What You Think

When one’s disability is not a handicap ― Richard Kuppusamy

NOVEMBER 13 ― I am a wheelchair-user who lived abroad for many years. When I first thought about coming back to Singapore to work in 2012, I was most worried about how my future as an architect would be affected by accessibility.

Getting a job might be more down to whether there are steps at the front door of the office or if there is an accessible toilet.

However, while I have received strange looks on construction site visits; I have never been refused access even if the lifts were not ready yet.

It is that willingness of individuals and the collaborative nature of the construction industry to adapt to the situation and improvise solutions that have made it possible for me to fully pursue my career aspirations.

But some barriers remain, namely mental, physical and social barriers.

First, the mental block of political correctness.

When TODAY published an interview with me with the headline: “Universal Design should leave nobody out, says disabled architect”, some people took issue with the word “disabled”.

The term “disabled architect” was seen to be a demeaning judgement of the person’s restricted capability.

The wordier, politically correct term would have been “architect with a disability”. I was fine with it, as the more commonly used word, “handicap”, would have been worse as the connotation is that it is my fault for having a medical condition.

Notably, those who expressed concern to me about the use of the term were the able-bodied.

This just shows it is the able-bodied majority that defines what is “normal”. I do not even think about my disability on a daily basis. I feel disabled only when I am reminded by people creating barriers to my freedom.

An example is when I am called a “wheelchair” when people say: “Move out of the way, wheelchair coming through!”

I am not my wheelchair. I am a person in a wheelchair.

A second example is when able-bodied people park their cars in designated lots for disabled drivers, even if it is just for a few minutes.

The message you are sending is that your time, convenience, and needs are more important than a disabled person’s.

Disabled people have less choice about where to park a car and need enough space to get their wheelchairs out of the car so that they can enter the building.

Closely tied to this is the “me first” attitude on the use of accessible toilets.

In malls, there might be six regular toilet cubicles, but I can only use the single wheelchair-access toilet.

Waiting for able-bodied people to finish using that single disabled-access toilet means that their need supersedes mine.

Counting the cost of discrimination

Physical barriers can be overcome by building more parking lots and toilet cubicles for those with mobility issues. What is more difficult to overcome are social barriers.

I feel disabled when people tell me they would not serve me or would not consider me for a job because I have a disability or because they refuse to make their premises accessible.

This is disability created by society. I am not disabled if society chooses to be inclusive and treat me with the basic respect and dignity accorded to everyone else.

There is a great deal that society can do to reduce, and ultimately remove, some of these disabling barriers.

Let us be honest. Discrimination exists even though we do not tolerate discrimination based on religion, race, or gender. But I face discrimination based on my disability on a regular basis.

Disability discrimination can be defined as treating someone less favourably based on his/her disability.

So, a restaurant that provides toilets to able-bodied diners and not an accessible one to disabled diners is discriminating against the latter.

Some developers argue that building more accessible parking and more accessible toilets lowers their profitable nett lettable area.

After all, if an accessible parking lot is not 98 per cent occupied, there is more money to be made by changing it into regular lots.

But should building regulations not put people before profits?

With the rapid ageing of Singapore society, developers need to think about people who acquire disabilities in later life, not just those who are born with it, such as myself.

People need wheelchairs as they age, or have life-changing accidents in mid-life. We need to enable these people to continue to work and lead an independent life.

Equality and opportunity

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study in mainstream schools in New Zealand, United States, and Europe when I followed my father on his postings abroad. (He works for Singapore Airlines).

My parents taught me how to do things for myself and not wait for others to help me out, which is critical to where I am today.

I studied alongside my able-bodied counterparts with no favours granted. My physical disability does not define who I am or what I am capable of doing. Social inclusion starts with education.

The opportunity for me to study in regular schools gave me the best quality education; but also created an opportunity for my able-bodied classmates to learn about disability and understand the needs of others.

The equal inclusion of disabled pupils into mainstream schools does not hamper the progress of able-bodied pupils.

Instead, it makes the educational experience richer and more diverse.

Unfortunately, my story is not the norm and I have met other disabled people in Singapore who have not received a fair chance to an education or employment because of their disability.

I am not suggesting that there should be any quota or requirement to force employers to employ disabled people. But everyone should have access to basic education, continued reskilling and the opportunity to gain employment solely on their skills and experience, and not have disability as a disqualifier.

Just because someone has a disability does not mean they do not have aspirations.

As an architect, I want to do my part to create barrier-free environments that empower and enable disabled people to get out and do whatever they want.

We need to adapt and innovate to improve the lives of people with disabilities, young or elderly.

By respecting their needs, I hope we can use our built environment as the catalyst to social inclusion.

By designing everything to meet the needs of the majority of people who are not disabled, we create a rift that defines disability. Being a person with a disability is not my individual problem.

I do not define myself as being disabled, and if, as a society, we make the effort to be inclusive in the way we treat others, then disability is no longer a barrier. ― TODAY

* Richard Kuppusamy, a member of the executive committee of the Handicaps Welfare Association, is an architectural designer who uses a wheelchair to move around as he is paralysed from the waist down due to spina bifida. He worked in the United Kingdom before he returned to Singapore in 2012. Projects he has worked on include SkyVille@Dawson and Kampung Admiralty.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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