The missing disability sign: a look into disability rights in Thailand

Does Thailand lag behind the rest of the world for disability rights Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn investigates.

By | Wed 31 Aug 2011

There are too many disabled people in this neighbourhood and they’re bringing down the housing prices. They need to leave.

This was the message conveyed to Don Willcox, his wife Piranan Singjai, and the members of his wheelchair workshop, by his neighbour, an elderly woman who was trying to sell the house opposite their property.

According to Don and Piranan, the request was far from politely-worded.
“She didn’t just say she disliked disabled people,” says Piranan. “She said she hated them.” The neighbour’s dissatisfaction was to such an extent that the case was taken to the local authorities, who allowed the workshop to remain in its place. The foundation hasn’t heard from the woman since.

Since Willcox began his Foundation to Encourage the Potential of Disabled Persons in 1993, many similar incidents have occurred. Over the years that he has worked to build free customised wheelchairs, Willcox has been told to move his foundation, keep the persons with disabilities employed at his workshop out of sight, and even been accused of torturing children with cerebral palsy.

Despite such attacks, Piranan insists that this behaviour is rare and hardly representative. “Thais are usually very compassionate, and they tend to be more sympathetic than anything,” she says. “It’s only one percent of Thais who don’t like disabled people; the other ninety-nine percent are just fine.”

Yet in this same country, where in 2005, the International Disability Rights Monitor reported that only 0.4% of buildings were accessible to persons with disabilities, there may be a fundamental difference between what defines discrimination in the Thai mindset, and whether physical and social barriers already exist.

While one missing ramp way in a building entrance causes little hindrance for most, for a person with a disability, this barred entrance – and the society that refuses to provide otherwise – can mean the difference between an education, employment, acceptance in society, or, none at all.

A Redefinition of Disability

In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons (CRPD), and brought it into force in 2008. The first human rights treaty of the 21st century, the Convention signifies a milestone in changing perceptions towards disabilities, emphasising that the cause of disability is not inherently confined to an individual’s health condition, but also deeply rooted in an environment of social barriers and prejudices.

In brief: disability isn’t just a result of a physical or mental impairment – it is also socially created.

Thus, by ratifying the CRPD, nations are legally bound to address these social issues and ensure that persons with disabilities are accorded the same fundamental rights as anyone else.

Thailand played an active role in negotiating the Convention, and is among four countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to ratify it – doing so well before such nations as the UK, Germany, and France. In fact, Thailand has had a long and active history in disability rights, having taken part in numerous conventions and organisational frameworks for the establishment of rights since the 1990s. It is considered a leader in Southeast Asia for promoting disability rights, and in 2001, received the International Disability Award from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Institute and the World Committee on Disability in recognition of its initiatives.

However, while legal precepts present a progressive direction for persons with disabilities in Thailand, effective implementation of these laws is an entirely different reality.

A Gap Between Policy and Implementation

Thailand’s constitution contains a number of clauses dedicated to the non-discrimination of persons with disabilities, providing protection against discrimination in education, employment, and access to public services and welfare. A national quota system stipulates that one out of a hundred employees in both public and private companies must be a person with a disability, and mandates that if a company chooses not to do so, it must donate to an established government fund. Education for persons with disabilities is sponsored by the government for no less than twelve years.

Undoubtedly the most well-known of the government’s extensive list of policies is its welfare programme: registered disabled persons are eligible to receive 500 baht a month, in addition to free healthcare at government hospitals.

Despite these provisions, education and employment remain critical issues, says Saowalak Thongkuay, Regional Development Officer of Disabled People’s International Asia-Pacific Region, an international NGO that promotes disability rights. “There are various huge gaps in implementation because there are no measurements and support systems to ensure that persons with disabilities are able to really access these services,” she says.

Inaccessibility in school facilities and transportation are some of the most cited deterrents to disabled persons attending school, yet the resulting lack of formal education invariably leads to difficulties in securing employment.

“Finding a job is extremely hard because a lot of disabled people don’t have an education,” says Wanna, who sells lottery at Chiang Mai’s city hall. “There’s not a lot of choice, even for people who are educated.” Though all of Wanna’s siblings attended school, she has never received a formal education – her parents said her polio would make it “too difficult” to go to school.

These disadvantages are further compounded by existing prejudices towards the productivity and reliability of persons with disabilities. In spite of the existing quota system and non-discrimination regulations on hiring, compliance to these policies is piecemeal at best. The International Disability Rights Monitor reports that estimates of non-compliance rates in Thailand range from 20-90%, and according to Thailand’s National Statistics Office, 71.5% of persons with disabilities over 15 are unemployed. The overall unemployment rate, on the other hand, is estimated at 1.2%.

Rinrada ‘Mai’ Supayong, who wears leg braces from polio, says that discrimination in the workplace is so pervasive that even with a completed university degree in accounting, one of her friends was unable to find a single job in Chiang Mai. “Once we walk in, they’ve already denied us,” she says.

With so few options, lottery-selling, which is subsidised by the government, often becomes the only available career choice. Obtaining these subsidised tickets, however, can be extremely difficult.

One seller at Wat Phra Singh said that despite numerous requests, he has never received a ticket from the government. Instead, he buys them from local ‘middle men’ that own a large share of tickets on the market.

“Most of the time we just sell lottery because we don’t know what else we could do,” says Wanna, whose tickets come from both the government and private sellers. “It’s a career that can help disabled people get by, but at the same time, you can’t say that it’s stable. It’s a government policy after all and we don’t know what will happen in the future.”

A Question of Attitude

One evident influence on persons with disabilities in Thailand is attitude. The perceived Buddhist teaching that disability is a result of karma or sins committed in a previous life is a pervasive belief – persons with disabilities are disabled for a reason, and they must accept their suffering as part of their karma. Some local superstitions also claim that a person with a disability is unlucky, bearing the traces of a catchable, infectious curse. Though this may lead to people disliking and avoiding disabled persons, it more often creates a charitable, often described as “merciful” attitude towards people with disabilities.

However, Saowalak insists that this notion of charity is a form of discrimination in itself. Seeing disability as an exceptional circumstance requiring special and separate provisions will only maintain current divides between persons with disabilities and persons without disabilities. She readily points out that “Investment is a regular term used and a regular strategy in the national budget agenda and in the business segment, but in disability development, welfare and charity is.” An inclusive society can only be achieved when people with disabilities are allowed to define their needs and the ways in which they should be addressed – becoming agents of their own lives rather than ‘objects’ to be taken care of.

In many interviews, ‘discrimination’ and ‘inequality’ were not words that were used to describe Thai attitudes – Thais were “nice” and “helpful” – but many openly expressed that they desired a more inclusive society.

“Thai people don’t have negative attitudes, but they often look at us like we lack something,” says Wanna. “When they see us, they might think of pity, and sympathy – but this isn’t what we want people to feel for us. I want to be able to push myself up these ramps, but society has made it in a way that I’m not able to. They should be able to give us the opportunity to help ourselves.”

“It’s hard, but I really dream that we can be accepted into society and live easier lives,” says Mai.

Local Movements

A number of local foundations have already taken steps to promote inclusivity, demonstrating how disabled persons can take active roles in their lives.

One strong proponent of independently building inclusivity is Kachakorn Thveesri, the Southeast Asia Regional Director for Global Campuses Foundation (GCF), an international non-profit that promotes educational initiatives for adults with disabilities. Kachakorn has polio, and like many others, never attended school. However, she asserts that this has hardly been a hindrance to her life – she’s proud of and especially thankful for her disability, and as part of her work with GCF, hopes to share this mentality with others.

During her twelve years at GCF, Kachakorn has led workshops in the United States and several countries in Southeast Asia, emphasizing an area-based approach and bringing together both persons with and without disabilities to discuss their common connections, participate in peer counselling, and build communities. She wants societies to be inclusive, but through understanding and self-empowerment rather than aggressive campaigning. “We can’t force and lecture our ideas onto other people, but we can help them understand through a process of sharing and gradually opening up perspectives,” she says.

For her, doing something as simple as running a makeup workshop for women can have a profound effect. “It might seem like a comic thing to do, but it is helpful,” she said. “it’s about changing our outlook, on encouraging women to take care of themselves just like anyone else, and to think that they can be beautiful too.”

This approach seems to be working, as GCF’s community has steadily grown; it has a partnership with Chiang Mai University and Payap University, as well as satellite campuses in Sansai and Mae Taeng districts. Planning for campuses in Lamphun and Lampang provinces are already underway.

According to Kachakorn, one of the most essential changes to be made is on existing paradigms and stereotypes, and to achieve that, there should not be an overemphasis on the problems of disability. The focus should not be on impairments, selling pity, or asking for donations.

“Accessibility is really about attitude. Even if there are no ramps, you can have one in your own mind – and that is even more powerful than having physical access.”

She maintains that one of the most important aspects of the disability rights movement is that it should be headed by persons with disabilities themselves, and they can’t only rely on the government to change policies. Empowerment can start on its own.

Remaining Steps

Earlier this June, the World Health Organisation (WHO), in collaboration with the World Bank, produced the World report on disability, the first comprehensive description of disabilities today. It states that there are currently over a billion people in the world that experience disability, corresponding to about 15% of the world’s population. Because of the widespread barriers they face in accessing services, persons with disabilities “have poorer health, lower education achievements, less economic participation and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities.”

However, the report equally stresses that many of these barriers are avoidable and can be overcome.

In its definition of disability, the WHO also emphasises that disability is not an exceptional circumstance – it can happen to anyone, at any time.

Does it make sense then, that an impairment could lead to a denial of what would otherwise easily be one’s rights – education, employment, respect, dignity?

It’s undeniable that the Thai government has made efforts in promoting disability rights; a plethora of acts have been introduced in the past few years alone, including one that sponsors higher education for all persons with disabilities, an entrepreneurship programme that provides no-interest loans to fund businesses, and a community development fund for organisations supporting people with disabilities. The independent work of NGOs and foundations has come a long way in making changes at the local level. Taken together, there is a vast amount of potential for an inclusive society.

Yet this also stands in stark contrast to an image that anyone who has been to Bangkok will not have failed to see: the rows of disabled people, prostrate and begging in front of towering shopping centres and monoliths of wealth. It’s a sobering image, and an unyielding reminder that there is still a schism between what could be achieved and what still needs to be done. There are fundamental barriers that the government must address in accessibility and implementation, and attitudes that Thais themselves will have to work towards changing.

While discussing changing stereotypes, Kachakorn mentioned: “We want to ask ourselves what we can do for society, rather than asking what others can do for us.” If persons with disabilities are asking themselves this question in spite of their barriers, we might also want to ask ourselves, what can we do as well?

Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn, 20, is an intern at Citylife and is studying at Wesleyan University, USA.