Disability in Thailand: Together We Can Make the Right REAL
Suporntum Mongkolsawadi is a campaigner for the rights of those with disabilities in Thailand. He is the Directory of Workability Asia and the Secretary General of the Redemptorist Foundation for People with Disabilities (RFPD) in Pattaya. Here he writes about the impact of Thailand's Paralympic Games success for persons with disabilities in Thailand, the progress made to date and the challenges faced in the future as Thailand moves towards equal rights for persons with disability.
September is Spinal Injury Awareness Month, depending where in the world you reside. This year, there has been added focus because it coincided with the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. While many of these world class athletes have spinal injuries, there are also categories for a wide range of disabilities including those with visual impairments, amputations, and developmental disabilities to name a few.
Though the Paralympic Games bring these disabilities into the public mind and give us a chance to show the strength of our abilities, what you don’t hear much about are the obstacles that still exist for most disabled people around the world to integrate into main stream society and live productive lives.
In Thailand we have some of the best wheelchair racers in the world. Our small Paralympic team has already won a number of medals including many Gold medal victories. For the disabled people of Thailand these victories help emphasize that almost anything is possible if you follow your dreams. Like many disabled people in Thailand, these athletes are overcoming obstacles and barriers to success that disabled people in larger countries are not facing.
Thailand has made great strides in accessibility and empowerment of its population of persons with disabilities (PWD). Thailand first passed the Rehabilitation of PWD Act in 1981. This law was then strengthened by the Empowerment of PWD Acts of 1997 and 2003. The focus of these laws was to strengthen the government’s stance on non-discrimination by providing a mechanism for legal action if a PWD is discriminated against, facilitating participation by PWD in the national dialog, to centralize the national movement to coordinate their efforts with those at the local / regional levels, and de-centralize for local authority to empower PWD. All committees at all of these levels must have representation by PWD and a national fund was established for the purpose of financing the many projects and social enterprises for and by the disabled population of Thailand. The fund is also used for employment promotion, zero interest loans, accessibility training, research, etc.
The Redemptorist Foundation for People with Disabilities (RF) has been on the front line with the aim of promoting the abilities of people with disabilities and fighting for their equal rights to education, employment and acceptance as productive members of society. The RF leads the fight and protests against the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), pressuring to require an elevator be built at every Skytrain station as well as forcing the BMA to treat all of its passengers as equals. The RF, along with other disability leaders in Thailand, also pressured the government to mandate a quota system that requires employers to hire 1% of their workforce from the disabled population. If they can’t or refuse to do so, they must pay into the Empowerment of PWD National Fund.
The RF has also been a leader in vocational empowerment. A Job Placement Center and many Social Enterprise projects on campus coupled with a worldwide network of other likeminded Social Enterprises, they have done more than just find employment for its graduates. The RF is empowering PWD, breaking stereotypes and showing society that PWD can have equal value in the workplace. Their success has gotten large businesses in Thailand to see this value as well. There are now call centers for PowerBuy (electronics appliance stores), AIS Telecommunications, FWD Life Insurance and AXA Life Insurance staffed entirely by staff with disabilities. PowerBuy also opened a repair center in Pattaya staffed entirely by PWD.
In 2008 Thailand ratified the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD). This was followed this year by Thailand signing the Optional Protocol of the CRPD. The Optional Protocol to the Convention gives the Committee competence to examine individual complaints with regard to alleged violations of the Convention by States parties to the Protocol. (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2016)
This was a big development for PWD in Thailand but in reality there is still much work to be done. Over 80% of Thailand’s disabled live in remote and rural areas that are far from the services of the disability movement. It is in these areas that we must continue to work for the rights of disabled persons. It is here that we must educate the PWD as well as society as a whole to the needs and abilities of disabled persons. There are long standing stereotypes that must be broken to lead to better understanding of the laws and rights of Thai PWD in these areas.
RF is again helping lead the way to change by educating and empowering PWD in Thailand. Almost every month there are seminars and conferences taking place here in Pattaya which are advising, supporting and empowering people with disabilities. They come to attend from all over Thailand, from the far north to the deep south. Recently a group of 25 students from the vocational school pushed their wheelchairs from Pattaya to Bangkok and then up to Nong Khai all to raise awareness of the abilities of people with disabilities. The number 1479, the number of kilometers they pushed, is now the number of a nationwide hotline to offer help and support to PWD in Thailand. Of course the call center is staffed by persons with disabilities.
This month when you see Thai athletes bring home Gold, Silver and Bronze medals from the Rio Paralympics, they are much more than champions in the sporting arenas in which they compete. Many of them started their career here at our foundation. They are truly the pride of this nation that helped make their dream come true. Their victories are truly inspiring a nation and breaking the stereotypes that have held disabled people back in the past. They are helping bring the reality of disabled people existing and working, being athletes, parents, and equal members of society into the collective conscience of a nation. They are the pinnacle of Thailand’s disability movement that includes the Royal Family, the government, businesses, able-bodied persons and persons with a wide range of disabilities working together to make the right real!
Written by Thai Children's Trust