Bridging the gap
Online newspaper ThisAble.me wants Thailand to be inclusive and accessible to its disabled population
At a news writing camp, participant Kotcharak Kaewsurach was told to accompany a disabled person who would drive him to a restaurant. Many questions popped into his head. When Kotcharak arrived at the car, however, he was surprised to see the person move to sit behind the steering wheel, after quickly folding their wheelchair and placing it in the back seat.
"Kotcharak said it was his turning point. He always thought non-disabled people had to help people with disabilities due to physical limitations. However, on that day, the disabled man drove him to the restaurant. That incident changed Kotcharak's viewpoint about people with disabilities," Nalutporn Krairiksh, editor of ThisAble.me, said.
Kotcharak's attitude towards people with disabilities is similar to many Thai people since this kind of attitude has been embedded in the media for a long time and is an attitude ThisAble.me (where Kotcharak serves as a content creator) wants to change.
ThisAble.me was initially launched as an online platform five years ago for participants from the writing camp. The camp was discontinued after two years when ThisAble.me was developed as an online media that aimed to help people understand more about disabilities.
In 2020, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security reported that Thailand had over 2 million disabled people. Ministerial regulations issued by the Ministry of Public Health in 1991 stipulated that there are five categories of disability -- vision impairment, hearing impairment, physical and mobility impairment, mental and behavioural disorders, and intellectual and learning disabilities. However, ThisAble.me expands on these definitions.
"ThisAble.me expands the boundary of the law's definition of people with disabilities. For example, by law, people who have monocular vision are not disabled, but they still face difficulty in living or possibly encounter mistreatment. ThisAble.me is a platform to discuss 'disability', which does not have to be severe. It can be a non-visible disability such as colour blindness or hearing impairment," Nalutporn explained.
"In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act includes a condition that happened in the past or may happen in the future or a temporary condition as a disability. For example, a person who has a condition that will cause him to become visually impaired in the next three years is considered to have a disability. If this person is Thai, he/she will not receive any welfare benefits because he/she is not yet visually impaired. However, in the US, with welfare benefits, this person can begin to learn how to read Braille or how to use a white cane, which are necessary skills for a visually impaired person and are easier to learn while the person is not yet visually impaired," she added.
Established five years ago, ThisAble.me presents the various life experiences of disabled people, chronicling issues faced and how they were overcome. In recent stories, readers were introduced to disabled people in different careers, such as a make-up artist, professional drummer, Michelin Guide restaurant owner, barista, actress and athlete. Nalutporn said people at ThisAble.me intend to normalise disability.
"Many parents choose to hide their child or keep him/her at home because they feel bad about having a child with a disability. Also, many people believe that having a disabled child is bad karma. Disability should be a common word that people can use regularly. Parents or relatives should be able to say that their child or relative is a person with a disability and other people should feel nothing about that. People should not feel that having a disability is pitiable," the editor said.
"ThisAble.me is a small media group that tries to debunk this negative image of people with disabilities. When we publish stories that disabled people are not a path to make merit, there are many questions about it because Thai society is a collective one. I believe Thai society can stay collective, but everyone should respect and treat people with disabilities the same as they do for non-disabled people. Disability should not be a factor to discriminate or devalue," she added.
Nalutporn participated in the writing camp after earning a bachelor's in Fine and Applied Arts (Visual Arts) from Chulalongkorn University. Since then, she has worked at ThisAble.me.
Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Nalutporn has been in a wheelchair since she was young. Nalutporn said she has no problems at work, but has difficulty meeting sources outside due to Thailand's non-accessible infrastructure for people with disabilities. ThisAble.me released several reports about Thailand's public transportation inaccessibility for people with disabilities.
ThisAble.me released several reports about Thailand's inaccessible public transport. https://thisable.me
"If people with disabilities can travel by themselves, their quality of life will be much better. They can go out to find a job or to work or hang out with their friends. I have to ask my parents to drive me to the BTS or MRT when I want to go out. It has been more than 10 years that I live on the same soi and there is still no pathway for a wheelchair or even for walking. When I was in the US, I discovered that I could use my wheelchair in a park and saw people in wheelchairs at many places. People with disabilities do not want to be a burden, but Thailand's infrastructure facilities do not help them to travel by themselves," Nalutporn said.
During the first two years of ThisAble.me, the website struggled to find an audience. But after Nalutporn asked readers what they wanted to know about disabled people, the online newspaper received great feedback and its popularity grew. Nalutporn said people posted more than 100 questions on Facebook and readers filled out all answers. Questions included how do you feel when a person with a disability hits on you? How do you feel when seeing a woman with disability drink alcohol? And can people who are disabled from the waist down have sex?
From that popular post, ThisAble.me has been bridging the gap between the disabled and non-disabled. It will take time to change the attitude of Thai people towards people with disabilities, but after five years of running ThisAble.me, Nalutporn found readers now react to news of people with disabilities differently from the past.
"In the past, readers praised a non-disabled person who carried a disabled person over a pedestrian bridge. Currently, readers criticise why there is no pedestrian crossing. People are aware of poor infrastructure even though the writer did not guide them. We cannot turn back time to the days when people felt impressed and commended those who helped people with disabilities. We must let disabled people help themselves. When the government provides welfare to people with disability, they should not brag about it because people with disabilities are part of society and have the right to receive welfare like everyone else," Nalutporn said.