The disabled in chains

opinion March 14, 2018 01:00

Three years after the BTS was ordered to install elevators at every station, it still hasn’t finished the job



Manit “Saba” Inpim of Bangkok, who is confined to a wheelchair and advocates for the rights of the disabled, slammed an elevator panel at the BTS Asok Station this past weekend, hard enough to shatter the glass. He then turned himself in to police and confessed to damaging public property. 

Manit didn’t have sudden pangs of guilt – he wanted to make a point. As is so often the case, that lift at the Skytrain station had been locked. His act of civil disobedience was an intentional crime to draw attention to that barred access.

Manit is the founder and 

administrator of a page on Facebook called “Accessibility is Freedom”. He posted an account of the incident there and, as expected, got a lot of attention. He encouraged readers to review his previous posts regarding the BTS elevators, which were installed for the convenience of disabled people and yet rarely seem operational. One post pointed out that BTS staff members often have to be summoned to unlock the lifts, leaving passengers meanwhile waiting in the rain or heat. 

Not everyone will see the need for civil disobedience, but surely almost everyone will empathise with the plight of Manit and the millions of other Thais like him.

When the Skytrain started rolling in December 1999, only five of its stations had elevators – at Mo Chit, Asok, On Nut, Chong Nonsi and Siam. Only at Siam was the lift readily accessible. The rest were locked. In 2015, the Administrative Court ordered elevators installed at all 23 stations, yet three years later, that order remains unfulfilled. Some stations have elevators always at the ready. Mo Chit and Chong Nonsi stations have access-code scanners on the lift doors. But the fact that the court order hasn’t been fully obeyed in all this time reveals the level of importance the BTS attaches to the issue.

Worse still, the BTS is hardly alone in failing to meet the needs of disabled citizens. Other forms of mass transit are just as guilty, as are private and government buildings that lack facilities for people with limited mobility. Fully mobile people might not notice just how few public places have toilet stalls for the disabled, but they should. In fact, society could do much, much more in this regard. Attitudes might need adjusting. This is not merely about basic rights – it’s about ensuring that everyone has the equal opportunity to contribute constructively to society. There remains a mindset in which people of limited mobility are regarded as unemployable.

By lifting physical barriers to their mobility, we create conditions for them to pursue any calling, make use of their capabilities and reach their full potential. The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, which bears the greatest responsibility for helping disabled citizens, needs to do more. It should take the lead in improving public awareness and attitudes, introducing and enforcing regulations, and offering the private sector incentives to accommodate more people with disabilities. We must guarantee such people the opportunity to find gainful employment – and we must make as many places as possible totally accessible to them.

Our policymakers often talk about working towards an inclusive society, about resolving social and political problems stemming from issues of race, religion and sexual orientation. Unfortunately, too often, the door to that inclusive society remains locked to people with disabilities.