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Roadblocks litter the path of the ‘disabled'

Update: February, 09/2015 - 16:45
Increased mobility: A three-wheel motorbike driver (left) from the DRP centre serves his passenger, who uses a wheel chair, with a cheap ride in a street in downtown HCM City. — Photos Courtesy DRP centre

Since most public infrastructure facilities are designed without the needs of people with disabilities in mind, their difficulties in traversing big city streets, entering buildings and enjoying outdoor recreational areas are magnified. Thankfully, some new initiatives are helping them navigate their home cities with greater ease. Le Huong reports.

It's a cool summer afternoon. Ngo Tuyet Lan, 55, has decided to try taking a bus from Cau Giay Bus Station to her house a few kilometres away on Le Van Luong Street.

She wants to try today because she has enough free time for a bus trip. She's been told they aren't very friendly to people with disabilities like her - she uses a wheelchair - but today she has a personal assistant who will help her get on and off the bus.

Her hope grows when she sees that her bus, 51, is still waiting for people to hop on. Buses wait longer at terminals than normal bus stops, where they come and go in the blink of an eye.

Help at hand: A Thanh Cong taxi driver carries his disabled passenger into the car. — Photo Courtesy of Thanh Cong Taxi Company

However, the bus driver shakes his head when he sees her approach in a wheelchair. He turns his back to her while the driver's assistant comes and explains that they never allow people with disabilities to ride.

"Please look at the wheelchair symbol on the bus," she says, pointing at the symbol. "It means I can get on. I'll take a photo of the bus and send it to your boss, complaining that you refused to let a disabled person on."

Understanding her point, the conductor reluctantly helps her and her personal assistant onto the bus.

Lan's story isn't a rare one. People with disabilities often meet challenges while trying to take public transport in big cities, let alone in rural areas.

"I never dared to take the bus, because the drivers often try to avoid wheelchair users like me," says Tran Thi Huong, 42.

"I cannot access the bus stop, as most of them don't have sloped entrances and the level of the bus stop's floor and the bus's is never the same. Most buses' floors are rather high, while the doorways are too narrow for a wheelchair."

Huong says she has also been refused by taxi drivers who aren't willing to carry her in and out of the car. Her main means of travel is electric wheelchair.

Infeasible project

Uphill task: People with wheel-chairs always need help with staircases at public buildings as most of them are designed without proper access for people with disabilities.

Asia Bank supported a project eight years ago that aimed to facilitate more bus use by people with disabilities in big cities like Ha Noi, HCM City and Da Nang, says Do Xuan Hoa, general secretary of the Viet Nam Auto Association. But the project was only feasible in HCM City.

"There are too many obstacles to carrying out the project in Ha Noi, including requirements for drivers' capabilities, bus stops' facilities, etc," he says.

"Though there are many buses with low floors and wide doors, which are convenient for elderly people and those in wheelchairs, the bus stops' facilities were not designed to be accessible to those people."

Helping hands

Though there's been little government progress, some private companies have stepped up to the plate. Ha Noi-based Thanh Cong Taxi Company recently launched a service targeting customers with disabilities - the first of its kind.

"We will help disabled people who call us get in and out of the cars, and offer lower fares and other support services," says Nguyen Khuong Duy, the company's director.

Duy says the project will be implemented in two phases. In the first phase, starting this month, the company will target people with mild mobility issues. All of the company's cars will be willing to receive people with disabilities. Drivers will be trained to assist them, and help them get in and out of the vehicles. The company is offering 10 to 15 per cent discounts, as well.

Ten new seven-seat Toyota Innova vans with massage chairs, first-aid kits, fresh water, fare meters and devices that remind guests to check their luggage before leaving and Point of Sale (POS) paying tools have been imported for the project.

Travel comfort: The HCM City Transport Co-operative Union runs four wheelchair-friendly buses on route 104 from An Suong Station to HCM City Agriculture and Forestry University.

In the second phase, the company will use cars designed for people with more severe disabilities, including automatic doors made to handle wheelchairs, Duy says. These cars will start operating in the fourth quarter of this year.

The company gave discount cards to members of associations for people with disabilities in the city, and will join hands with the Song Doc Lap (Independent Living) Centre to train drivers for the project.

"We want to help disabled people join the community's activities and become more active in using common services, rather than being reluctant and not daring to use them like previously," Duy says.

Bui Danh Lien, chairman of the Ha Noi Transport Association, says Thanh Cong Taxi has advanced transportation services for people with disabilities.

"This is a humane and realistic project," says Trinh Xuan Dung, deputy chairman of the Ha Noi Disabled People Association. "There are around 90,000 disabled people in the city, but only 10 per cent of them have joined our association. It means that many disabled people are living outside the community."

Successful models

The HCM City Transport Co-operative Union runs four buses designed for people in wheel chairs on route 104 from An Suong Station to HCM City Agriculture and Forestry University. The buses, which were made in South Korea and started running in July, use compressed natural gas.

"These buses serve more people than normal ones," says Phung Dang Hai, general director of the union. "These buses are as big as ones that can host 80 people, but there are only 29 seats. When the bus reaches a station, its floor lowers to the level of the pavement, and a panel opens at the door to allow people with wheel chairs to come in and out easily."

Hai says these buses are rare in the city because each one costs VND 6 billion (US$286,000) and most stations aren't conducive to wheelchair use.

Besides, the handicapped-accessible buses are only used on route 104 because it is convenient for the natural gas-fueled buses, since 14 other natural gas-fueled buses also use the route and must fill up at a specially designed petrol station, he says.

Among the more than 2,700 buses in the city, about 2,400 have spaces for wheel chairs, according to a report issued at the end of 2014 by the HCM City Public Transport Management and Operation Centre.

There are 299 buses on 18 routes equipped with support tools and lowering floors for people with disabilities, according to the report. About 216 out of 490 stops are accessible by wheelchair.

The city's Traffic and Transportation Department organised training classes last year on helping people with disabilities for 2,500 bus drivers and conductors.

The department aims to make 5 to 10 per cent of the city's buses handicapped-friendly by 2020.

The Disability Research and Capacity Development Centre (DRD) in HCM City has offered motorbike taxi services for the disabled since July 2013.

With sponsorship from the Korea International Co-operation Agency (KOICA) and Rights, a forum for people with disabilities in South Korea, the project offered free transportation to more than 300 people with disabilities. The DRD started charging customers lower prices (VND2,500 or 12 US cents per km) in October.

Increasing access

Lan, the woman who had trouble taking the bus in Cau Giay, had polio when she was young. One of her biggest dreams is to roll into the Ha Noi Opera House in her wheelchair and see a symphony. But she hasn't done it yet, because there is no sloping walkway leading up to the concert venue. She doesn't want to disturb others by asking them to carry her wheelchair up the tall staircase.

"Most public places, like offices, theatres, cinemas, parks, museums and even President Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, are not for people in wheelchairs," she says.

"If we are travelling alone, we cannot get access to them, as there are no sloping walkways, no toilets or doors for the disabled, or no standardised facilities for people in wheelchairs."

She recalled a visit with other members of the Song Doc Lap Centre last year to President Ho's mausoleum. The mausoleum's management board had dozens of soldiers carry 20 people from the centre up the steps.

Since 2002, when the Ministry of Construction issued a list of criteria for buildings accessible to people with disabilities, most new buildings constructed under the state budget have been designed to be wheelchair-accessible, according to Le Thi Bich Thuan, vice director of the Institute for Urban Studies and Infrastructure Development.

A report given by Tran Huu Ha, an official from the Ministry of Construction, shows the percentage of public buildings surveyed between 2006 and 2012 that meet criteria for people with disabilities. About 22.6 per cent were health care buildings, 20.8 per cent were education buildings, 13.2 per cent were exhibition halls and 11.3 per cent were conference centres and State-owned offices.

However, markets and supermarkets have less frequently been handicapped-friendly: 5.7 per cent. Port centres came in at 3.8 per cent, post offices at 7.5 per cent, stations and border gates at 7.5 per cent, retirement homes and clubs at 3.8 per cent, and banks at 1.9 per cent.

"Though we have enough of a legislative foundation to design architecture accessible to people with disabilities like the Law on Construction, the Law on People with Disabilities and projects supporting people with disabilities, most public outdoor places in central Ha Noi are not accessible to people with wheelchairs," Thuan says.

Thuan suggests installing a proper system of signs, standard sloping walkways, priority parking places, phone boxes and bus stations designed for the disabled in public places.

She and other colleagues will soon publish a handbook providing information on how accessible public places in Ha Noi are, such as theatres, cinemas and worship areas.

In the meantime, the DRD centre in HCM City will launch a mobile application showing people with disabilities accessible destinations on Google Maps. The application will be introduced in early March and finalised in August.

The application is based on the first map for the disabled the centre made in 2012. As many as 50 volunteers chose 1,800 public buildings in districts 1 and 3 and surveyed their entrances, doors, corridors, lifts and toilets. Only 78 venues were accessible to people with wheelchairs.

"We have done various activities so the whole community and the disabled can join hand to create a friendly environment with no obstacles for people with disabilities so they can integrate with the community," says Luu Thi Anh Loan, acting director of the centre. — VNS

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