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Pema Dorji was bedridden with a terrible toothache two days back. He wanted to visit the hospital. But it was not easy.Living alone and confined to a wheelchair, getting to the road point to catch a taxi was difficult. Pema, suffering from paralysis, waist down felt helpless when none of the taxi stopped or people stopped by to give him a lift. “I felt neglected because of my wheelchair.  It would be a burden for them to help me. Helping me would mean having to carry my wheelchair.”

A new hope for persons with disabilities

Yangchen C Rinzin

Pema Dorji was bedridden with a terrible toothache two days back. He wanted to visit the hospital. But it was not easy.

Living alone and confined to a wheelchair, getting to the road point to catch a taxi was difficult. Pema, suffering from paralysis, waist down felt helpless when none of the taxi stopped or people stopped by to give him a lift. “I felt neglected because of my wheelchair.  It would be a burden for them to help me. Helping me would mean having to carry my wheelchair.”

This discrimination, he said, would not have happened if a person with disabilities like him was taken into consideration and included in polices the government made for kind of development.

Referring to the lack of accessibility to public transport, Pema said this has crippled their lives and made them dependent. “I had to return home on the wheelchair and a non-Bhutanese helped me to reach my home. It’s also expensive to travel by taxi because now they charge almost Nu 400 and we’ve to reserve the taxi because of the wheelchair.”

52-year old Phuntsho who has spent almost his entire life on a wheelchair realised that it was difficult for people with wheelchairs without proper access.

“This is a basic right, but it is so difficult to go around the town where majority of the structures are not disable-friendly,” Phuntsho said. “We need ramps to get upstairs like people use staircases.”

Like Phuntsho and Pema, there are many persons with disabilities that today are excluded because of accessibility. One of the major challenges they identify is the accessibility to public transport.

“People in decision-making positions are always ready to voice support, it happens all the time on international disabled days,” Phuntsho said. “But then it’s forgotten till the next disabled day and they repeat their support all over again.”

Access to health, financial and business centres is restricted because of the lack of infrastructure. “This makes us dependent. If there are ramps, reserved parking, lifts and roads for people like us, our dependence could be reduced,” said Pema.

However, there is hope.

The first National Policy for Persons with Disabilities is today in place. It guarantees to empower persons with disabilities to live in an inclusive society.

One of the many clauses that the policy would look into is public transportation, which will ensure that the government considers the need for persons with disabilities while planning, preparing transport policies and transport systems.

It is also to ensure that persons with disabilities have the same opportunities as others.

The policy states that the government should ensure that all public transport infrastructure and equipment are made accessible. Persons with disabilities often face a significant level of discrimination and stigma. As a result, it prevents them from participating in their communities and families. The policy, apart from access to public transport, is also expected to empower persons with disabilities and ensure their participation as equal members of the society in the socio-economic development process.

The policy also includes policy intervention in education, health, support and enabling environment for business opportunities, protection and access to justice, political participation and finance.

“The government should consult persons with disabilities and include them in decision-making processes related to persons with disabilities.”

Disabled Persons’ Association of Bhutan’s executive director Sonam Gyamtsho said that the policy would provide space for persons with disabilities to be involved in any action in truest sense.

“Disability is social exclusions and restriction of participation,” he said. “Thus, this policy in place would now address such issues where we would see more persons with disabilities taking part in any social gatherings and meetings.”

Ability Bhutan Society’s executive director, Ugyen Wangchuk said that the policy would particularly recognise addressing children and women with disabilities and older people with disabilities. “The approved policy is a response to address different needs and issues to mainstream in the daily social life,” he said.

Draktsho’s executive director, Deki Zam said that the policy would enhance the living standards through equal access “Accessibility is not only physical but accessibility to education, IT, employment and health, which are important” she said. “Another progress is the reserved quotas and pensions for persons with disabilities, as Bhutan do not have.”

She said the policy is the first ever set of principles/rules that have been endorsed by the Cabinet to benefit persons with disabilities. “With this policy, it would also give us an advantage of ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

Meanwhile, Phuntsho hopes that people would push to implement the policy.  “Bhutan has the best policies in the world, but when it comes to implementation, it has often failed,” he said.

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