If what we discussed and proposed during the consultative meeting with the World Bank team today is going to be implemented by Thimphu City Corporation, Thimphu will perhaps become Bhutan’s first ever accessible and inclusive city where persons with disabilities can enjoy greater independence. Today, almost all the public facilities such as sidewalks, public transport services, banks, hospitals, movie theaters and shopping complexes are not disabled-friendly and because of these barriers, we have not been able to fully participate in the public life. More importantly, the general attitude of the people towards persons with disabilities is still not as positive as it should be. As a result, many persons with disabilities are facing discriminations behind closed doors. For instance, Mr. Pema Tshering who is a physically handicapped person currently working in Simply Bhutan says he has been denied ride by taxi drivers on many occasions just because he cannot walk. But with the change in time, I think things are now beginning to fall in place. The consultative meeting held in the office of Disabled Persons’ Association of Bhutan (DPAB) today was initiated by the World Bank as part of its new project to make the public transport services within Thimphu city more accessible and friendly for persons with disabilities and I was fortunate to be part of the discussion.
The main objective of the consultation was to discuss and find out ways in which the existing city bus services could be made more friendly and accessible for persons with disabilities so that we could travel to our destinations independently and safely. As of now, we the persons with disabilities have never been able to travel alone using the public transport service because firstly, there are no accessible sidewalks leading up to the bus stops and secondly, the staff of the buses are not trained on how to handle passengers like us. We are treated equally like other passengers and hence, we don’t get the attention we require and deserve. For instance, we don’t even know when we have reached our destination because the drivers don’t announce the name of the bus stations when they stop. The reservation of seats in city buses for persons with disabilities has been introduced by the government about two years ago, but I still have a doubt if it is being effectively implemented because there is nobody to monitor the system. I have realized that the drivers do not even notice if a person with disability has boarded the bus, forget about helping the passenger get the seat he or she is entitled to. My brother-in-law who is a visually impaired has gone through a terrible experience sometime ago. He said when a man was requested to vacate his seat for him when he boarded a city bus, he overheard the man grumbling that he had to give up his seat although he had boarded the bus earlier. That made my brother-in-law feel guilty and uncomfortable. So as mentioned earlier, the attitude of people towards persons with disabilities and disability-related issues is still a major social barrier for us.
In the light of all the above concerns, the meeting provided an ideal platform for us to share our experiences and views in the larger interest of the entire disabled population of Bhutan. Although the focus of the discussion was how to make city bus services more accessible for persons with disabilities, we could also get the opportunity to discuss other related issues such as the need for accessible sidewalks, ramps alternative to staircases, conducive underpasses, disabled-friendly traffic regulations, covered drains and greater public awareness on the needs and rights of persons with disabilities.
At the end of the meeting, we made the following three main recommendations that could make the public transport services more friendly and accessible for persons with disabilities:
1. The bus drivers and their staff must be extensively trained on how to deal with passengers with disabilities such as helping them find their seats after boarding the bus and get out of the bus when they reach their destinations. They should be given enough time to board and leave the bus and should be helped to get to a safe spot from where they can either catch another transport service or walk home. In addition, the drivers should also cultivate the culture of announcing the names of the stations whenever they stop so that we would know exactly when to get out. We feel that this kind of training must be incorporated by relevant authorities like RSTA in their regular refresher courses for taxi and bus drivers. I feel this is something which is doable and cost-effective.
2. All zebra-crossings must have tactile dots which can be felt with the white canes used by the blind so that we would know when to cross a road. At present, the zebra-crossings contain only marked lines which make no sense to the blind and low-vision people. The tactile dots must be colored to help the low-vision and color-blinded people to easily identify them. There should be such zebra-crossings at every bus-stop so that we can safely navigate our way to board the buses.
3. The basic structures around the bus-station such as the sidewalks leading to the station, sign-posts and waiting-sheds (if any) must be fully accessible for persons with disabilities. The steps must be replaced by ramps and the surrounding drains must be covered with iron-nets. The guardrails must be installed at every station to enable us to stand within a safe distance from the main road.
Although we have many more recommendations to make, we felt these three would be enough to begin with at the moment. I am truly happy that the Ministry of Information and Communication has taken this great initiative to make Thimphu city more friendly and accessible for us. The World Bank which is funding this project is going to incorporate our recommendations and views in their report and submit it to Thimphu City Corporation and MoIC for implementation. If everything goes well as planned, I am sure Thimphu will be a city of greater accessibility and independence for persons with disabilities in the near future. The accessible public transport services would be even more beneficial for those children with disabilities who are attending day-schools in Thimphu because the lack of such services can even limit their access to education because not all parents can afford private cars. I hope the concerned authorities would take up this project seriously and work towards creating an inclusive society in which we enjoy equal rights as our non-disabled counterparts regardless of our disability status. Personally, I can’t stop imagining myself walking independently to my office, vegetable-market and other destinations with the help of a white cane and accessible public facilities/services in place.