Commuters with disabilities are to get fare concessions on the bus and MRT, the Government said this week. But Mr Nicholas Aw, president of the Disabled People’s Association, wants them to pay half price. In Part 1 of this interview with Singapolitics, Mr Aw, whose advocacy group celebrates International Day of Persons with Disabilities in Singapore on Saturday, calls for taxi vouchers and a national registry to keep track of persons with disabilities.
- What's your take on the fare concessions?
It's very welcome. We've been asking for a long time. But who qualifies? Does it apply to people with a temporary disability? Or only people registered with the Government or voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs)? Are those with mental issues considered to have a disability?
Whichever the case, the concession should include all persons with disabilities.
Is there a means test? (The concession) should be applied across the board, otherwise you have to go through a lot of paperwork which may be a challenge for persons with disabilities (or PWDs, as they prefer to be known).
There must be safeguards so that the concession won't be open to abuse. You have a pass. What if you lend it to someone?
Even if the concessions are given, can a person with disability get on board the bus or train? Many are wheelchair users. The route from home to the MRT station or bus stop can be a challenge because when they come to a curb, there is no ramp.
Almost every MRT station has one lift. The person in the wheelchair has to fight with able-bodied people, the elderly and people with strollers.
A member told me he waited an hour for the lift. Every time the door opens, the other people just rush in.
Staff manning the doors don't know what to do if there's a person with disability. Are there standard operating procedures? Our members say they can't get on the train during peak hours.
- How big a deal is public transport cost for this group?
In Scotland, public transport is free for people with disabilities. Malaysia gives up to 50 per cent discount on trains. Australia gives taxi vouchers.
The minister says the concession will offset any fare increase. How much less do they pay? It has to be at least 50 per cent - enough to draw the person with disability out of the house.
Many find it a hassle to take buses. They say the bus captains don't stop as they'd have to get down to engage the ramp.
It might be a challenge to travel from home to the bus stop, so they call a cab. The cab fares may be half or three-quarters of their monthly pay. So, make it easier for them to take taxis by giving them vouchers.
Some with mobility issues can drive. But the car has to be modified. The Government can subsidise their car by waiving the COE.
- Why should taxpayers foot the bill?
You want to be an inclusive society. One day you'll be old and you may have a disability. Someone will pay for your concessions. It's karma: You give and you get back in return.
A lot of people with disabilities would rather stay home because if they get out, it's troublesome. When they stay at home, you don't see them. You don't see that many people in wheelchairs on the MRT.
But I went for an event at a temple recently. People in wheelchairs came by (private chartered) buses. I was astounded by the number of them.
- What other transport issues?
Enforcement is needed. There's indiscriminate abuse of parking spaces set aside for persons with disabilities. People don't care. The fine is too small. To someone who drives a Lamborghini, at Marina Bay Sands, it's small change.
Playground@Big Splash is crowded every Saturday. There are three parking spaces reserved for persons with disabilities. The security guard allowed able-bodied people to park in these spaces.
He said: "It's very crowded."
I said: "What if there's a person with a disability? How is he supposed to park?"
He said: "This is private property. If you're not happy, call the police."
He has a point. Even if I call the police, it's private property, there's nothing I can do. You've all the rules, but if you don't have enforcement, they're toothless.
We're going to suggest legislation because we need to put bite into all these rules.
I have recently written to the Prime Minister to consider legislation to protect the rights of persons with disabilities.
At the very least, it will protect them from abuse, and enforce measures that protect them.
Able-bodied people who park in spaces set aside for persons with disabilities in private carparks will be subject to the law.
- Is legislation the way to change mindsets and attitudes?
Yes, because people are apathetic. I believe in the goodness of people, but I don't know how it applies.
It will be so nice to see people offer their seats on the MRT without having to say: "This is a reserved seat, you have to give it up."
If you're sitting on the non- reserved seat and you give it up, you make that person's day and you make your day, too, because you feel proud of yourself.
The rest will think: "Why didn't I do that?" That's what we try to promote through our campaign. The tagline is: Remember, their biggest disability is our apathy.
We target the younger ones. This year, my staff proposed to the Ministry of Education to include a disability module in its character and citizenship education subject, following the announcement that there will be an animal welfare module.
They initiated discussions with MOE, the National Council of Social Service and other disability VWOs. There's nothing concrete yet, but the parties are open to the idea.
It's all about the mindset that persons with disabilities shouldn't be pitied; people shouldn't be apathetic to their needs.
Because of our selfishness, our inconsiderate behaviour, they're affected.
- Why do you think the Government is now for concessions for people with disabilities, when it was not previously?
Apart from ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Government probably recognises that it has to ensure no one is marginalised, because of its aim for an inclusive society.
They recognise we are an ageing population with many persons with disabilities becoming more visible. For various reasons, we see a gradual shift towards more welfare-oriented policies.
- Do you see a big shift in Singapore to being more inclusive?
The concession is a huge move. It's a sign that the Government is moving forward in improving the lives of people with disabilities, and being inclusive.
The Prime Minister shared our campaign video on his Facebook page. He said: "Let's do our part!"
We're not asking people to do a lot. Just giving way. Be a bit considerate. Then all these things about concessions will fall into place.
- Why is a national registry of persons with disabilities needed?
A lot of people with disabilities are single or elderly with no one to care for them. You don't want anyone to fall through the gaps.
It may not capture everyone, but at least it's a start to account for people with disabilities, and it's a growing number because we are ageing.
Not all persons with disabilities will want to be registered with VWOs. Some may not be aware. The Government was giving out Goods and Services Tax credits, and kept asking people to sign up at ATMs. People didn't do it because they were not aware of it. They do not have access to TV or newspapers.
- Without accurate numbers and statistics, how does the Government plan policies related to disability?
Even the Enabling Masterplan admits its figures for the total numbers in the disability community are an estimate - because no complete statistics are available, they're all over the place.
- Why do we need to change our labels for disabilities?
Terminology is important because some people are sensitive to labels.
The word "wheelchair- bound" (instead of wheelchair user) means people are bound to the wheelchair. But they can get out, they don't live in a wheelchair. It may seem trivial to some, but to those in wheelchairs, it may mean a lot.
When I was young, people laughed at me because of my condition. Name-calling is very painful, especially for the young. We've got to use proper terminology to protect everyone.
The principle is not to label people or use derogatory terms that make people feel small about themselves.
For a fuller version, go to Singapolitics.sg
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 16, 2013
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