them into society.

All MRT stations have wheelchair-accessible ramps, lifts, train carriages and fare gates — the works. The entire public bus fleet is to be wheelchair friendly by 2020; half of the buses are already accessible. (LTA, to its credit and in an U-turn from its stance 15 years ago, played a significant role in this.)

We have established a national building code which mandates Universal Design guidelines, such that public buildings and facilities are to be accessible to people with disabilities. Wheelchair users are now commonly seen on our streets, in our malls and on public transport. (They used to be such rare sightings that, as a child, I remember gawping at ‘the chair with wheels’ whenever I came across one in public.)

People today are more knowledgeable about those with ‘invisible’ special needs, such as intellectual disabilities and neurological disorders. Little by little, we are also becoming more understanding and accepting of their behaviours which may seem odd or do not conform to social norms.

The achievements of our sportsmen and women with disabilities have been lauded in the mainstream media, and no less than the Straits Times awarded its high-profile Athlete of the Year award to Paralympian Laurentia Tan earlier this year.

And there are the small things which most non-disabled people do not notice, but which add up and mean so much to specific groups of people with disabilities: Lifts which announce the floor they stop at and boast Braille buttons. News broadcasts on television which come with subtitles. The special SMS-based emergency service for persons with hearing or speech impairments.

.. via DPA's Inclusion Fundamentals workshop. (photo by Alvan)

Getting the basics right. (photo by Alvan)

Waiting on the world to change
However, such positive developments must not be taken for granted. After all, people with disabilities were, once upon a not-very-long-ago time, shunted to the margins of society. Often hidden at home, regarded as a stigma, and isolated from mainstream society, their needs were largely either ignored or overlooked. Because of their sensory, intellectual or physical disabilities, they were also short-charged in access to education, effectively barred from public places due to obstacles in the way, and blatantly discriminated against when looking for work.

From that low base, we can see how much things have improved since. We applaud and appreciate the progress made, and are grateful to those who have made it happen. In short, we have come a long way.

And the end of the journey is nowhere in sight.

Let’s look at a disparate and non-exhaustive list of areas where we can and need to do better.

Our Compulsory Education Act still automatically exempts children with disabilities. Employers still tend to shy away from hiring people with disabilities, even if the latter are qualified and eager to work. Our mainstream media still lapse into the use of inappropriate terms such as “wheelchair-bound” or “deaf-mute” (which is outright offensive), or portray people with disabilities in inaccurate and patronising ways. Our banks and other public facilities are still not fully accessible to people with disabilities, likewise far too many educational institutions and offices.

But what perhaps is most telling came in two incidents which occurred just last year. A visually-impaired lady with a guide dog was turned away from shops, restaurants and other public venues and even subjected to verbal abuse for trying to enter these places (by law, guide dogs for the blind are allowed everywhere except the zoo and hospital operating theatres); a blind man travelling alone was not allowed to board a flight he had booked and paid for, because the airline insisted that he had to have a companion.

We may never be able to attain a perfect society, nor an utopia for people with disabilities. But we can jolly well keep striving towards it, inch by inch. We should never give up trying to banish ignorance and prejudice, person by person. It’s a never-ending journey, to be sure, every mile a struggle potholed with uncertainty and signposted by setbacks. Yet, as those who have walked the path before know, it is an immensely fulfilling one.

So hop on the trouble-making bandwagon with me, and brave — and enjoy the thrills of — the ups and downs of the bumpy ride ahead.


The writer is deaf, and has previously worked as a special education teacher and as an editor with a publishing company. He is currently an advocacy executive with DPA. All views expressed here are his own and do not reflect DPA’s official stance. Comments and feedback are welcome – contact him at advocacy@dpa.org.sg.


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