accessibility

A wheelchair user’s cruise experience

by Gilbert Tan

It was a multiple stop cruise in Asian ports. Knowing the ‘Mariner of the Seas’ docks at the Marina Bay Cruise Centre was a bonus in convenience. Though I love travel, taking an aircraft is a major logistical challenge. Now with the MRT running to Marina South Pier station, transit is economically easy though there is still a 20-minute stroll to board the ship.

Cruising removes the need for sourcing accessible accommodation, a big bugbear for wheelchair users. Steps in the way, lifts that are too small, and doorways my wheelchair cannot squeeze through are not on the worry list. I must qualify that there are areas that non-ambulant persons with disabilities (PWDs) cannot go to such as the top deck. In my opinion, seating arrangements for PWDs in theatres on certain cruise ships are not catered to on Asian run cruise lines.

The food available on board is mind-boggling, hence the concern is over-eating rather than the meal hunting (which is an adventure in itself) needed on land excursions. People have often queried what are the things to do sailing out at sea. Well most of the time is spent drinking and dining and er… sleeping.

Then there are shows ranging from magic performances, samba dances, circus acts, ice skating extravaganzas, music from jazz to big bands to pop, K-pop to one of a kind ‘hypnotise the audience’ displays and imitating celebrities by an incredibly talented transvestite are the possibles in the itinerary each evening. More mundane dos are karaoke, towel origami, shopping, fruit art, swimming, rock-climbing, mini-golf, Jacuzzi soaking, sunbathing, read books, myriad games and the list continues.

Of course there are those that are payable if you got the cash such as arcade games, spas and massages, specialty restaurants, on board tours and pre planned shore trips, topless revues and the ubiquitous casino. The gaming area is where passengers really pay.

The ride to Marina Bay station was smooth. Disembarking and waiting for the allocated train to Marina South Pier station took more than ten minutes. The walkway to the terminal was mostly sheltered. Clearing customs proved to be similar to the experience at airports. Both people and luggage have to go through metal detectors (there was a quick body check for me), followed by passport screening and then one can proceed to the ship.

A slight kerb in between doorways

A slight kerb in between doorways

Having booked and paid online for the disabled accessible lodging, a cruise personnel scanned and allotted a type of credit card to each passenger as a system to pay for purchases on the sail. All along, the gangway was accessible except for a few bumps at joints in the corridor. We had hand carried bags while the heavier luggage was checked in and delivered outside our cabin door a while later. After a quick unpacking of sparing essentials, we were off to the cafeteria style eating. As usual, there was an overwhelming array of choices including the beverages.

A view of the washroom

Wheelchair-friendly toilet

The first evening on a cruise is the safety drill much like the video at the start of a plane flight. For this instance, knowing the place to head to in case of emergency is vital. Still, nonchalant folks taking the precautions lightly are commonplace. Dinner is offered in two time slots as it switches between two theatre show times for an interchangeable option.

Ports of call can be in a situation where it needs tendering. That means transferring to a boat to go on land, which takes the shore outing out of my list. The various destinations are Port Klang, Penang, Langkawi, Phuket(overnight) and back to Singapore. The only place my motorised wheelchair can get down was Penang. I could go down to the pier in Port Klang but there is not much to do there and transport to town was not available for my needs. The Penang port is a short walk to the city and has streets of shops and stalls.

At Langkawi, a very steep ramp discouraged me from taking the considerable risk to get to a sole souvenir shop at the ferry terminal. Phuket was only by tender. It may seem a waste not to be able to go on land but there are benefits. When a majority of passengers goes on shore, the whole ship seems deserted. Restaurant staff cater to your whims and other venues evoke the feeling of exclusivity accorded to celebrities and VVIPs. The swimming pools and jacuzzis are not crowded out, and leisure strolls hand in hand with your loved one is a most satisfying activity.

One has full awareness that such moments in time like this are the stuff dreams are made of. It is after all, a vacation away from the stresses of city living and materialistic pursuits of Singapore society.

TIP: This ship has room service during the day and food is allowed in the cabin, which is much-appreciated for a PWD. Breakfast in bed is a luxury as it shortens sitting periods and delays the tiredness of a long day.

Gilbert Tan is a member of the Disabled People’s Association. He is a writer and an artist who actively participates in community work. His works can be found on his website: http://www.gilberttan.com. He has recently published a book called, ‘Hospitales: theatre of another kind’ that recounts his 11 month-long hospital stay. 

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S.E.A. Aquarium: Accessibility For Persons with Disabilities

By Jorain Ng

On 23 January 2015, my organisation – the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) – paid a visit to S.E.A. Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa.

As with all other events, this outing was organised for our members, including our institutional members. But this outing was especially significant because it marked DPA’s first collaboration with the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ). ANZ had kindly sponsored the tickets and also volunteered manpower on the day. The turnout was overwhelming, with a total of 135 participants from ANZ, Down Syndrome Association, Singapore Association for the Deaf and DPA.

Apart from giving our members an opportunity to have fun and socialise, the purpose of this visit was also to review the accessibility of the attraction. Touted to be the world’s largest aquarium, with streams of tourists from around the world, we felt it necessary that the attraction is accessible for all. And so, at the end of our visit, we conducted an informal feedback session on our members’ experiences.

This blog post records our findings and recommendations for improvements.

Overall Experience

Glass tube at the aquarium

Walking through the glass tube. Photo credit: Raymond Lee.

Everyone had a great time exploring the marine world. The sights were simply spectacular and other-worldly!

Walking through the glass tube, we were enchanted by the many fishes, of different colours, sizes and species, swimming around us. Moving deeper into the aquarium, we also saw bottenose dolphins, hammerhead sharks, mantra rays and many other animals. And let’s not forget about the luminous jellyfish glowing aquariums! Many of us were captivated by the different species of jellyfish pursing through the water. We were also mesmerised by the Open Ocean Tank or Ocean Dome. The large tank houses glittering schools of fishes, sharks, manta rays and many others, giving viewers a glimpse into marine life.

There is no doubt that everyone at DPA, and I believe other members from ANZ, DSA and SADeaf as well, thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

But the aquarium could be made more enjoyable for persons with disabilities. The following sections detail our feedback and suggestions to improve the accessibility of S.E.A. Aquarium.

Getting to S.E.A. Aquarium

DPA members did not face any difficulty getting to the aquarium. Some used specialised transport like a wheelchair-accessible taxi or bus, while others travelled on the MRT and bus to get to the attraction.

But finding the main entrance was not easy because the Entrance signboard is small and hard to spot, especially for persons with low vision.

DPA suggests adding footprint markers on the ground to lead visitors to the aquarium. It would also be helpful to have an Information / Visitors Support Desk where visitors can ask for directions to the aquarium, the lifts and wheelchair accessible toilets. Alternatively, the management could deploy trained staff at different locations inside and outside at the entrance of the aquarium to direct visitors.

Inside the Aquarium

The aquarium was a little too dark for comfort. Persons with low vision may face difficulty getting around the aquarium. Deep sea creatures may be sensitive to light, so a possible solution to this safely hazard is to add sidelights in poorly lit areas and have luminous graphical or text signs on the ground to guide visitors. This would not only aid persons with low vision, but other persons without disabilities as well.

There is also the issue of sudden steep slopes along the pathways. Manual wheelchair users might find it hard to climb the steep slopes. DPA suggests replacing the steep slopes with gentler ones. Again, this change would benefit not just wheelchair users, but also the elderly, children, and visitors with baby strollers.

Due to the throngs of visitors flocking to the front of every aquarium and exhibit, wheelchair users were not able to see much or had to wait for the visitors to leave.

To stem such inconsiderate behaviour, the management of the aquarium could deploy staff members at strategic locations to ensure that visitors give way to wheelchair users. This way, everyone gets a chance to see the sea creatures, not someone else’s back or head.

Wheelchair users also faced difficulty reading the information plaques of the various sea creatures. The plaques were either positioned too low or too high (i.e. above or below their eye level). The management could consider repositioning the various signages / information at a comfortable eye-level for wheelchair users.

As a visual spectacular that relies heavily on sight, it is hard to imagine how persons with visual impairment can enjoy the aquarium. Nothing is designed in a way that can help them enjoy the marine world. There are no tactile ground surface indicators to help them navigate around the aquarium independently, nor are there any braille text describing the different sea creatures.

Life-size replica at River Safari.

Life-size replica of snapping turtle at River Safari.

To help improve the experience of persons with visual impairment, the management could add the aforementioned features to their aquarium. The management could also follow the footsteps of River Safari. River Safari helps persons with visual impairment visualise the animals by providing life-size replicas for them to touch and feel. Alternatively, the aquarium could develop an app (using GPS technology) to be used as a map/guide to give audio information about the exhibits/sea creatures.

Others (lifts, toilets & emergency protocol)

It was not easy to find the lifts as there were no lift signs. This caused great inconvenience to wheelchair users and their caregivers. The management could add lift signs around the aquarium or provide maps indicating the locations of lifts and toilets. Once again, this would benefit everyone – the elderly, children and adults – not just wheelchair users.

The aquarium has wheelchair accessible toilets. But like any other toilets in Singapore, there are a few inconsiderate persons without disabilities using them – a sure sign that Singapore needs more public education campaigns.

Finally, the aquarium lacks information on how persons with disabilities can escape the aquarium in the event of an emergency. Understandably, such emergency information are rarely provided at tourist attractions, but it is good practice to start doing so. The information can be posted at their website or at other notable areas of the attraction.

Conclusion

Despite these accessibility issues, all members happily chimed that they would recommend the visit to other persons with disabilities. DPA would love to visit the aquarium again, and extends our sincere gratitude to ANZ, SADeaf, DSA and S.E.A. Aquarium management.

So far, DPA has visited the Singapore Zoo, River Safari, Jurong Bird Park and now S.E.A. Aquarium. Are there other places you think DPA should visit and provide a review on its accessibility? Let me know in the comments below!

Enforce Stricter Laws on Disabled Parking Lots

By Jorain Ng

A man leaving a market walks towards the parking lot, when he spotted a car without the SG Enable-issued label parked in a disabled parking lot.[1] He approached the car owner and advised her to move her car, but was rebuffed by the car owner who replied that she did not mind getting fined as she was wealthy.[2]

This is a very disheartening scenario, and one that happens frequently in Singapore. It seems like once every few months a member of the public writes in to Singapore’s newspaper forum citing another abuse of disabled parking lots. All these acts of violation could be prevented if we pass stricter laws on disabled parking.

Although accessibility for persons with mobility impairments is my biggest concern, there are other arguments that point to this solution as well.

The law regulating the use of disabled parking lots lacks bite. Rule 29(1) of the Parking Places Act states that no person shall park in any reserved parking lot unless he is authorised by the Superintendent and unless such authorisation is displayed on the vehicle.[3] Offenders only pay a small price ranging from $25 to $80, depending on the type of vehicle.[4] It is hardly surprising that drivers without the SG Enable-issued labels continue to abuse these disabled parking spaces .[5]

The opposition would argue that imposing stricter laws does not tackle the root cause – the cause being apathy or a general lack of awareness and sensitivity towards the needs of persons with disabilities. Indeed, real kindness cannot be legislated, given the spontaneity of this natural human sentiment that prompts us, at the level of our souls and spirits, to have a care toward each other.

But this rebuttal neglects the symbolic significance of having stricter laws. Stricter laws will give a certain gravitas to the long-standing issue of abuse and send a strong message to the public that continued abuse is a serious matter that will not be tolerated by the Government. It will also signify the Government’s commitment to protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Opponents might also argue in favour of the soft approach. Using public awareness and moral appeals to influence public opinion and behaviour, in their opinion, should be the way to go. They inform, educate, and encourage individuals to “do the right thing” which, in this case, is respecting the use of disabled parking lots.

But moral suasion alone will not stop the abuse of disabled parking lots. Ensuring public compliance most often requires the use of both the carrot and the stick. The Singapore government acknowledges this fact and, in their approach to litter prevention for example, continues to enforce strict laws on littering despite conducting “Clean and Green” campaigns.

Enforcing stricter laws will also ensure greater accessibility for persons with physical disabilities. For most wheelchair users traveling to places with no wheelchair-accessible bus services and sheltered linkway from MRT stations, hiring a wheelchair accessible bus or taxi is the preferred mode of transport. The only potential drawback is that the drivers cannot find an available disabled parking spot which will enable them to assist their passenger in boarding and disembarking the vehicle smoothly. Enforcing stricter laws will ensure that these drivers and the passengers they ferry are ensured access to the disabled parking lots.

Another argument opponents might make is that it is not easy to ensure public compliance simply by enforcing stricter laws because of jurisdiction issues. SG Enable may be the agency responsible for issuing the disabled parking labels but they have no legal authority to punish drivers who park at disabled parking lots without authorisation. Currently the Housing Development Board (HDB) have the jurisdiction to fine and give demerit points to illegal parkers at HDB flats. But at other places like shopping malls and private estates, there is no legal authority that can oversee and enforce the law.

Admittedly, there is currently no solution for this issue of jurisdiction. Yet, there are areas where enforcement is possible, like the HDB flats mentioned above. It is at these places where drivers ferrying persons with disabilities or drivers with physical disabilities themselves can benefit from stricter enforcement.

For those of us who are not physically disabled, like the lady mentioned at the start of this paper, it is easy to overlook or even disregard the needs of persons with disabilities. This is where the law, backed in teeth and bite, in conjunction with public education must come into the picture. The outcome will be a Singapore society that is barrier-free and inclusive for persons with disabilities.

ENDNOTES

[1] In Singapore, the SG Enable-issued labels authorises the use of disabled parking lot for a certain amount of time depending on who the driver is. Drivers with physical disabilities can park in the designated lot for any duration, while drivers ferrying people with physical disabilities can temporarily park in the lot for up to 60 minutes only, when ferrying passengers who require the use of bulky mobility aids and must shift their vehicles after bringing their passenger to a safe place. SG Enable, “Car Park Label Scheme for Persons with Physical Disabilities,” https://www.sgenable.sg/schemes/accessibility/car-park-label-scheme-for-persons-with-physical-disabilities/ (accessed 5 Dec 2014).

[2] This is an actual case that occurred in December 29, 2014. Ong Soon Kiat, “Enforce law on handicap parking more strictly,” The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2014, http://www.straitstimes.com/premium/forum-letters/story/enforce-law-handicap-parking-more-strictly-20141229 (accessed 10 January 2015).

[3] ‘Parking Places Act,’ No. 5 of 1974, in Chapter 214, Section 8, Republic of Singapore Government Gazette Acts Supplement, http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/aol/search/display/view.w3p;page=0;query=DocId%3A%22777ad723-96ca-4c53-bd25-37190b6f1576%22%20Status%3Ainforce%20Depth%3A0;rec=0#pr29-he-. (accessed 5 Dec. 2014).

[4] A Motor Cycle pays a $25 fine, Motor Car pays $50 fine, and Heavy Vehicles pays $80 fine. For more information, please see Housing & Development Board, “Parking Rules and Fine Amount,” HDB InfoWEB, “Parking Rules and Fine Amount,” https://www.hdb.gov.sg/fi10/fi10327p.nsf/w/CarPark1RulesNFine?OpenDocument#ActiveTabContent (accessed 5 Dec. 2014).

[5] Goh Chin Lian, “Nicholas Aw: ‘We need laws to protect rights of the disabled’,” Singapolitics, 16 Nov. 2013, http://www.singapolitics.sg/supperclub/nicholas-aw-we-need-laws-protect-rights-disabled (accessed 5 Dec. 2014).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Goh Chin Lian. “Nicholas Aw: ‘We need laws to protect rights of the disabled’.” Singapolitics, 16 Nov. 2013, http://www.singapolitics.sg/supperclub/nicholas-aw-we-need-laws-protect-rights-disabled (accessed 5 Dec. 2014).

HDB InfoWEB. “Parking Rules and Fine Amount.” https://www.hdb.gov.sg/fi10/fi10327p.nsf/w/CarPark1RulesNFine?OpenDocument#ActiveTabContent (accessed 5 Dec. 2014).

Ong Soon Kiat. “Enforce law on handicap parking more strictly.” The Straits Times, 29 Dec 2014, http://www.straitstimes.com/premium/forum-letters/story/enforce-law-handicap-parking-more-strictly-20141229 (accessed 10 January 2015).

‘Parking Places Act.’ No. 5 of 1974, in Chapter 214, Section 8, Republic of Singapore Government Gazette Acts Supplement, http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/aol/search/display/view.w3p;page=0;query=DocId%3A%22777ad723-96ca-4c53-bd25-37190b6f1576%22%20Status%3Ainforce%20Depth%3A0;rec=0#pr29-he-. (accessed 5 Dec. 2014)

SG Enable. “Car Park Label Scheme for Persons with Physical Disabilities.” https://www.sgenable.sg/schemes/accessibility/car-park-label-scheme-for-persons-with-physical-disabilities/ (accessed 5 Dec 2014).

Cruising Around M’sia’s Ports (Dec 2014)

By Jorain Ng

In early December 2014, I went on a cruise holiday.

Since it was my first experience on a cruise and, to the best of my knowledge, there are no reviews on the physical accessibility of the ship, I’m taking this opportunity to share my thoughts.

Embarking & Disembarking the Ship

Boarding and leaving the ship was smooth and easy. The pathway connecting the ship to the port is wide enough for wheelchair users.

But there are no tactile surface ground indicators to guide people with visual impairments.

Physical Accessibility around the Ship

Pathway leading to cabin rooms

Corridor along cabin rooms

There are four lifts that stop at every deck. The lifts operate on touch-sensitive buttons.

But the lift buttons do not have braille indicating the floor levels.

Getting around the ship is a cumbersome process. Getting to the front and back end of the ship requires one to cut across some facilities like the restaurants, bars, lounges and casinos.

Thankfully, the main pathways connecting these facilities are wide and generally barrier-free, with gentle slopes at certain facilities.

The corridors along cabin rooms are tight and are usually cluttered with obstructions like cleaning carts.

Physical accessibility for people with visual impairment is dismal. There are no braille plates indicating the facilities available nor are there any tactile surface ground indicators to help people with visual impairments navigate around the ship.

Physical Accessibility of Ship Facilities

Sadly, I did not manage to visit all the facilities so I cannot say with certainty that all of them are wheelchair friendly.

The ones I did visit – the restaurants, lounges, duty-free shop, etc. – have main pathways that are generally barrier-free. I say “generally” because at some of these places, there are shallow steps leading to deeper portions of the ship.

The main pathways in these facilities are also wide enough for a wheelchair user to travel, but oftentimes there are physical obstacles like food trays stacked on top of tables.

Cabin Rooms

image3 image4

I stayed at a standard cabin room. The room is rather small and squeezy.

The toilet is even smaller, and is not wheelchair friendly either.

Upon research, I found that only four cabins are wheelchair accessible.

Emergency Situations

Crew teaching us how to wear a life jacket.

A crew teaching us how to wear a life jacket.

Before we sailed off, safety and evacuation demonstrations were performed to inform passengers how to react in an event of an emergency like a fire outbreak. A staff described the procedures via the loudspeaker, but there were no sign language interpreters.

The crew also did not explain how wheelchair users can escape from the ship in the event of a fire when all lifts stop operation.

Shore Excursions 

One of the activities available on this cruise was shore excursions.

The ship stopped at two ports – Penang Island and Port Klang – for one day each for passengers to disembark, have fun at the place for a few hours, and then return to the ship. So all excursions were jam packed with all kinds of activities at different costs. Passengers who are interested can choose their preferred excursion from a list, go free-and-easy or remain at the ship.

The crew made sure to indicate the wheelchair accessibility of all tour packages.

Overall verdict

Taken together, the ship is fairly inaccessible for wheelchair users and people with visual disability traveling independently. This is not surprising because the cruise ship I traveled on was Superstar Gemini – one of the older ships in the Star Cruises line.

Wheelchair users and people with sensory disabilities might be better off sailing with the Royal Caribbean. I have never sailed with this ship, but a page on their web interface indicates that they cater to passengers with different kinds of disability such as those with hearing disability, mobility disability, service animals, and visual disability.

Here is the link to the page: http://www.royalcaribbean.com/allaboutcruising/accessibleseas/home.do

For persons with disabilities interested in taking a cruise holiday, and wish to ascertain the accessibility of the ship before booking, here are a few questions to ask your travel agents and the cruise line:

1) Does the ship provide special accommodations for passengers with disabilities? (e.g. wheelchair-accessible rooms with roll-in showers, braille elevator buttons, sign language interpreting services etc.)

2) Does the ship allow service animals on board?

3) Are the routes in the ship’s facilities barrier-free? (e.g. Are there steps along the pathways?)

4) Are crew members properly trained on serving passengers with disabilities?

5) Are there evacuation procedures that take into account passengers with mobility and sensory disabilities?

Have you ever taken a cruise? Which cruise line was it? And was it accessible for people with disabilities? Let me know in the comments below!

Helping disabled travellers is a basic responsibility

Straits Times Forum, 22 September 2014 (print edition)

CHANGI Airport has a place in most travellers’ hearts because of its excellent service and facilities.

Yet after reading Dr Ho Ting Fei’s letter (“Airport wheelchair rules leave much to be desired“; last Wednesday), the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) would like to highlight that offering assistance to those with special needs should be viewed as fulfilling a basic responsibility and not as an extended service.

Tourists with special needs are first and foremost customers and should be given the same level of service as any other paying member of the public. Indeed, sometimes these passengers pay more than other travellers to fly.

Changi Airport’s website has information about the special needs services it provides, which include complimentary access to wheelchairs on a first-come, first-served basis. Passengers are also informed that they can request a wheelchair and a minder directly from the airlines.

Yet, such policies do not always filter down to the service providers on the ground. For a person with a disability, getting about is not always easy and anything that airport staff can do to alleviate the concerns of passengers and their friends and family would be a great help.

It is important that the airport management ensure that all staff are properly trained to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities and are aware of the relevant policies to avoid confusion and anxiety.

The DPA encourages Changi Airport to expand its disability services, especially in the light of Singapore ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

An example of best practice can be found in South Korea, where airports provide comprehensive services for visitors with disabilities. These services include priority check-in, assistance with check-in and with filling out documents, electric carts for passengers with mobility difficulties and in-flight assistance.

Another good example of best practice can be seen at Pittsburgh International Airport, in the United States, where it has volunteer airport ambassadors who offer friendly assistance to visitors, including special needs support.

Although every country is unique, it is good practice to look at adapting tried and tested policies to the local context. Changi Airport management should look at properly implementing existing policies as well as enhancing them to ensure that Changi is as great an experience for travellers without disabilities as it is for those with them.

Pottokkaren Kochuvareed Asha
Advocacy Consultant
Disabled People’s Association

Changi Airport Group has responded here.

Disability Awareness

I was watching this youtube video the other day which highlights a day-to-day problem faced by persons with disabilities.

[Credit: UNESCO]

The video captures the looks of onlookers staring at a wheelchair rolling across a busy pavement. The wheelchair stops in its track as a young man throws a basketball towards it. The camera then switches back to the wheelchair, now with a young boy sitting in it, as he catches the ball with a wide smile. This short clip then ends with a simple, but powerful message: Look at me, not at my disability.

What is my purpose in showing this clip? Well, to put it out there, I believe that the Singaporean society at large still retains negative stereotypes of and attitudes towards persons with disabilities despite the many steps taken by the Government and various disability organizations to create a barrier-free and inclusive society.

In no way am I saying that the Enabling Masterplan implemented by the Singapore government does not help promote disability awareness – it most definitely does. Enabling persons with disability to live an independent and dignified life by providing greater access to schools, employment, transport and health helps dispel stereotypes and myths.

Instead, I am arguing that more can (and should) be done to promote disability awareness. It is necessary that we consider how society at large views disability. We need to have more discussions around the stigmatization of persons with disabilities, and more importantly the misconceptions that surrounds disability. Disability is rarely discussed in an open and frank manner and as a result, negative stereotypes of disability persist.

Such misconceptions and low expectations about the abilities and attributes of persons with disabilities can be detrimental to the opportunities they have access to and ultimately affect their chances of happiness. Let me share an example of what I mean by this. I had a secondary school teacher who constantly regarded me as a student in need of special assistance. He vehemently insisted I required ‘Special Arrangements’ during examinations despite my continual assurance that I had no difficulties writing, doing mathematical calculations and science experiments independently. His intention, while kind, was not at all comforting or reassuring to a young kid with disability. I started fearing for my future, particularly how my alleged ‘incapacity’ would hinder me from finding employment.

Such attitudes and beliefs about disability are toxic. They suggest that disability itself is a problem that needs to be solved, and that persons with disabilities will always be dependents in need of charity. Under the social model of disability, it is aptly termed as an ‘attitudinal barrier’. This suggests that it is really other people who are the biggest barriers people with disabilities encounter. It naturally follows that if we can change attitudes, we can remove the institutional and physical (the built environment) barriers surrounding the community of persons with disabilities because it is men who create institutions and the environment.

This is an idealistic view of the world, I know. I recognize that a truly barrier-free utopia is not possible, not in my lifetime at least. Practicality and resource constraints make it unfeasible to overcome every barrier. Let’s consider, for example, a library stocked with millions of books. The library could never afford to provide all these texts in all the different formats which visually impaired users might potentially require. It is equally hard to imagine how beneficial a barrier-free society would be for people with profound learning difficulties, especially in Singapore’s modern industrial society where reading, writing and other cognitive abilities are required for full participation in life.

Again, what I am highlighting is a culture that makes inaccessibility even possible. Just because people with disabilities are in employment does not mean they are not facing discriminatory attitudes and practices within their organizational culture/climate. Just because more people with disabilities are in mainstream schools does not mean they are not being bullied or teased at by their fellow schoolmates. And just because more facilities like lifts and ramps are being built for wheelchair users does not mean people will not pretend they are invisible. (I still witness people rushing into MRT lifts despite seeing a wheelchair user waiting nearby). In short, policies to promote accessibility does not eradicate ableism, negative stereotypes of and attitudes towards disability. They only help people with disabilities participate in society on a more equal basis with others – nothing more.

Equality is not enough

[ Image taken from http://civicreflection.org/ ]

This is where disability advocacy comes into the picture. Educating people about disabilities through newspaper forums, posters, workshops or parades helps eliminate negative stereotypes and ableist notions of bodies and what is considered “normal.” Every year, for example, disability organizations across the island work together to hold the Purple Parade. This year 2014 is no exception. The parade aims to promote an understanding on disability issues and gather support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.

But more can and should be done. We cannot simply rely on annually held events like the Purple Parade and International Day of Persons with Disabilities, interim public campaigns or periodically published articles on disability issues. What we require is a continuous and sustained engagement with the public on the topic of disability. I am not talking about those inspirational or sob stories you often read/hear on social media. I am asking for a frank and open discussion on ‘disability’. Think Channel News Asia’s “The Talking Point’’. It could be organized as an open panel discussion whereby parties involved (potential employers, persons with disabilities, caregivers, disability organizations etc.) are invited to air their views, pose questions and voice any fears/apprehensions.

Once we start getting the public to become aware of and comfortable with talking about disability, we would have taken a huge leap forward in making society truly inclusive of persons with disabilities. It will be a society where companies, both private and public, are openly hiring people with impairments without the need for government incentives or grants. It will be a society where a wheelchair user could roll down a street without attracting unwanted attention. And finally, it will be a truly inclusive society where no distinction is made between people with and without disabilities, and the term ‘disability’ is excised from the dictionary.

Going Whoa @ WOHA Architects

By Alvan Yap and Marissa Medjeral-Mills

Not-so-usual lift buttons.

Not-so-usual lift buttons.

This is a mechanical sleight of hand, or is it a visual illusion? There is a flight of stairs, and then there isn’t – the steps vanish, flattening to a smooth, level surface. You see it happen, you understand, in an intuitive way, how it works, and still it seems magical.

DPA got to know about a certain firm’s custom-designed office for one of its staff who has a disability. We reached out to them for a chat and to take a look. This was how, one sunny morning, WOHA Architects came to play gracious hosts to us at its premises.

We were showed around the office, which is located in a converted shophouse, by WOHA staff Richard Kuppusamy and Phoebe Tan.

Richard, a wheelchair user, is an architect, while Phoebe is the Information Resource Manager.

It was especially interesting, not to mention illuminating, to see how WOHA had tackled the shophouse’s unique spatial and design challenges to make it wheelchair accessible.


All About Richard

But before venturing there, let’s get to know Richard a bit more.

IMGP1187

Richard had worked in the United Kingdom for 16 years before moving back to Singapore to be closer to his family. When he started job hunting upon his return, he found obstacles – literal, concrete ones – in his way. Not only did Richard have to seek an architect firm he would like to work for, it also has to have a door he could actually enter in his wheelchair.

WOHA Architects and Richard, fortunately, found each other and they turned out to be the perfect match. The WOHA management was willing to modify the office to make it accessible. WOHA, aptly enough, served as designer and consultant for the renovations, which were done in collaboration with Richard. The end result is an excellent example of “reasonable accommodation” in the workplace.


Untangling the acronym: About the CRPD

As defined by the The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ‘reasonable accommodation’ refers to “the necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”


The Importance of Being Reasonable..

Let’s see how the concept of “reasonable accommodation” works in practice for Richard. To him, it does not mean that every part of the office has to be made accessible to him. He feels it is enough that most of the office is accessible, especially the areas he needs to access frequently in the course of his work. He also says it “means that there are no barriers which prevent disabled persons from carrying out their work efficiently and also affording them the ability to excel”.

Reasonable accommodation, in other words, is not as overwhelming or as difficult to carry out as we might think. It is about acceptable compromises and balancing the needs of all parties, not about insisting that the needs of the person with disabilities – or any one group – take priority over others’.

An example: At one level of the office, there is a ramp which is a little steeper than technically ideal, but Richard does not mind as he can still use it comfortably. Making it less steep would get in the way of another colleague’s desk and also make it more likely for others to trip over it accidentally.

Too steep? Just nice? Takes up too much space? Tripping hazard? Juggling everyone's needs is an art.

Too steep? Just nice? Takes up too much space? Tripping hazard?
Juggling everyone’s needs is an art.


… And of Clarification

Richard says that if his fellow colleagues have questions about disability or about how to integrate the employee with disability, these questions should be addressed to the HR department. The HR side should have a policy to answer such queries and address any issues arising from having a staff with disability. It would also be good to have awareness/sensitivity training for the employees before hiring the person with disability.

Being Inclusive – What Does it Mean?
Richard feels employers in Singapore need to make more effort in being inclusive. Small measures can go a long way towards inclusiveness not only in their offices, but in their employment practices.

For example, if the office is not accessible for a candidate who uses a wheelchair, they should consider holding the interview at another venue which is accessible. If they then decide to hire that person, they can then go about making the office accessible.

He notes that a culture of inclusiveness in the workplace helps companies attract and keep employees with disabilities “who are educated and skilled, otherwise they will go overseas if there are no employment opportunities in Singapore.”


The Grand Tour

Now, let’s take a tour of the renovated, accessible shophouse!

Seamlessly does it!

Seamlessly does it!

Main entrance: The main door is big enough for a wheelchair user to go through easily. There is also a slight slope from the pavement outside leading to the door. WOHA had levelled off the walkway in the front of its shophouse premises to ensure easy passage through to the office entrance or past it to the adjacent buildings.

Richard notes that in many cases, the walkways outside shophouse buildings are not level, and also tended to be blocked by various structures such as signposts, bollards and fire hydrants. This makes it difficult or impossible for a wheelchair user to navigate freely.

Within and around WOHA’s shophouse office, the floors and rooms are made as accessible as possible.

Level floor.

Level floor.

Gentle slope.

Gentle slope.

Grilled surface covered up for wheelchair use.

Grilled surface covered up for wheelchair use.


Now You See It…
Two sets of flex up stairs are installed at WOHA’s office – one at the back entrance and another leading to the meeting room.

One floor, two levels, and two ways to access it.

One floor, two levels, and two ways to access it.

Back entrance: As the street level is lower than the entrance to the shophouse, stair access to the building is needed, and so is a lift for the wheelchair. The solution is to have something does both – flex up stairs.

Meeting room: As the shophouse is a listed (ie. protected) property according to the National Heritage Board (NHB), certain structural and aesthetic designs of the original building must be retained. NHB guidelines include the provision that the floors have to be maintained at their original levels up to 8 metres inside the building. This is why there are multiple levels on one floor, which means a set of flex up stairs had to be customised for access to the meeting room.

Let’s have a look at the flex up stairs in action.

The flex up stairs is activated by a button, which converts the stairs to a lift, and which reverts to a set of stairs after a minute. As a safety feature, it is fitted with sensors which detect whether anyone is on the platform. When activated, an alarm sounds to alert people to keep clear. This Building and Construction Authority-approved device, which costs about $40,000 to $50,000, was eligible for an ATF subsidy. (See box story below for more about the ATF.)

Accessibility solutions, Richard adds, should be integrated in a seamless way and not look like an afterthought. This is especially pertinent for a design firm. The flex up stairs and design of WOHA’s office is a good example of how this can be done – in fact, the meeting room is available for architecture groups to study as a model of accessible design.

Tapping On Technology
The Assistive Technology Fund (ATF), administrated by SG Enable, “provides individuals with a subsidy of up to 90% of the cost of assistive technology devices or $20,000 over the individual’s lifetime, whichever is lower. The Fund can be used to acquire, replace, upgrade or repair assistive technology devices for educational use or use in the workplace.”

IMGP1212

Bathroom: The bathroom/toilet door is of a foldable design which takes up less space than a swing door. The door can be opened both inwards and outwards, yet it works like a regular swing door. This type of door is usually used in corridors and is especially suited to the limited space of a converted shophouse.

Bathroom

Bathroom

Toilet: Richard feels that the design of toilets should conform to British accessibility standards which promote the independent – rather than assisted – use of the facility. This is what WOHA has done for its accessible toilet in its premises.

The current BCA code specifies a sink to be located on the wall next to the toilet, but this poses a problem – it blocks side transfers. (Side transfers from a wheelchair to the toilet is best for most levels of mobility.) The layout in the BCA code, Richard feels, is more conducive to assistants of person with disabilities, rather than for more independent users who do not need help.

In WOHA’s accessible facility, the wheelchair can be parked beside the toilet bowl itself (the spot where the sink is supposed to be in the BCA code), and the sink is located away and opposite the toilet bowl instead.

IMGP1206

Sink: The sink should be situated so that the wheelchair user can wash his hands before touching the wheelchair again, which makes for better hygiene.

The sink has an infrared sensor tap and soap dispenser. The sensor is in the tap end which is more reliably activated  compared to other taps with sensors embedded lower down. Other universal design features include: the dip in the front of the sink for the person in a wheelchair to reach the tap more easily; and the ample knee space clearance under the sink.


In Case Of Emergency

Specialised device.. find out what it is!

Specialised device.. find out what it is!

An evacuation plan that specifies procedures to bring wheelchair users or those with limited mobility out of the building safely is necessary in cases of fire or other emergencies. WOHA had gotten in touch with the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) about the evacuation guidelines and procedures for shophouses.

Although the lift is cleared to be operated in case of a fire, firemen would need exclusive use of it. So another method to get Richard down the stairs and out of the building during emergencies is needed – via a evacuation chair.

Richard had undertaken some research on the efficacy and suitability of evacuation chairs in the market, as part of a previous research project as an access consultant.

He found that widely used evacuation chairs do not adhere to any safety standards, and may be uncomfortable or even hazardous to the user. That is, although these non-certified chairs may help one survive a fire, the user may also end up with other injuries and further disabilities.

Another problem is that most such chairs are not designed to be used on a level floor. But as wheelchair users would have to abandon their wheelchairs in the building they are evacuating and use evacuation chairs instead, such devices need to be able to serve as a temporary wheelchair once they have exited the building and before a replacement can be found.

Although evacuation chairs can be operated easily by people of average strength and build, the operators need to be trained to use them because of the limited space it would be used in and safety concerns.


Using An Evacuation Chair

Evacuating a wheelchair user

Evacuating a wheelchair user

To use an evacuation chair, the person is strapped into it. On a level floor, the user will be in a sitting position. When descending the stairs, the user is then in an upright position, but not leaning forward as it would be disconcerting to him.

The chair, which WOHA specially imported from Canada, is designed to descend the steps using gravity and the body weight of the person in the chair. It will also automatically stop mid-step if the person pushing it lets go of the lever – a useful safety feature in high-rise buildings where the staircases may be jammed during an evacuation and the human traffic slow moving.

Another interesting fact: Evacuation chairs for basement offices are available too. These are motorised, enabling the ascent of the chairs.

DPA extends our warmest thanks to Richard and Phoebe for their time, company and sharing!

(Photos and video clip by Alvan Yap.)

Snaps from Beijing, Sydney & a bit of Britannia (Part 2)

by Alvan Yap

For the first of this two-part series, click here.

Buying into the 中国梦 (China Dream)!
China is the world’s most populous country and the world’s second biggest economy. But it would probably not strike anyone as being a role model for disability rights because of its less-than-stellar record on human rights issues.

You’ll be surprised though.

As a first-time visitor to my ‘motherland’, I certainly was.

In fact, China can be more modern, high-tech, advanced and even cleaner than.. Singapore. Well, at least some parts of Beijing and Shanghai are. (But not the air, no. On the increasingly infrequent clear days, the winter skies are crisp pastels. On other days, oh no!)

Wheelchairs overhead!
You don’t often see wheelchair users on overhead bridges, unless these are linked to lifts – and there’re hardly any such here. In fact, I’ve never seen a wheelchair on an overhead bridge before.

Imagine my astonishment when I bumped into this wheelchair-accessible overhead bridge in Beijing. The following photos tell the story – it’s wide and gently sloped enough for wheelchair users to use. (I think. It does look a bit steep at the upper reaches.)

I ascended the bridge, marvelled at the width of it, and was thinking to hang around to see if a wheelchair user came along, so that I can say finally I spot a rare phenomenon – a wheelchair on a bridge. But the wind and chill and my numbed extremities – the high for the day was 3 or 4 degrees – made me change my mind in a hurry.

Very wwwwide opening and ggggentle slope for wheelchairs.

Very wwwwide opening and ggggentle slope for wheelchairs.

Wheelchair accessible overhead bridge 2

This bridge leads across a busy 4 or 6-lane road below.


Signs of the (modern) times

China boasts some hilariously horrible English-language signs and notices, the result of inept and overly literal translation. Trust me – I’ve seen plenty, enough to laugh at and last for a lifetime.

Beijing’s English signs for accessible facilities, though, are a different story. “Barrier free” and “Accessible” are the appropriate words used, as derived from the Chinese phrase 无障碍 – literally, “no obstacle”.

(Unlike, unfortunately, the antiquated and inappropriate “Handicapped” signs you still see at certain MRT stations in Singapore. Though these are referring to toilets instead of ramps and slopes, what’s wrong with the word “accessible”? Because there’s everything wrong with “handicapped”.)

I spotted this at the Temple of Heaven (eh, I think).

I spotted this at the Temple of Heaven (eh, I think).

IMGP0450

Wheelchair accessible sign for ramp at the National Library of China in Beijing.


Tactile everywhere (kinda)

According to Wikipedia, China boasts – and this time, I use this word in its positive sense – the world’s second largest volume (after Japan) of tactile paving on its streets and roads.

The first time I noticed the yellow strips of bumps and raised lines on the ground, I thought they looked familiar. Then it came to me – I have seen these before back home, at the MRT stations and on the ground at HDB void decks near my home.

But the extent of tactile paving in Beijing astounds me. Every major pavement has it, as well as lots of minor paths too. Not being blind, I can’t say for sure how well implemented the paving is over there, but it certainly caught my eye.

Photo of a man walking in middle of pavement. On his left is a strip of tactile paving.

From Wudaokuo subway station to Tsinghua University dorms, a distance of about 2 or 3km, there is tactile paving all the way along the pavement.


“Love is blind”

Bethel China is a VWO which runs foster care programmes for blind orphans.

I’m very happy to be able to help out at one of its outings during my Beijing stay. A friend of mine had arranged for a group of Bethel children to attend a New Year concert at his school – the famed Tsinghua University. Some of the children were also scheduled to perform a song with the Tsinghua choir.

Meeting the blind kids and their chaperones at the entrance of the university, we bussed them in, brought them to a function room for a briefing and rehearsal and then to a cafe for some food. All of them have white canes which they are adept in using – unfurling the canes with a swish of the wrist (the canes are the foldable types), and then tapping/rolling them around (some of the canes have small rollers at the end) as they navigate the path ahead.

Here’s a photo of their performance.

The ten children in the front row were guided up and down the stage by a minder each. (They had left their white canes on their seats.)

The children in the front row were guided up and down the stage by a minder each. (They had left their white canes on their seats.)


Over in the United Kingdom.. 

"Less able to stand" is a nice touch.

“Less able to stand” is a nice touch.

I hope you have enjoyed this series and the stories. You, too, can contribute to future posts by sending in the sights and signs you see of accessibility facilities overseas. Just email me!

Wider corridors not ‘waste of space’

Straits Times Forum, 27 March 2014 (print edition)

THE Disabled People’s Association strongly supports the Building and Construction Authority’s new accessibility code (“Do wider corridors make sense for private projects?”; last Saturday).

Some developers have opined that wider corridors would benefit HDB dwellers and retirement-style residences more, but could be “a waste of space” in private condominiums, where heavy wheelchair traffic is “unlikely”.

Such reasoning does not stand up to scrutiny.

Generally, there is no heavy wheelchair traffic in HDB estates, hotels, malls and other public places. Yet, we rightly have mandatory guidelines on having ramps, accessible toilets and parking spaces, and wide corridors at these buildings and venues.

Such a move explicitly recognises the right of people with physical disabilities and wheelchair users to full and equal access to these places, in line with Singapore’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The fact that they are a minority group does not in any way mean they are entitled to less.

Wheelchair users, who are not only or always older people, are potential buyers of private condominium units as well. To argue that wider corridors are unnecessary discriminates against them as well as visitors who are wheelchair users.

Lastly, let us also think of other groups and situations where wider corridors would be a practical boon, such as older people with walking frames who may need caregivers alongside them, families which use strollers that accommodate two infants, and during emergencies such as fires and medical evacuations.

Nicholas Aw
President
Disabled People’s Association

Snaps from Beijing, Sydney & a bit of Britannia (Part 1)

by Alvan Yap

At first, I wanted to title this post “Doing the Touristy Thingies in Beijing and Sydney”, but most readers would have reacted like I would: “Another tedious happy-snappy blog post with an endless scroll of holiday selfies? Lemmeoutofhere!”

Nevertheless, I confess I could barely restrain myself from doing exactly that. (Who doesn’t want to look at my pretty pictures?) But you’ll be glad to know I found the willpower to.

On overseas trips late last year, I spotted some unusual, interesting or noteworthy accessible facilities which I’m glad to share with you. DPA President Nicholas Aw also contributed one, all the way from Britain.

Here comes the photos and the commentary.

Going Places Down Under!
We have certain notions of Australia. Or at least I have. The people there are supposed to be the warm and friendly and easygoing and helpful sort who say things like “G’day, mate!” to all and sundry. And the stereotypes, this time, are largely true. (Maybe I’ll edge a bit on the ‘easygoing’ part – my salted eggs were confiscated at the Sydney airport customs.)

But I’m sure it won’t be a surprise to anyone if I say Australia is some way ahead of Singapore when it comes to disability rights and accessibility. Examples abound.

Besides the obvious and ‘standard’ ramps and lifts, let’s look at some which are different from (better than?) Singapore’s, or which are not available here.

ET at the movies
First up, there’s this ET-like contraption you can request for at the cineplex. It consists of a roundish base which is screwed into the cup holder and a flexible neck ending in a rectangular screen. Wirelessly synced to the screen are the subtitles/captions of the movie – and you guessed it, this is for deaf and hard-of-hearing movie goers. Find out more about CaptiView here.

A group of four people holding the CaptiView device at the cineplex

My friends and I with the CaptiView devices. (One of them is not deaf. Guess who?)

Fold up, give way
Like our buses – well, most of them – Sydney buses are wheelchair friendly. The design is quite nifty though. When there is no wheelchair on board, the space is taken up by seats which can be folded down.

Photo of two bus seats which can be folded up to accommodate a wheelchair. One is not folded and one is partially folded.

These bus seats can be folded up to accommodate a wheelchair.

Wide open to all
The wider fare gates at the subway stations are meant for.. deep breath.. wheelchair users, people with walking sticks/canes, guide dogs, those lugging bulky lugguage, families with young kids, prams/strollers, pregnant women and bicycles. (Eh, I assume it means fold-up bikes.)

How do we know? The sticker says so!

As in the text

A sticker for details, or should that be stickler?

Loops here and there
Induction loops which work with hearing aids to deliver speech/sounds directly to the hearing aids (instead of through the air) can be found at the subway stations and trains, and in other public places. (While in Singapore, I’ve never come across any.)

A row of signs and notices, one of which indicates availability of loop system for hearing aid users on a wall panel

That, at the extreme left, is the universal symbol for those with deafness or hearing loss. The “T” indicates T-coil loop system is available.

Braille for emergency intercom
Braille information is located right above an intercom for emergency calls.

Photos shows Braille sign above an emergency intercom system

Especially for the blind. The Braille, that is, not the intercom (which is for everyone)

Meeting the luminous Dawn
And of course, last but not least, I got to meet Ms Dawn-Joy Leong in Sydney. Dawn, a Singaporean who is doing her PhD in a university there, has autism and a service dog Lucy – the very first one in the university. She is also an artist and a disability advocate. You can read more about her here.

Photo of five people standing in front of a cafe, including Dawn the lady who is in the centre

A pleasure to meet Dawn (in bright pink) and her service dog, Lucy (not in photo)

Read Part 2 “Buying into the 中国梦 (China Dream)” here!