Wheelchair users face difficulties with public transport in Singapore

Asia-Pacific, November 21 2011

SINGAPORE: Mr Gilbert Tan, 50, is an artist, public speaker, playwright and an equity investor. His packed schedule means he has to shuttle between places frequently. And despite the strides made in the Republic’s public transport network, the daily task of getting around for wheelchair users like Mr Tan is still, in his words, “an adventure”.

Mr Tan, who is paralysed from the chest down, told Today that he always plans his journey well before leaving his home.

“Going out is an adventure, ” said Mr Tan, whose biggest gripe is that most MRT stations only have one lift and he usually has to compete for space on it with shopping trolleys, empty baby prams as well as able-bodied people.

“I usually am only able to get in on the fourth trip,” he said. After he gets on the MRT trains, it is a challenge to get off, no thanks to commuters who do not give way.

Said Mr Tan: “I call them ‘door guards’. They do not understand that my wheels have to be perpendicular (to the doorway) for me to safely get out of the train and avoid getting stuck in the gap.”

Getting caught in the gap between an MRT train and the platform is an experience that fellow wheelchair user, Singapore Exchange administrative assistant Suhaimi Pain is all too familiar with. Mr Suhaimi, 53, added: “There are times (when) I just get pushed off the train as the people jostle to get off and the wheels of my wheelchair get caught in the gap. I try not to panic but when I hear the announcement that the doors are closing I do get worried.”

Mr Suhaimi noted that, thankfully, during such instances, MRT staff are on hand to help him.

The accessibility of Singapore’s public transport for wheelchair users came under the spotlight earlier this month, after Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Chan Chun Sing announced that the operation of London cabs – which are popular among wheelchair users given the spacious interior – will be extended for another year. Mr Chan said: “The larger issue is how we provide affordable and accessible transportation services for a certain group of disabled people.”

In response to Today’s queries, an LTA spokesperson noted that there are “four different types of trains running the North South and East West Lines”.

The spokesperson added that all trains “need to be consistent in their specifications and dimensions”. “For the North-South and East West Lines, the elevated stations and underground stations come with different parameters, hence it is not possible to reduce the gap between trains and platforms across the board,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson reiterated that the gaps between trains and platforms here “are among the smallest in heavy rail systems in the world”.

“All new lines such as the Circle Line and Downtown Line have also been constructed with gaps that are slightly smaller than those on the existing lines,” the spokesperson added.

And in the event a lift breaks down, passengers who use wheelchairs are directed to the next station where they will be able to use the lift to exit the station. A complimentary taxi service is then arranged to take them back to the station at which they had intended to alight.

When it comes to buses, the main grouse of wheelchair users is that not all bus stops are wheelchair-accessible, which makes alighting from a wheelchair-friendly bus a challenge.

Economist Julian Wee, 34, who takes the taxi to work in his wheelchair, said: “It is not feasible to have buses that are wheelchair accessible but the pavements to the buses are not.”

According to the LTA, as of today, 96 per cent of Singapore’s bus stops are wheelchair accessible “except in cases of severe site constraints such as those located along five-footways”.

The LTA spokesperson added: “Currently, about 40 per cent of our public buses are wheelchair accessible and we are on track for 100 per cent of our fleet to have wheelchair accessible buses by 2020. All new buses procured from June 2006 onwards are wheelchair accessible.”

For Mr Tan, the major inconvenience is the irregularity of wheelchair-friendly buses. SBS Transit senior vice-president (corporate communications) Tammy Tan said it has almost 1,610 buses that are wheelchair-friendly and 89 wheelchair-accessible bus services. SBS has a total fleet of about 3,000 buses and runs 250 bus routes.

“Beginning with just five wheelchair-accessible bus services in 2006, we have continued to roll out more of such services over the years as the authorities make more ground infrastructure such as bus stops and bus interchanges wheelchair friendly,” said Ms Tan.

An SMRT spokesperson added that its wheelchair-accessible bus services are identified with a blue decal of a passenger-in-wheelchair, which is displayed at the front of the bus. Both transport operators noted that their drivers are trained in helping wheelchair users board and alight.

Much has been done – and wheelchair users know it. But what would perhaps close the gap further – between wheelchair users’ expectations and what the authorities and transport operators provide – is greater involvement of wheelchair users and relevant voluntary welfare organisations.

Said Mr Nicolas Aw, the president of the Disabled People’s Association: “There is no point in providing the infrastructure which the authorities think or believe are what people with disabilities need – they need to involve groups like us in the decision making process.”

Source: http://www.todayonline.com

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