It is ironic that in a week that has seen the unveiling of world-class restroom and care facilities for those with disabilities at Suvarnabhumi airport, the capital's subway transit system has unleashed a storm of protest by deciding to switch off its down escalators during off-peak hours, a move that will hit expectant mothers, the disabled, the arthritic and the elderly hard. The irony, of course, is that while the airport's facilities were so primitive they were branded as hostile to the disabled when the terminal opened in 2006, the MRT subway system has always been cited as a shining example of how to get things right and adopted as a model by campaigners worldwide because of its easy access, legible signs and audio messages.
This is in stark contrast to the cramped conditions of the BTS skytrain which has only five stations served by token lifts, most usually inoperative, and provides a service that can challenge the young and fit, let alone the handicapped. The big problem used to be a reluctance by employers to recruit those with disabilities. Now that this is being overcome, the task of physically getting to the workplace has become paramount. The pothole-strewn pavements, partially blocked by vendors and obstructed by motorcyclists taking a short cut, already pose major hazards, as do high kerbs, the clutter of low wires and unyielding traffic.
If Bangkok governor-elect Sukhumbhand Paribatra carries out his campaign pledge, at least 100 specially adapted meter taxis for the disabled will become available in the city within a year, but that is nowhere near enough.There is talk of modifying buses and making easy access for the disabled a condition for future purchases. The State Railway has so far adapted 10 trains. All baby steps, admittedly, but they are welcome ones and keep the momentum going.
Without easy access, the handicapped cannot take advantage of the work available at call centres, banks, software engineering companies, industrial plants and factories and other businesses that have been opening their doors to people once unfairly shut out of the system. Most businesses are doing it because it is the right thing to do; others because the law says they must. Even so, it is gratifying to see this private sector recognition that a problem does exist. Corporate Social Responsibility programmes and positive discrimination strategies have played a significant role in achieving this.
But the disabled can still lay claim to being the most marginalised and vulnerable group in society, even taking into account the progress made through these corporate initiatives. While the constitution guarantees them equal rights, those who are academically qualified can still find barriers to employment in the government sector. The path to such occupations as doctor, lawyer, prosecutor, judge, judicial official, civil servant or even a simple city employee can be strewn with obstacles. Then there is the law requiring schools to adapt, where necessary, to cater to the educational needs of students with disabilities. Yet, to their shame, some schools still reject handicapped children and violate the law with impunity. The excuses they give are nonsensical.
It will take better education and increased social awareness to change the mindset which stereotypes and often excludes those with special needs from mainstream society. People must learn to see the person, not the handicap. The physically challenged want neither charity nor handouts but appropriate education, a chance for rehabilitation, a place to study or work and the means to get there. Our priority should lie in helping them escape the vicious cycle of poverty and social exclusion. Not in making their life more difficult.