When the troublemakers make the difference

By Alvan Yap

“A few years ago, I made a plea for our MRT and buses to be made accessible to our citizens in wheelchairs and was told not to make trouble by one of our ministers. I was tempted to tell him that he should spend one day in a wheelchair. I am sure the experience will remove the calluses from his heart.”

These lines by Professor Tommy Koh are seared in my mind. They come from his feisty exchange of letters with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in the Straits Times Forum way back in 1998.

For certain folks, especially those in the disability community, the passage of time has not diminished the letter’s impact. Oh wow, finally, somebody important and high up was looking out for us, and even openly speaking up for us! The professor’s letter was also noteworthy for being a rare, biting public rebuke of government policy then.

The tone and substance of LTA’s reply, however, encapsulated everything about the official attitude towards people with disabilities that did not sit quite right with us.

The reply from LTA rankled — from its suggestion of a dedicated and potentially costly transportation service for wheelchair users, to its skepticism that the government should foot the retrofitting bill to make the MRT wheelchair accessible, to implying that advocates for the disabled were an “emotive” and “chest-thumping” lot unable to grasp practical and financial realities.

We were indignant, we were upset and yet, in the end, many among us were quietly resigned. This, we lamented, was how things had always been and would be — we couldn’t do anything.

Fortunately, not everyone thought so.


The times they are a-changing

‘Troublemakers’ from across the spectrum — from the disability community and civil society, to our political leaders in the government — felt strongly enough about it to come together to change the status quo.

In November 2012, a press release from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) quoted the acting minister on the occasion of Singapore’s long-awaited signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD):

“Singapore agrees with the spirit of the Convention. Signing the Convention underscores our collective commitment to do even more to improve the lives of persons with disabilities — in areas including early intervention, education, employment, adult care and accessibility. We will make steady efforts towards this worthy and meaningful goal.”

On 18 July 2013, MSF announced the government has ratified the CRPD and that it would come into effect a month later on 18 August.

This marked a tsunami of a change in official attitudes and policies. But even before the government had put pen to paper on the CRPD, other ripples and waves had already eroded once-immovable mindsets and smoothened the path towards greater equality and rights for people with disabilities in Singapore.

We have had two National Master Enabling Plans laying out in detail and depth the needs of people with disabilities in Singapore and recommending measures to meet these, and more — to aim to fully include them in society.

All MRT stations have wheelchair-accessible ramps, lifts, train carriages and fare gates — the works. The entire public bus fleet is to be wheelchair friendly by 2020; half of the buses are already accessible.

We have established a national building code which mandates universal design guidelines, such that public buildings and facilities are to be accessible to people with disabilities. Wheelchair users are now commonly seen on our streets, in our malls and on public transport.

People today are more knowledgeable about those with ‘invisible’ special needs, such as intellectual disabilities and neurological disorders. Little by little, we are also becoming more understanding and accepting of their behaviour which may seem odd or do not conform to social norms.

The achievements of our sportsmen and women with disabilities have been lauded in the mainstream media. And the provision of the seemingly smaller things not given as much publicity, but which means as much to people with visual and hearing disabilities, such as lifts which announce the floor they stop at and boast Braille buttons; news broadcasts on television which come with subtitles; the special SMS-based emergency service for persons with hearing or speech impairments. 

Waiting on the world to change 

However, such positive developments must not be taken for granted. After all, people with disabilities were once shunted to the margins of society. Often hidden at home, regarded as a stigma, and isolated from mainstream society, their needs were largely either ignored or overlooked. And for too many, this is still the case.

Because of their sensory, intellectual or physical disabilities, they were — and are — also short-charged in access to education, effectively barred from public places due to physical obstacles in the way, and blatantly discriminated against when looking for work.

While we have made some progress in addressing these issues, let’s look at a disparate and non-exhaustive list of areas where we — the government and people — can do more, and do better.

The Compulsory Education Act still automatically exempts children with disabilities. And special education schools are still not fully under MOE’s purview.

Our mainstream print media still lapse into the use of outdated, disrespectful terms such as “handicapped people”, “wheelchair-bound” and “deaf-mute” (instead of the more appropriate “people with disabilities”, wheelchair users” and “deaf”). TV programmes also tend to portray people with disabilities in inaccurate and patronising ways.

Disability is still regarded by many as a stigma and linked to charity, welfare and handouts. There still is widespread misconceptions and misunderstandings about people with disabilities.

Employers still tend to shy away from hiring people with disabilities and — while bemoaning the labour crunch — fail to see what they can do and offer at work, even if the latter are qualified, able and eager to contribute.

But what perhaps is most telling came in particularly galling incidents which occurred recently.

A visually-impaired lady with a guide dog was turned away from shops, restaurants and other public venues and even subjected to verbal abuse for trying to enter these places; a blind man travelling alone was not allowed to board a flight he had already booked and paid for, because the airline insisted that he had to have a companion.

In short, despite Singapore’s signing and ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we still lack a comprehensive disability rights and anti-discrimination law to ensure that people with disabilities are treated equally and fairly. And as a society, we still are largely stuck in the old charity-tragedy-medical perception of disability instead of seeing it for what it really is — a social-equality-accessibility issue.

Now, we may not — will probably never — be able to attain a perfect society, nor an utopia for people with disabilities or other marginalised minorities. But we can keep striving towards it, inch by inch. We should never give up trying to banish ignorance and prejudice, person by person.

It’s a never-ending journey, to be sure, every mile a struggle potholed with uncertainty and signposted by setbacks. Yet, as those who have walked the path before know, it is an immensely fulfilling one.

So hop on the trouble-making bandwagon with me, and brave — and enjoy the thrills of — the ups and downs of the bumpy ride ahead.


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The writer is deaf, and has previously worked as a special education teacher and as an editor with a publishing company. He is now an advocacy executive with the Disabled People Association (Singapore). All views expressed here are his own.

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Related to the above opinion piece, refer also to DPA’s letter to the Straits Times Forum on the issues of an accessible electoral process for people with multiple disabilities and an anti-discrimination law – which, a month later, the authorities have yet to clarify. (link)

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