Thursday, May 14, 2009

Enabling the disabled is a moral duty

May 14, 2009

By Andy Ho

ALL MRT stations now have at least one barrier-free access route. Over half of SMRT's fleet of 66 trains are wheelchair-friendly. And SBS Transit has 22 wheelchair-accessible buses.

While all this does constitute progress, the problem for the disabled is that stretch of journey to and from a train or bus. There are still streets without kerb cuts, pavements that are too steep, corridors that are too narrow, entrances or even bus stops without ramps, open drains and so on. However, the Government is spending $60 million to make all roads, walkways, taxi stands, bus stops and access routes to MRT stations barrier-free by next year.

These issues and others were discussed at the International Conference for Accessible Tourism 2009 organised here by the Disabled People's Association recently. One main idea was that making facilities more accessible to the disabled (and elderly) can help boost tourism. Whether compelling as a business argument or not, we as a society should not have to stoop to such an instrumental rationale to justify a fight against what is discrimination based on disabilities.

If there are only stairs to the workplace or sports facility, say, the wheelchair-bound have no independent access to these places. If there are only printed words without Braille, the blind are hampered. The disabled suffer impairments largely because of environments created without their needs in mind. Disability is not merely a physical problem lodged within the individual; it is also primarily a problem that arises from the built environment. Yet this is not how we usually think about the disabled. Instead, we think about them as innately saddled with biological deficits, so what they need is just medical or surgical treatment, including physiotherapy. And some public aid, perhaps.

But framing the issue in this manner construes the disadvantages which the disabled suffer as naturally, not socially, caused. If disability is a biological flaw, any request to modify the environment is seen as a demand for 'special rights'. Any remedy we choose to 'offer' we see as something charitable that comes from the goodness of our kind hearts.

Moreover, the media tends to portray the disabled as either feckless cripples or intrepid overcomers. Such unrealistic representations cause the able-bodied to stereotype the disabled in negative ways. Unsurprisingly, a study presented at the recent conference reported that people here are generally reluctant to aid the disabled when they need help to get around.

We tend to locate the 'problem' in the disabled individual whom we see as having a personal biological shortcoming. So we try to 'fix' him instead of fixing society to adapt to his abilities.

However, if we re-think their impairments as not so much a lack of ability but something normally found within the whole gamut of human abilities, then we may begin to see that the problem resides chiefly in how our environment is built with no or little regard for the disabled.

Because we build the environment for the average (able-bodied) person, we in effect build barriers for those unlike that average. Conversely, if the built environment were adapted for the whole range of human abilities, the disabled would suffer virtually no functional limitations.

Perhaps we should re-imagine disability as a problem located in the intersection of the individual and his environment. This might help us begin to see disabilities as being less biological and more social in nature.

Disability rights activists have suggested that once we grasp how the built environment unfairly privileges the able-bodied while disadvantaging the disabled, it can be argued that we are morally obliged to remedy the environment as a matter of civil rights, not special privileges.

The Building and Construction Authority has had a masterplan for a disabled- friendlier built environment since 1990, when it introduced the Code of Barrier- Free Accessibility in Buildings. It believes we can get there by retrofitting buildings built before 1990. Perhaps. At any rate, this recession may be a good time to increase public spending on such work while also improving post-1990 and newer structures as well.

Yet there has not been sufficient urgency on the matter because we as a society don't quite see disability rights as civil rights. What we need is a law requiring all public and private institutions to modify their physical structures as well as their policies and practices to provide a suitable environment for the disabled. Only a Singaporeans With Disabilities Act can afford the disabled equal opportunity and equal protection.

Some may lament this 'rights' talk. Without it, however, our society has continued to regard the disabled mainly as incapacitated individuals who need our charity. 'Rights' talk may compel society to reexamine the policies and processes that hamper the disabled daily.

The law can change mental structures, not just physical barriers. A law that construes disability rights as civil rights would give all citizens a duty to understand the disabled better. Over time, this might well lead to a more capacious notion of equality and perhaps to a more gracious society as well.

[Interesting new perspective.]

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