Reena Rajasvari, 50, has been visually impaired for twenty-two years. Struck by glaucoma – a group of diseases that damaged her optic nerve – she gradually lost her vision in both eyes when she was 28. From afar, however, no one would suspect she is any different from able-bodied people. Her gait is steady and upright, and she wears a huge smile. She answers questions eloquently and speaks with passion. She has been pursuing this cause of granting transport concessions for the disabled since 1999. In 2000, she approached a Member of Parliament to help her speak to SMRT.
“I thank the government and transport operators for giving us the best transport system”, she says, addressing the 60 odd people who turned up at the event at Hong Lim Park. “But how can we use (the transport system) if there is no concession?” Most of the disabled people are either not working, or in the low income group, she says, clarifying that they are “not asking for free (transport), just subsidies” and concessions to ease their burden – this being especially important in the current economic crisis.
Hefty transport costs
Reena (picture, left) is actually one of the more fortunate disabled people who are employed. Her telemarketing job earns her around $700 a month. But she has to travel to work by taking two buses and the train, spending over $200 in transport fares each month, around 30% of the wages she earns.
Another visually impaired speaker, Junaidah Ramli, adds that “the cost of living is very high” in Singapore. As such, she hopes that “the transport operators will hear (them) out”.
She also urges transport operators to be “more helpful to guide disabled people”. There was once a bus driver, in his attempt to help her up the bus, took away her cane, making her ‘disoriented’. Handicapped by her inability to see, she occasionally takes the cab, paying even $50 on one occasion. She earns “$300 and below” every month.
Responses from public transport operators
The fight for transport concessions is not likely to be easy though. SMRT operator’s reply to Reena in 2000 was: we have to be “prudent about extending any travel concessions beyond the present eligible groups” because “concession fares are cross-subsidized by full-fare paying passengers with no direct subsidy”. In short, SMRT’s reply was ‘no’.
Organizer Challengeds’ Alliance Network’s (CAN!) spokesman Ravi Philemon says that it is “unfair that the disabled, already earning so little, have to pay as much as an (able-bodied) adult person”. He notes that concessions are already being given to the elderly and NSmen and there are no reasons why it cannot also be given to the disabled. He hopes that once the petition is forwarded to the Minister of Transport, more can be done to help the disabled.
TOC understands that SBS Transit, a private bus operator, is already looking into offering concession fares to commuters with physical disabilities. Though no firm proposals have been drawn up, it is likely that such concessions, if granted, will not be extended to the visually or hearing impaired. Whilst Reena acknowledges that some bus drivers ‘give concessions out of compassion’ to the blind people, this practice is technically not legal.
She says that “many disabled people are hence not coming out of their house” due to the heavy cost of transport, becoming ‘disconnected’ as a result.
Other than feeling the pinch of paying unsubsidised transport fares, the disabled also find it hard to obtain employment, especially so in this economic downturn. For Wong U-Wen, who is hearing impaired, his job search which started mid-April last month has been particularly ‘frustrating’.
He has studied, lived and worked in the United States for the past 20 years, serving the Center for Disability Rights in upstate New York. When his H1B visa (a non-immigrant visa that allows US employers to hire foreign employees in highly specialised occupations) expired, his employer did not have enough time to apply for the US green card on his behalf. He had to return to Singapore.
In response to a question I wrote on my notepad, “What kind of job are you looking for?”, he writes briefly: “Whatever I can get. As long as I can do the job to the best of my abilities.”
Offering help as an individual
1. If you believe that the disabled should be given public transport concessions, you can pen your signature here:
2. Also, a research and advocacy group is working on a project which aims to derive practical solutions to the problems the disabled face in Singapore. This group is currently working on research right now, and really needs to know what the people with disabilities or their friends/families have to say about the current situation and problems. Suggestions, opinions, support and criticism are all welcome. Please email your responses to [email protected] and kindly help to spread the word.”
For more pictures, visit TOC’s Facebook here.