Closing The Accessibility Gap

Text and photo by Mathira Sutiwatananiti

With a population of eight million and 8.55 million registered vehicles, it is no wonder that Bangkok has a serious traffic problem. Introduced in 1999 as a way to advance urban mobility, the BTS Skytrain quickly transformed Bangkokians’ perception and experience of using the public transport system, becoming the preferred choice for many who are looking for a fast and convenient way to get around the city. To persons with disabilities (PWDs) however, the Skytrain is just another painful reminder of their invisibility in the eyes of the state and public service providers.

Not part of the general public

PWDs, who make up about 2.4 per cent of the country’s population seem to be last on everyone’s priority list. Despite a handful of state agencies and organisations that exist to provide welfare services to this minority group, they continue to struggle with accessibility to basic services such as education, healthcare and public transport. Undoubtedly, this significantly diminishes the prospects of achieving independent living.

“It’s a structural problem caused by a negative underlying mindset that allows discrimination and segregation of PWDs to persist especially in everyday life situations. People forget that we do share the same basic needs. Being unable to use buses or access public spaces makes day-to-day activities unnecessarily difficult and costly, and it is often a humiliating experience. Because of hostile physical and emotional environment and high commuting costs, many PWDs choose to stay home, which further reinforces the stereotype of them as helpless,” said the 49-year-old Abilis Foundation’s regional coordinator and 2008 Outstanding Women Award recipient Saowalak Thongkuay, whose application to a PhD programme in human rights and peace studies was recently turned down. The school’s admissions board cited a lack of lifts and inconvenient library location as the reason for the unsuccessful application.

Transportation for All

Spearheaded by the late 1991-1997 President of the Council of Disabled People of Thailand (DPIT)* and former regional development officer of Disabled Peoples’ International Asia Pacific, Topong Kulkhanchit, Transportation for All is an informally coordinated movement that advocates for improvements in accessibility and the widespread adoption of universal design principles through policy and legislation, media engagements and public awareness campaigns.

“It began with a letter sent in 1992 by the DPIT requesting the then Bangkok Governor to ensure the Skytrain system is disability-friendly after learning that all the facilities for PWDs had been omitted from its original design,” recalled Suporntum Mongkolsawadi, 48, secretary-general of Redemptorist Foundation for People with Disabilities (RFPD) and current leader of the movement.

The call for attention along with repeated mass demonstrations that occurred during this period eventually met with a positive response in 1999 when the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and the central government each contributed half of the 175 million Thai baht (approximately USD 5 million) budget to set up one staff-operated lift at each of five selected Skytrain stations.

Concrete progress however came to a halt shortly after, stalled by political instability as well as disagreements that broke out between the BMA and Bangkok Mass Transit System Public Company (BTSC).

Shifting into high gear

By 2007, Suporntum and his brother, a lawyer, began building a case against the BMA, Bangkok Governor, BMA’s Director of the Department of Public Works and BTSC for neglecting official duties required by the law, in hope that the legal system would bring favourable results.

Saowalak Thongkuay, a leading advocate of the rights of women with disabilities and Pichet Raktabutr a member of International Wheelchair Users, were enlisted as plaintiffs. While Saowalak underscored the risks and vulnerabilities that women with disabilities face in being subject to taxis as the only accessible mode of public transportation, Pichet highlighted the potential economic boost to Bangkok’s retail, hospitality and tourism industries, an observation that was informed by years of living in other barrier-free societies.

“The lawsuit was also intended to help us capture the media and public’s attention and create a platform for an open dialogue about equal access, public participation and greater accountability, ” said Suporntum.

Beginning of a new normal

After 23 years of firing on all cylinders – during which six Bangkok governors and fourteen prime ministers had taken office – the three plaintiffs and their supporters finally emerged triumphant from Courtroom 8 on the afternoon of 21 January 2015.

The atmosphere was completely different from the sombre mood that followed the lower court’s dismissals of the disability community’s first two legal attempts back in 2009. The first was a lawsuit led by the late Topong in 2006 over Suvarnabhumi Airport’s lack of facilities for PWDs and the other was a plaint against BTS Skytrain.

“The Supreme Administrative Court’s (SAC) decision signals a seismic shift on people’s rights and public interest, setting a new precedent where non-retroactivity and other legal technicalities can no longer be used as an excuse by state agencies to avoid their responsibility,” said Suporntum. “Our next step is to use this verdict to negotiate for improved accessibility of buses, the MRT, the Airport Rail Link and other mega projects in the pipeline.”

Meanwhile, they will be keeping a close watch on the BMA’s progress in installing lifts, handrails and signage at all 23 Skytrain stations, to be completed within one year as ordered by the SAC, and for building owners and service providers who fail to comply with the regulations to expect first warning letters in their mailboxes.

*The DPIT, founded in 1983 by Narong Patibatsorakij, Thailand’s first senator with a disability, is now the Disability Thailand Association (DTH).

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