People with Disabilities and Traffic / Safety in the Orient
Excerpted from “Diary from Asia"
Monday, November 20, 2006 – Bangkok, Thailand
The biggest event happened today – observing the training of blind people learning to travel independently at a center for the blind here in Thailand. After traveling in more than a dozen countries, this was a first for me. Before I tell you about that, I need to tell you about our travels yesterday with Nu, another O&M specialist, because that is when I realized some of the difficulties of getting around Bangkok.
- scary buses and a disregard for life,
- mention of observation of O&M lesson in Thailand
When Mom and Dad and my brother Dave and I were here 43 years ago, we were struck by the apparent disregard for safety and life. Traffic fatalities were common, when buses pulled over to pick up passengers they often didn't even bother to stop and, when the buses were crowded, passengers would hang off the bus from the door. People crossed busy 6-lane streets one lane at a time, standing on the lines between the lanes looking for a break to get to the next lane.
In that regard, very little has changed. I didn't see people hanging off the buses, but as Nu and Stephan and I waited for the buses, we'd laugh as we watched them approach to see if they would stop. Some did, but many merely slowed down while passengers jumped off and then, while the bus still rolled slowly forward, other passengers grabbed a bar inside the door and pulled themselves into the bus and then WHOOSH! Without ever stopping, the bus picked up speed and dashed off to the next bus stop (or bus “slow-down"!). Nu was surprised and disappointed to learn that it may be unique to Thailand, as I haven't seen buses do that in any other country, including China. Later, as we grinned and prepared for the adventure of jumping off one of the buses, I suddenly wondered what would happen if someone was trying to get on or off but fell under the bus, and I asked Nu if people get injured or killed in that way. She somberly said yes. As I got off while the bus kept going, a mother with her young son was getting ready to jump off too – they made it fine, but for me, the fun adventure had turned into something serious.
[NOTE: Several years later, when Nanta's blind friend stepped off a bus that didn't stop, he fell under the bus and was killed.]
Anyway, it was in view of those experiences, as well as seeing sidewalks crowded with stalls and people and broken pavement, huge construction holes not covered or barricaded, and curbs that suddenly jut in and out, that I prepared to follow two intrepid blind men on their O&M lesson.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006 – Pak Chong, Thailand
Hi again, everyone! Before I get back to our adventures in Bangkok and the O&M lesson, I have to share my enthusiasm for this place, and the experience of being in a country WHERE I CAN SPEAK THE LANGUAGE!
- pleasure at being able to speak the language;
- Thai workers endangered when working on the road;
- observation of an O&M lesson for blind students in Thailand.
Omigosh – I gotta interrupt myself to tell you what Sandra just pointed out to me. Remember I said that the Thais seem to have so little regard for safety and lives? They are repairing / tarring a section of the busy 2-lane highway in front of the lodge and, unlike the U.S. where the working area would be marked off and several workers would be designated to flag down the traffic, here the workers simply do their thing while the traffic whizzes by them, throwing shovelsfull of dirt onto the repaired section and, when the work is done, they climb into the big shovel of the large tractor and stand while being transported down the highway to the next area. Now my concern yesterday about our taxi to the bus station nearly having an accident while there were no seat belts (there were none in Sandra's taxi from the airport either, nor of course in the truck we rode yesterday) seems insignificant – these workers expose themselves to that risk and more every day, all day.
All right, back to my diary and my level of Thai language. … it opens up experiences that we otherwise wouldn't have. … In fact, it was my mastery of Thai (plus my handy dictionary) that got me through the O&M lesson Monday. I could understand what people in the market said to the blind travelers ("Pai nai?" which means “Where are you going?” and "Left! Left! LEFT!") and I was able to ask questions of Somchai, one of the O&M specialists. AND more importantly, I could even understand his answers! There was one time I had to look something up, and understanding what he said gave me some insight into the lesson. It was when one of the students started to veer into a stall, and Somchai guided him back out. I asked (in Thai) “Would he have been able to do it himself if you didn't help?” I had to look up one of the words in his response (“laa”) and it meant “lag behind.” So I was able to realize that he had helped him out (and made him miss an opportunity to problem-solve) not because he thought the student was incapable, but because the student was getting too far back from the other student – one of the drawbacks of having two students at once.
This is probably a good time to talk about that lesson [photos]. The blind travelers had to walk along a little lane with no sidewalk to the bus stop, take the bus to a busy street, walk along a cramped sidewalk with a market with lots of stalls till they reach the post office, buy a mailer, and then get some popcorn in the market on the way back, locating the stall by the smell. There were two students, and two instructors, Somchai and Prasop.
The students handled everything well, including the bus. Buses in Thailand have a ticket person collecting fares, and they asked her (as well as other passengers) to announce the stop. The ticket lady forgot, as usual, but one of the passengers told them when to get off (Somchai said that when everyone forgets to inform them of their bus stop, he doesn't interfere, and lets them problem-solve).
They got assistance to get on the bus (and it DID stop for them!) and had no trouble getting off (again, the bus stopped) and also worked their way through crowds and narrow ledge of sidewalk very well. As I said, there was no opportunity to problem-solve, and the instructors initially helped them across the streets rather than have them practice getting assistance (even the side streets here are very difficult to cross, filled usually with slowly moving or idling cars and motorcycles, if I were traveling there blind, I'd get help!), but later in the lesson the instructors didn't intervene, and the students solicited aid very well.
In the beginning, when the cane of one of the students went over the curb, he didn't seem to notice, and stepped off abruptly. After 4-5 incidents like this, however, he started to notice it, and negotiated the curbs gracefully. So I was able to see a nice progression of skills in the crowded streets of Bangkok. We had a very nice discussion afterwards with the students and instructors. The students said that before the training, they had no idea they could do anything, and now feel that they can do anything.
The O&M instructors told me about two deaf-blind people who are at the center. They are apparently extremely hard of hearing, and can understand if someone yells into their ear. The instructors asked me for ideas to work with them. As it is, because of the communication problem, they will be unable to participate in the massage therapist vocational training. I wasn't able to help much with the little time I had, I hope they can talk with Nu, who did her O&M internship with deaf-blind people under Gene Bourquin at Helen Keller National Center.
However, I did tell them about assistive listening devices, which have made the world of difference for many of my clients who are very hard of hearing – some of them have almost cried to find out how well they can communicate with family, friends and even strangers, even in crowded noisy restaurants and at lectures. The instructors said the center would never be able to afford to get one, even though they are only about $200. I thought about it a little, and then said that my husband and I would like to donate an assistive listening device to the center (Fred, thank you for helping me make a potentially huge difference to someone across the world!). I am negotiating right now with a company in Silver Spring to see how they can get it shipped to Thailand – they have never shipped to anywhere around here before, and it hopefully will be something that will open eyes of the Thai people to what is possible.
Friday, November 24, 2006 – Pak Chong, Thailand
Hi everyone! I think since I last signed off, we went on our trip through the forest, and I will tell you about that in another message, but for now I'll try to capture today's adventures while they are fresh in my mind. It started out with seeing the road workers this morning putting themselves in even more danger, this time to paint white lines in the street to mark where the tar would be poured. Two workers dragged a very long rope along the middle of the street, and they snapped the rope till it lay straight, and the third worker walking along it with a bucket of paint into which he dipped a long stick with cloth wrapped around the end and painted the line. The whole time, traffic whizzed by each side of them, with no protection other than a cone they left in the middle of the street behind them.
- road workers again endangered
December 11, 2006
Dang, I knew I should have taken notes, I've forgotten a lot that I observed, and having seen 4 countries (well, Hong Kong and China are one country, sort of, though they were different regarding accessibility), I can't remember where I saw what.
Every country has extensive "braille trails" (not the official name) which I've already described, they were along most of the sidewalks and in train stations, hotels, shopping malls and a university in Tokyo and Hong Kong (the one in Hong Kong also had COOL tactile maps of the campus on posts in several locations). Although these braille trails seemed GREAT in the train stations to help find ticket areas, elevators and escalators, where to stand to find the train door, etc., I was puzzled by the purpose of the braille trails along the sidewalks, and what benefits they could possibly provide to blind travelers.
- Accessibility for people with disabilities
I've been told that in countries that have the braille trails, some people (including people who are newly blind!) are under the impression that blind people cannot travel independently without them. The presence of these trails may also thwart O&M training. Sufficient O&M training isn't available in many countries I visited and it's been suggested that policy-makers may be under the impression that extensive O&M training is not necessary because blind people can simply follow these trails wherever they exist, even though they don't exist everywhere (and in some places where they have been installed, they cannot be used because of congestion or they've been covered by vending stands, parked vehicles, and sometimes even permanent walls or buildings). Also, O&M specialists have told me that these trails require them to find suitable places to provide training to enable their students to travel anywhere regardless of whether there are braille trails or not.
I also saw braille labels on the ends of the stair railings to indicate what is at the top or bottom of the stairs. These were at a train station in Hong Kong and in, of all things, a game store in Japan. It was interesting that in the Hong Kong train station, in spite of pleas from the Hong Kong Society for the Blind, engineers refused to install a braille trail to the escalators because they thought escalators are be too dangerous for blind people (instead, the braille trails lead the blind person to the stairs!).
was in Hong Kong 10 years ago I experienced the first accessible pedestrian
signal (APS) that used ticking instead of cuckoos. Every intersection that I saw
had a slow ticking sound from a pole near the crosswalk and when it is time to
cross, the ticking went faster (it was easy to know which crosswalk it was for,
as the ticking came from the direction opposite of the other crosswalk). On this
visit, the APS seemed to be the same as they were 10 years ago, and seem to
function well though I didn't study them carefully. Someone told me they don't
vibrate but the ones I saw did have a little button below that vibrates [LATER:
this discrepancy may be explained in a news release from December 30, 2006 which says that there are several kinds of pedestrian signals in Hong Kong, one of which uses a yellow box with a vibrating button – the one where I found the vibrating button was one of those yellow boxes]. I saw APS in every other country as well, though not many.
• For an insightful narrative of experiences
in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China from the perspective of a blind person, visit
the website of Christie
Gilson, who presented at the International Mobility Conference. She is a
blind doctoral candidate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who
was in Hong Kong on a Fulbright scholarship for ten months to study college
students with disabilities. Her narrative of her experiences in Guangzhou, China was particularly enlightening.
• At the International Mobility
Conference in Hong Kong, I learned about an exciting development that may one
day give some leverage in advocating for accessibility, as well as for
sufficient O&M training to be available to everyone. In her presentation, Kicki Nordstrom from Sweden explained that the
United Nations is considering a Convention on the Rights of Persons with
Disabilities that would require countries that adopt the law to provide access
to social, economical, cultural, civil, and political rights, as to the physical
and informational environment to people with disabilities. Among the rights
specified in the document is the right to rehabilitation and education. This
Convention is more powerful than previous efforts -- if it is adopted and
ratified, nations which want to be accepted into the U.N. must adopt the laws of
the Convention. [NOTE: Kicki said that the Convention was adopted by the UN
General Assembly the 13th of December without any reservations, confirming the
rights listed here. Now, all that remains is for 20 countries to ratify it --
the convention will be open for signatures and ratification March 30, 2007 – for
more information, see her article or read the entire
Convention at a page on the UN website].
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