Admittedly, losing my sight in year 2008, due to a severe bacterial infection, it has been a life changing event, having to relearn practically everything for example, simple things like walking, eating and drinking, which comes a second nature to all. However, I noticed that I have become more observant to the surroundings and the happenings around me. Blindness has not stopped me from traveling and visiting places of interests, local or abroad.
Recently, on a trip flying out to the UK, at our Malaysian airport, people in general or the airport officials, as always, turn a blind eye to offer any assistance to us, my wife Hong and myself. My wife has to push the trolley luggage, and guiding me through the airport and queuing in line to check in and at the immigration. Many a times, I do wonder if it is sheer ignorance or just not having any caring attitude that stop people from coming forward to ask if we needed help. I need to be cautious all the time, not to push the baggage trolley into the waiting passenger in the queue in front of us while moving forward towards the counters. It is always a relief to finally be seated in the plane.
Arriving at the destination, London Heathrow airport, it's a total different experience despite the airport being a very busy airport. The airport staff would quickly approach both my wife and I to enquire if we require assistance and would guide us to the fast track priority lane to clear immigration, etc and even enquire if we need further assistance to retrieve baggage from the carousel.
As a member of the MBPJ OKU Technical committee for the past couple of years, I have been involved in many access audit of accessible facilities for the disabled. Checking out the accessible toilet for the disabled at Heathrow airport, it brings back fresh memories about the similar toilets back home in KLIA airport, the frustrating moments where the doors of the toilets were difficult to close and open.. I had to lift and my wife had to pushed/pulled the door to escape from the cubicle. I do wonder how the individual disabled person, alone, get out from the toilet. He/she would be stuck inside the toilet!
Traveling around London with the underground tubes during peak hours could be a challenge for the disabled but to me, it was quiet easy. Service staff was always around and did not hesitate to approach us to enquire if we needed assistance to get on to the train platforms. People were all over the station, rushing in and out, just alike any other cities around. The caring attitude of the passengers on the train did touch me in many ways. People quickly got up and offering seats to me and even for my wife. Along the train journey, it did occur to me to question why such attitudes are lacking in our own society back at home, civic and moral education shortfalls?
It was heartening to note the elderly and disabled did not stay at home. They traveled on buses and trains, going shopping and moving around, unlike our disabled in Malaysia. Their public transportation are accessible and on time! The curb level and bus floor are almost of the same level, so much so I did not realized I was on the bus until my wife informed me. There are always seats allocated for the people with special needs and there is a space for parking wheel chairs and strollers. Our local public transportation has much to learn and catch up. Just imagine a blind person waiting for a bus, and not knowing whether the bus is turning up or not!
Whilst the local authorities are aggressively pushing for better access facilities for the disabled community, especially in public areas, amenities and transportation, this is certainly laudable but little has been done to educate and raise awareness to the public about the social attributes which are equally important, if not, more necessary in understanding the needs of the disabled community.
I had the opportunity to travel on budget airlines to Glasgow and Dublin. I was happy to note that special attention were given to people needing assistance e.g. in wheelchair, the elderly and like me, the Blind. We were always given priority to board and wheel chair bound passengers boarding the plane using ambulift.. There was no additional fees impose for special assistance.
On the return journey home, while queuing at the check in counter I was surprised to hear a fellow Malaysian airline staff on duty at the Heathrow airport enquiring if I needed any special assistance. Again it was a breeze through the immigration and custom lanes via the fast track lanes for special people like me.
On board the plane, both my wife and I were taken aback by the warm and caring attitude of the cabin crew too. This was in contrast to the outward bound trip from KL to London. I had almost forgotten the 'turning the blind eye to the blind’ which we experienced traveling from KL to London. I could recall vividly, there was unexpected air turbulence while I was in the plane’s toilet and an announcement was made to return to seats and fasten the seat belts. I quickly exited from the toilet to find a friendly voice calmly telling me that he would guide me back to my seat. The air steward has gotten my wife to return to her seat and he waited for me despite the doing a rock n roll due the air turbulence experienced. Kudos to the crew of MH 3 for their caring attitude.
Puzzling till now, is there a different SOPs practiced by our airline, that is, indifference to the disabled persons traveling out from home shores and disabled persons traveling home from abroad. Perhaps, our airline staff need to adhere to the guidelines enforced by the UK authorities, for example.
On a happy note, I was pleasantly surprised to find out there is now a special immigration counter for the elderly and the disabled at the KLIA arrival hall and thus, a step forward in making life for the elderly and disabled more convenient after long hours on the airplanes.
Still, there is still no improvements in the doors of the toilets for the disabled at the KLIA arrival hall.
More challenging times ahead!