Can Rangoon Become a Disabled-Friendly City?

By Tin Htet Paing 16 September 2016

RANGOON — She stands still at the side of the road until somebody nearby tells her she can cross. Being afraid of cars, crossing roads is a big challenge for her.

“I have never gone far from my hostel alone,” the 21-year old Ah Me Sar said. “My teachers don’t even allow me to do so.”

Ah Me Sar, an ethnic Lisu women from the ruby-mining town of Mogok in Mandalay Division, partially lost her eyesight when she was eight years old, after experiencing a severe fever. A surgical error then left her permanently blind.

In 2007, she came to Rangoon’s Kawechan School for the Blind—a school, with an attached hostel, that provides vocational skills and formal education to visually impaired young people, in partnership with government schools.

“Rangoon’s pavements are really narrow,” she said. “Cars normally park alongside the pavements and blind pedestrians like us always walk into them, as well as lamp posts sometimes,” she explained, describing the challenges she faces everyday in attending classes at the government school nearby.

In late August, The Irrawaddy visited the school and saw Ah Me Sar confidently walking in the school compound, holding a stick and accompanied by another young woman who also appeared partially blind.

“Even going to classes is a challenge,” she said. “Taking buses or taxis without the company of someone who can see, even partially, is just impossible for me,” she explained.

Ah Me Sar is one of around 250,000 disabled residents of Rangoon, accounting for 10 percent of Burma’s disabled population according to the 2014 census. The most common type of disability in Burma is blindness or partial sight, afflicting 2.5 percent of the total population.

Ah Me Sar said she envies some of the older students at her hostel, who are able to travel alone to their universities, which are often far from the city center. Ah Me Sar said she hopes to be able to do so too when she finishes high school. Among those currently making the commute is 25-year old Than Tun Win, who studies philosophy at Yangon Western University, and was born blind. But commuting alone to his university is harder than Ah Me Sar supposes.

1.7 percent of Rangoon’s population has some form of visual impairment. Most have to rely on buses for transport, which presents considerable hardship.

“We have to listen to bus conductors carefully, concentrating on the names of the bus stops they shout out so we know where we are,” Than Tun Win said.

“When buses race with each other and skip bus stops, or when the conductors don’t shout, we are helpless,” he explained with a smile. He has frequently faced such scenarios and had to ask other passengers on board for help.

“We can never commute independently in Rangoon,” he said. “Without help from somebody nearby, we can’t even see which taxis are available when we need one.”

Other students at the hostel told similar stories. Associations for the disabled are now raising their voices louder.

Nay Lin Soe, a former polio sufferer, founded the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative five years ago, with a mission to enable people with disabilities across Burma to live independently. He told The Irrawaddy that the absence of disabled-friendly public infrastructure in Rangoon presents a fundamental physical barrier.

Rangoon’s public transport does not include any facilities for those with hearing and sight impairments, while buses and trains are also not accessible for people with wheelchairs, Nay Lin Soe explained.

“Many pavements do not even have slopes or ramps for wheelchair-dependent persons,” he said. “Foot-bridges have also not been built with disabilities in mind.”

Maung Aung, the secretary of Rangoon Division’s Transport Authority, confessed that most buses in the city are old models without disabled-friendly features. The Yangon Bus Public Co.—the city’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) system, chaired by Maung Aung—has pledged to improve the commercial capital’s main public transport system, but its buses are not yet accessible for the city’s disabled population.

“Currently, we are struggling with bus reform,” he said. “We will consider disabled passengers later.”

He mentioned that the new imported buses in the BRT system actually came equipped with features for disabled passengers, including ramps and wheelchair restraints, but he claimed they could not be used because the rest of the city’s physical infrastructure, including pavements, do not allow for it.

Lin Khaing, the deputy head of the Yangon City Development Committee’s engineering department for roads and bridges, told The Irrawaddy that they had in fact built pavements with slopes and ramps in “most” areas of the city, stopping short of other infrastructure due to budgetary restraints.

Besides these physical barriers, prevailing attitudes and discrimination also discourage the disabled community from stepping out of their houses, Nay Lin Soe explained.

When people in wheelchairs hail a taxi on the street, drivers immediately ask which hospital he or she wants to go to, assuming that disabled people have no reason to go out besides for medical purposes, he said.

“We are not [medical] patients,” he said. “We have abilities and qualifications to participate in the areas of health, education and human rights.”

Aung Ko Myint, who chairs the Myanmar National Federation of People with Disabilities, echoed Nay Lin Soe’s opinions. As a visually impaired person, Aung Ko Myint shared his experience of taking buses in Rangoon.

“Bus conductors call disabled people ‘sick’,” he said. “They consider us burdens, delaying their buses.”

“Don’t even talk to me about trains!” he said. “There is so much to be done with Rangoon’s trains, even for people without disabilities.”

However, he expressed some optimism, saying that bus conductors don’t refuse to take disabled people like they used to.

Aung Ko Myint believes that the disabled community is wasted as a potential workforce because structural barriers force them to stay inside instead of contributing to society.

The Myanmar National Association of the Blind, also led by Aung Ko Myint, has held several training workshops for bus conductors and drivers under Rangoon Division’s Motor Vehicles Supervisory Committee—known locally by the Burmese language acronym Ma Hta Tha—on accommodating and aiding visually impaired passengers.

Hla Aung, who chairs Ma Hta Tha, said the committee is keen to encourage further trainings of this kind, after the committee had observed an improvement in bus conductors and drivers helping visually impaired passengers.

According to Aung Ko Myint, rapid development in Rangoon is making it even harder for disabled people to cope, with frequent changes in the physical environment brought about by a construction spree over recent years.

Rural areas may be safer for disabled people with fewer vehicles and less change, he said.

Aung Ko Myint believes that proper legal protection would be most effective in lowering physical barriers and combating discrimination. A new law on the rights of persons with disabilities was enacted in June 2015; the government is preparing by-laws while consulting different stakeholders.

Aung Ko Myint is not fully satisfied with the law, however, saying it is too “generic” and wasn’t drafted inclusively, considering different varieties of impairment.

The law requires that new public infrastructure including pavements, foot bridges, schools and hospitals be made accessible to disabled people, but it does not outline punishments or fines for those who fail in this regard.

“When leaders pledge to work for all people in the country, they have to know that the country houses disabled people too,” Nay Lin Soe said.

When policymakers talk about inclusive education and disabled-friendly working environments, it is important to understand the role of accessible public transport in allowing disabled people to reach their schools and workplaces, he explained.

“Everybody has their own weaknesses but our weaknesses are visible,” he said. “Our abilities should not be neglected because of this.”

Emphasizing the great deal that needs to be done for the country’s disabled population, which has been “neglected” by past governments, Aung Ko Myint said it was important that it be understood that disabled people are not asking for “privileges” but “equality and inclusivity.”

“We don’t want sympathy, but we ask for empathy,” he said.