Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Are Penangites Caring Enough?

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Carolyn Khor

The five-foot walkway is often utilised by eateries and hawker stalls to provide seating for their customers who happily munch away, totally unaware why this should be disallowed in the first place. This poses an inconvenince for many people, especially for people with disabilities.

Most traders are of the opinion that they are just earning a living, and that the government should allow some leeway for them to sustain their livelihood. Such is the miserable condition of our society. Food outlets usually set up additional tables outside of their shop premises and some even occupy the pavements and auxiliary lanes. Street vendors are no different.

Despite the Penang council's effort to provide proper booths with facilities in complexes like food courts and markets, roadside traders quite adamantly insist on flouting local regulations, citing reasons like the loss of regular customers and problems with accessibility if they moved elsewhere. Most offenders simply pay the fines and are not particularly concerned with whatever warnings or summonses that they are being issued with.

The question is what sort of living environment do we want?

Facilities for those with physical limitations should be priority for all involved in town and urban planning, from the architects to interior designers. Buildings and walkways that are constructed to accommodate people with disabilities reflects a caring society. Providing accessibility and proper accessories for people with disabilities is a collective responsibility the society should undertake, failing which, creates unnecessary frustrations that tend to lead to chain reactions.

Such cumbersome situations are easily felt if for instance, someone close to us gets involved in some unfortunate mishap and are unable to move around independently even for a brief period. Confining loved ones to the house or a home is simply not the solution.

Penang is still way behind in terms of facilities for disabled people. Older buildings like the Town Hall, where many events are held, are not equipped with ramps or elevators. Among some of the complaints from those caring for wheelchair bound people are that sometimes, even if ramps were provided, the material used for the ramps are slippery and that makes it hard to advance the gradient.

One of the first public places renovated to be disabled-friendly was Gurney Drive and Esplanade. Incidentally, large trees, street lights and even telephone booths block the walkways with roots bursting out from beneath the sidewalk tiles. Fixtures that are meant to keep out motorcycles also keep out wheelchairs and prams. Inconsiderate drivers who park haphazardly also obstruct pathways meant for pedestrians and people with disabilities while selfish people utilise reserved car parking spaces and toilets meant for special people.

Although measures have been taken to install disabled-friendly features in public places, most are placed without sufficient deliberation. Some places have ramps with bends but do not provide enough turning radius to enable the wheelchair to move comfortably, especially those who manoeuvre around by themselves using manual wheelchairs instead of the motorised ones, which cost a lot more.

Caring for disabled people does not stop there. Hearing-impaired and mute people can function just as well as other able-bodied people and should be given equal employment opportunities. Some corporate companies do employ people with disabilities as workers, especially in jobs that do not require much communication.

Carolyn Khor

Joblink’s Centre, a Penang-based organisation created under the registered body of the Society for Aid to the Handicapped sources sub-contract jobs from companies that are labour intensive. So far, about 35 trainees from Joblink, age ranging from 17 to 45 years do simple and light work like assembling files and electronic parts. These trainees have different degrees of disabilities and are diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, Autism and other intellectual shortcomings, and are not suitable for open employment. About half of the trainees are in wheelchair.

Yvonne Ruffell, the honorary secretary for Joblink and a volunteer says that most of the trainees come from low-income groups, and that the government subsidises each person with disability with RM300. The trainees also get paid for their work at the centre which operates from Mondays to Fridays.

As Joblink is a volunteer organization, Yvonne hopes that more people would step up to help or give financial assistance.

“We need people with experiences in psychology, physiotherapy and occupational therapy,” she said.

Mohd Tajudin Mohd Kassim, from Rapid Penang, says that there are currently 200 disabled-friendly busses in Penang. Disabled friendly busses come with low floor, ramps, safety belts and a special buzzer.

“We are expecting another 80 disabled-friendly Scania buses this year,” said Tajuddin who is manager of Commercial and Communications.

“We look forward to providing the best service to all Penangites, especially the disabled community”, he said.

However, he added that while engaging with the disabled community, he had received complaints that the bus-stops were not disabled-friendly enough.

“The local council may want to look into building curbs that have the same level as the bus entry points,” he elaborated.

So, while we blissfully enjoy our food on the curbside or kaki lima, we should also spare a thought on why these pathways were built in the first place. Are they meant for hawker stalls and customers? Or are they meant for the safety, comfort and ease of mobility of walkway users?

Restaurants and eateries need to realise that blocked corridors and sidewalks should remain as free space while the local council can do more to ensure that enforcements are carried out effectively. Many disabled people would like to be self-reliant and independent, but we, as a society need to be more thoughtful and attentive while going about our daily lives. Caring for one another is definitely much better than only caring for ourselves.
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