Ready, willing but disabled
Bangkok is a hostile place for people in wheelchairs and laws to improve accessibility are still being ignored.
The thought of leaving home to go about his business always makes Noppadol Wannaborworn frustrated. Not only does he have to deal with Bangkok’s traffic, but the whole city feels like an unfriendly place to a man in a wheelchair.
Just parking in a shopping mall can be an ordeal. He recalls the time he drove into a disabled parking space, preventing a wealthy and non-disabled woman in a Mercedes from taking the spot.
She glared at him from behind the wheel, and they happened to meet in the lift shortly after. “Why don’t handicapped people like you just stay home? Why must you make other people’s lives difficult?” she spat at him. Mr Noppadol did nothing but look up, blink and smile.
“I am physically disabled, but I have to deal with people who have disabled minds on a daily basis,” he said.
It’s not just shopping mall parking spaces that prove a challenge. Most taxis refuse to take him anywhere, while many train stations lack functioning lift services to allow him access.
Born a healthy child, the 35-year-old Surat Thani native was always active. At a young age, he fell in love with football after seeing the game on TV. He went to school the next day and asked his sports teacher to coach him.
He practised every day until he became good enough to represent his school, then his district and later his province. His coach saw the potential in him and sent him to try out for Debsirin School, a top boys school in Bangkok with a special programme for rising football stars.
Mr Noppadol won the scholarship and moved to Bangkok at the age of 15, to study in Mathayom 4. He worked hard until he was selected to represent the school in the most important fixture: Jaturamitr Samakke, the traditional football league for the four oldest boys schools in Thailand.
He had many moments of glory, helping to bring the school numerous trophies from different competitions, until the Songkran holidays of 1998, when he went home to Surat Thani to visit his family.
The teenager had been out with a group of friends to celebrate one night. The others were drinking, but he hadn’t touched a drop. On their way home, Mr Noppadol offered to ride his drunk friend’s motorbike for him.
There were seven bikes in their group and he was riding at the back when they met a 10-wheeler truck on the road, moving erratically. His friends accelerated to overtake, but as he went to pass the lorry, the driver switched lanes quickly.
He tried to veer away, but lost control of his bike and was hit by the vehicle. His friend jumped to safety, but Mr Noppadol was dragged for 500 metres before being tossed to the side of the road.
IT’S TOO LATE
After the accident, Mr Noppadol brushed himself off and tried to check his injuries. To his surprise, his legs were not broken, and he had only suffered surface flesh wounds. He went to the hospital to get cleaned up, where they admitted him.
Since the accident took place on April 11, the hospital wasn’t fully staffed. The were nurses on standby, but only one doctor on duty. Mr Noppadol saw several patients come into the hospital in a much worse condition than him. Some died, some survived, but he was left alone since his condition wasn’t critical.
He soon became worried though, because his wounds weren’t being cleaned or dressed very often. After the third day in hospital, his legs became badly infected, with blood and pus leaking from his skin. Mr Noppadol’s family decided to send him to another hospital, but getting him transferred was difficult because of the lack of doctors on duty.
By the time the doctor showed up to discharge him, it had already been five days, and Mr Noppadol was riddled with tetanus. He was sent to another hospital in Songkhla. When the doctor there examined him, he told Mr Noppadol and his family it was too late. They had no choice but to amputate his legs.
“My future relies on these two legs. If you are going to cut them off, then you may as well let me die,” he told his mother.
Not long after, Mr Noppadol fell into a coma. His mother signed a form permitting the doctor to remove his infected legs to save his life. After two weeks in the hospital, he woke up and discovered both his legs were gone. He broke down in tears and stopped talking to everyone around him.
The next six months of his life were spent in hospital, with a further 10 surgeries, then a rehabilitation programme to teach him how to adjust to his new life.
A NEW START
Driving inequality: Wealthy people often bribe security guards to use the prioirty parking spots in shopping centres, where one in every hundred spaces are supposed to be reserved for those in need.
He had lost what he felt were the best parts of his body and spent every day at home being cared for by his mother. He was too embarrassed to be seen as a disabled man. He refused to go out or to be seen except when he had a doctor's appointment.
Debsirin School supported him financially, but Mr Noppadol felt his life was over. One year later, flicking through the channels on TV, he saw a basketball game being played by disabled men in wheelchairs. Something clicked in his brain and he was inspired to live again.
He asked his mother to take him to the provincial hall in Surat Thani to try and find him a new school. Unfortunately, there was nowhere in the area that could meet his needs at the time. However, they recommended a school for the disabled in Phra Pradaeng district, Samut Prakan.
He enrolled in a computer science course there for one year, before moving to study in Pattaya, where they offered a sports programme for disabled students.
He flourished on the school’s wheelchair basketball team, and was eventually selected to join the national team. After leaving school, he got a job in a bank as an administration officer. He worked there for a decade until the bank was taken over by a new owner and the company’s rules became less inclusive to disabled people.
While Mr Noppadol largely adapted to his new way of life, getting around on wheels was a constant challenge. Despite this, he learned to rely on himself and lived independently after leaving home.
“I used to wait for a taxi to take me to work for more than an hour sometimes,” Mr Noppadol explained. “No one really wants to pick up a passenger in a wheelchair. Also, you can forget about the bus. There is no way I could use the bus, since it is not accessible.”
He tried using trains in Bangkok, but many stations are not disabled-friendly. They may have lifts for disabled and elderly people, but these are often out of service.
Frustrated with situation, Mr Noppadol decided to buy a car with his savings. His car has modifications that allow him to control everything using his hands. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for him to get around. Whenever he tries to park in a shopping mall, the disabled parking spots are taken by non-disabled people.
“All they have to do is bribe the security guards and they can park,” he said. “How selfish is that?”
Recently, Mr Noppadol has benefited from a new smartphone application for people in wheelchairs. He said it helps him navigate accessible pavements, ramps, and toilets in Bangkok.
One year ago, the Supreme Administrative Court ordered City Hall to install lifts at all 23 BTS stations within 12 months. But the Bangkok Metropolitan Association last week admitted the work is only half complete, and won’t be finished until September.
Krisana Lalai, one of the best known journalists in the country, also suffered a life-changing accident almost 20 years ago. He was on his way to cover a news story in 1997, when a horrific car accident left him wheelchair bound. He told Spectrum he paid little attention to the issues affecting disabled people before the crash.
“I didn’t really think about disabled people when I was still able to walk,” Krisana said. “Now that I’m in a wheelchair, I see how difficult it is for us to live and get around.”
According to United Nations data, 10% of the world’s population are disabled. In Thailand, there are 1.8 million registered disabled people. Of these, 900,000 rely on a wheelchair to get around.
Phattharabhandhu Krissana, secretary-general of the Association of the Physically Handicapped in Thailand, said more than 30% of disabled people in wheelchairs were the victims of road accidents, especially over Songkran, New Year’s and long weekends.
Don’t bank on it: Mr Noppadol has tried relying on train services in Bangkok, but finds the lifts for disabled and elderly people are often out of service.
“There are around 30,000 to 40,000 cases each year of healthy people who become disabled from road accidents,” Mr Phattharabhandhu explained.
“We are not disabled, society is disabled,” Krisana added. “The reason we don’t see disabled people on the streets or in shopping malls is not because they are too sick to leave home, it’s because the world outside is so difficult to get around.”
The journalist has started a “friendly design” campaign to try and encourage planners, architects and construction firms to build pavements, crossover bridges, and buildings that are accessible to everyone, including disabled people, the elderly and parents with children in prams.
“We have come a long way, but we’re still nowhere near countries like Singapore or Japan. I am sure we will get there eventually,” he said.
All registered disabled people are entitled to a basic state payment of 800 baht a month.
But Mr Phattharabhandhu argues everyone has the right to support themselves independently, by earning income from work. The major barrier to this is the fact it’s so difficult to get out of the house and move around freely for the majority of disabled people.
Legislation has already been passed to require companies to employ one disabled person for every 100 employees. Those who fail to adhere to the law will have to pay extra tax.
Many companies do now hire disabled people, particularly in roles that don’t require them to be in the office. Others are recruited as spokespeople or to lead corporate social responsibility activities.
“It’s not that people don’t want to get a job and earn money, but what can they do when they can’t get to work?” Mr Noppadol asked. “Taxis are selfish and never take people with wheelchairs. They always say they can’t fit us in because of the gas tank in the trunk.”
Also a victim of a car accident, Mr Phattharabhandhu told Spectrum Thailand has some of the most advanced laws on disabled people’s rights. However, enforcement of those laws is severely lacking.
“There is still no equality in the treatment of disabled people, so that makes it more difficult to enforce the law,” he said.
In shopping malls, the law requires there to be one handicapped parking spot for every 100 spaces. Toilets must also have ramps and be accessible.
“Any public building that was built after 2005 must be accessible to disabled people. If they fail to meet the criteria, they are not allowed to open. But I still see many new buildings without accessible features,” Mr Phattharabhandhu said.
He acknowledged train operators are attempting to improve the situation, but half the stations in Bangkok are still inaccessible.
“It would basically be very easy and cheap to fix. Forget about expensive modifications, all they have to do is install a platform lift next to existing staircases. Then the stations would be disabled-friendly,” Mr Phattharabhandhu said. “We don’t need the most advanced technology, it just has to be safe and accessible.”
The legal context
- Disabled people in Thailand are offered legal protection under the constitution and supplementary laws, including the Persons with Disabilities Empowerment Act of 2007.
- Unjust discrimination against a person on the grounds of disability is not permitted, whether intentional or unintentional.
- Disabled people have the right to access and use public welfare and conveniences, and the state must provide appropriate aids to make this possible.
- Ministers have a duty to issue legal regulations making transportation and public services accessible.
- All disabled people are entitled to an 800 baht monthly allowance and free education up to university level.
Public and private organisations must hire disabled people in a ratio of one disabled person to every 100 employees.
- Any public building built after 2005 must be accessible. Shopping malls must provide one disabled parking spot for every 100 spaces and accessible toilets.
- Thailand ratified the UN convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 1998.
Hands on: Noppadol Wannaborworn had both legs amputated after a road accident in 1998. He struggles to get around Bangkok, but has bought a car that was modified for his use.
Discrimination by design: Public buildings and shopping malls built after 2005 are required by law to provide accessible toilets, but many fall short on their duties to accommodate wheelchair users.
Obstacle course: Getting up and down from pavements in Bangkok is a constant struggle for wheelchair users, where even relatively new facilities are inaccessible.