On June 12, Lan Chieh-chou (藍介洲), a blind social worker, got on a bus accompanied by his guide dog. In doing so, would Lan’s basic right to equal opportunity and full participation in a barrier-free environment, as laid out in the UN’s Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, be respected?
Taiwan’s People with Disabilities Rights Protection Act (身心障礙者權益保障法) was enacted in July 2007 and amended last year. Article 1 of the act clearly states: “This Act aims to protect the legal rights and interests of people with disabilities, secure their equal opportunity to participate in social, political, economic and cultural activities fairly, while contributing to their independence and development.” According to the spirit of this law, Lan should have been able to enjoy the same basic rights as his fellow citizens.
However, laws achieve nothing in themselves — it takes people to put them into practice. If people are not clear about how to respect the dignity and rights of the visually impaired, then instances of discriminatory and offensive behavior will continue to happen.
For example, a woman who was riding on the same bus as Lan, interfered with the vehicle’s normal operation on the grounds that — as she claimed — the dog was smelly. In so doing, the woman not only seriously compromised Lan’s basic rights, but in an act of complete ignorance also violated Article 60 of the People with Disabilities Rights Protection Act, which reads: “People with visual ... disability who are accompanied by qualified guide dogs or by young guide dogs and their training personnel are allowed to enter public areas, public buildings, places of business, public transport and other public facilities/installations freely. The owner, administrator or user ... shall not charge the guide dogs with additional expenses, refuse their free entry or exit, or add other conditions for their entrance and exit.”
The discriminatory action of the woman on the bus is not an isolated incident. Lan and countless other physically and mentally disabled people often encounter open or hidden discrimination and systematic exclusion in the course of their daily lives. Having nowhere to lodge complaints, they generally have to put up with it.
Luckily, not everyone is so lacking in civility. On this occasion, a fair-minded senior-high school student traveling on the same bus, bravely proposed to the other seven passengers that they should vote by a show of hands as to whether the dog really did smell. The student’s proposal prompted a collective sense of courage and they all agreed that they had not noticed any unpleasant odor. The passengers then asked the woman who had kicked up a fuss to get off and take the next bus, which she did.
These days when people act selfishly or are too busy with their own problems to care about others, the high school student deserves applause and respect for her exemplary deed.
Gerry Zarb, a British specialist in disability, diversity and human rights issues, says that disabled and able-bodied people alike need to play all kinds of social roles: as customers, workers, students, parents, taxpayers, voters, community members and so on. In view of this, it is not enough simply to not obstruct disabled people. We should also not take a passive attitude toward charitable aid and care, while overlooking physically and mentally disabled people’s rights as active subjects. We should strive to provide support services in order to help remove those obstacles that block disabled people’s capacity to participate and perform in diverse social roles and also enable them to enjoy the same basic civil rights and responsibilities at home, work and in the community that most people take for granted.