Disability: A social issue to be treated with care

A WRITER to The Straits Times Forum Page revealed recently how budget airline Scoot barred him from a Dec19 flight because he is visually handicapped.

Travelling on his own, Mr Thomas Chan, 34, had a return ticket to Sydney, but was barred from the flight because he did not have "an accompanying guest". Although an unrelated traveller was willing to put in writing that he would be Mr Chan's carer for the journey, Scoot still stopped him from flying.

And all this came just after Singapore signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on Nov 30 last year.
This international treaty, with 155 signatory nations of which 129 have ratified it, is a platform for fostering national-level changes to disability law and policy.

Once Parliament ratifies it, it will be incorporated as domestic law whereupon international civil rights for the disabled will be transposed to Singapore.

So the treaty creates human rights obligations for the disabled at the international level that are given effect at the domestic level. When implemented as law here, it should lead to deeper domestic internalisation of these human rights for the disabled, for the law can change mental structures.

In particular, the convention is rooted in a model of disability that sees it as a social problem rather than a medical one.

Think about it: If there are only stairs to the workplace, those in wheelchairs have no independent access to it. If there are no tactile tiles in MRT stations, the blind can't self-navigate. So the disabled suffer impairments because of environments created without their needs in mind.

This means that a disability is not so much a physical problem lodged within the individual than one which primarily arises from the environment being built in ways that reflect social attitudes and norms that are unresponsive to the needs of the disabled.

But most able-bodied people think about the disabled as being saddled with biological deficits, so what they need is medical attention and some public aid. For most of us, the "problem" is located in the disabled person as a biological shortcoming of his.

So we try to fix him instead of adapting society to his abilities. But we build the environment for the average (able-bodied) person, in effect building barriers against those who are not like that average. If, however, the built environment were adapted for the whole range of human abilities, the disabled would suffer fewer or even few functional limitations.

If we re-imagined disability as a problem located at the interface between the individual and his environment, if we grasped how the built environment unfairly helps the able-bodied while disadvantaging the disabled, we may begin to see how society is morally obliged to remedy the environment for the disabled as a matter of civil rights, not special privileges.

But as a society we don't quite perceive disability rights to be civil rights yet. The proof lies in our not yet having a law requiring all public and private organisations to redesign physical barriers like doorways, entry ways, lavatories and the like or modify their informational structures so the blind, deaf or dyslexic, say, can have equal access.

Happily, the rights the convention will introduce once it is incorporated as national law may compel society to re-examine its policies and processes that hamper the disabled daily.

Some may decry this "rights" talk but if we don't engage in it, our society will continue to regard the disabled mainly as incapacitated individuals. If disability were just a biological flaw, any request to modify the environment would be conceived as a demand for special rights. And any remedy "offered" by "us" would be charity.

However, if we were to re-imagine their impairments to be not so much a lack of ability but something normally found within the whole gamut of human abilities, then the problem may be seen to reside in how our environment is built with no regard for them.

A law that construes disability rights as civil rights should encourage citizens to see disabilities as being less biological and more social in nature, and the disadvantages which the disabled face not as naturally but socially caused.

The treaty requires the signatory state to "designate one or more focal points" to implement it domestically and have the implementation monitored by an independent body that includes disabled individuals and their representative organisations "participating fully in the monitoring".

It also requires the signatory state to include the disabled in its law-making process.

However, aggrieved Singaporeans like Mr Chan would still have no individual recourse to the highest avenue under the treaty unless Singapore also accedes to the Optional Protocol, a side agreement among signatory states to permit the convention's

Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, comprising 18 human rights experts, to consider complaints from individuals. The Optional Protocol has 91 signatories, 76 of which have ratified it. Singapore has not signed it but should do so immediately and ratify it as well.

Wherever and whenever the disabled continue to be hampered by physical and informational barriers in their daily lives, it can only mean that their society is maladapted to human variation. The treaty signals global recognition of this fact - and ours too.

When it becomes domestic law, Singapore must implement it not woodenly as just technical standards to check off but as a map to transform our society into one where the disabled have equal dignity and equal worth.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 15, 2013

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