Persons with Disabilities seek social support for better mobility and acceptance in Bhutan

Around 2.1 percent of the total population, which is 15,567 persons, are Persons with Disabilities (PwDs). Around 80 percent of the PwDs are from the rural areas of Bhutan.

There are three modes of disability in the country, a charity model wherein PwDs are seen as a victim of circumstances that needs to be pitied, the medical model that views disability as a functional problem that requires cure and made normal. The third is the social model, which considers disability as a complex collection of conditions, many of which are a result of inaccessible environment and negative attitude.

PwDs are vulnerable to various issues, which is why they need extra care and understanding from the society.

A consultant with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Phurpa Wangchuk, is a person with physical disability, and he shared that a main issue that PwDs face is the problem of mobility, as they have to depend on others, and dealing with the society is another challenge, especially due to the low acceptance level, which is one of the reasons he does not socialize.

He said “Economically, we face lots of challenges because we pay double the rate because of our disabilities. When I have to rent an apartment, I have to look for a ground floor (apartment), which are being used for commercial purpose.”

In addition, he said that there is no provision of ramps in most of the building terminals, and the ones provided do not meet the standards. PwDs cannot access the facilities due to high-end staircase and without lifts or elevators installed in the buildings. Even the public safety infrastructure, like the overhead bridges and underpasses are inaccessible to most persons with disabilities.

Almost all the toilet facilities are inaccessible to PwDs. Therefore, PwDs experience many difficulties in using spaces, whereby they encounter stressful moments, embarrassment, discomfort, and are unable to self-care.

“The urban environment, infrastructures, facilities and services are planned and built, wherein only the ordinary people can get access to. So, we are more vulnerable and have experienced the lack of accessibility to basic urban services, such as education, transportation and access to information.”

Meanwhile, he said that discrimination is one biggest challenge, for now, which is why PwDs are not willing to come forward. They urge people to accept them as they are, and give the same priority as like any ordinary person is accorded.

PwDs also struggle during long-distance journeys on public transport vehicles, as there is no care or consideration given to them. The lack of effective enforcement of the legislation that aims to address barriers for PwDs accessibility to public services is due to weak collaboration and awareness, he added.

He said, “I realized my disability when I have to depend on others. If buildings are built considering our needs, it’s like preparing ourselves for future, as nobody remains with the same energy and fitness once we cross the age of 50. So, it’s likely that one day or other, we can become disabled with age and time.”

Dupthob Zangmo who is visually impaired since her birth shared that it is challenging to avail herself of the public transport services.

“For me, I do not use (public transport) much because my husband picks and drops me to my work and home, which is why I don’t see it as big issue. However, there are many who have difficulty using it (public transport),” she added.

There are incidences wherein the PwDs are not only charged higher taxi fares but are also harassed. PwDs with visual impairment have difficulties in paying the fare because they are unable to see the money notes. 

A member from the Taxi Association of Bhutan (TAB) said that it is very challenging to deal with the PwDs as passengers because they are very fragile and too sensitive and hard to communicate with, especially a person with intellectual disability.

He said, “There were incidences, whereby the taxi drivers have driven the PwDs to Paro instead of Kabesa and Motithang and this happened due to communication gaps. They tend to keep forgetting, which is why we keep having to ask them.”

Likewise, he said that it is tough to provide taxi services to the visually impaired people as drivers are not able to track their exact location. However, they manage to keep track of certain landmarks, which helps in finding the right address.

Despite numerous challenges, TAB is always supporting the PwDs and would continue to do so, the TAB member added.

With regard to taxi drivers harassing the passengers including the PwDs, TAB said it has not received any official complaint against the taxi drivers who are registered with the association. 

“We take this issue seriously, and if we receive any complaint then they will be dealt as per the law. We keep advocating the drivers. If any passenger is being sexually harassed, they are encouraged to report to the association along with the taxi number,” he added.

He further said that they have plans and strategies in place to tackle sexual harassment issue, and with a support from UNDP, TAB has plans to visit the 20 dzongkhags to create awareness on the matter.

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