Attitudes and facilities have improved, but much more still needs to be done.
Taiwan is a crowded place. The population per square kilometer is nearly 20 times that of the United States, and the cities are crammed with parked vehicles and snack vendors. Although accessibility for wheelchair users has improved in recent years, for the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese who are unable to step around or over obstacles, simply trying to reach the supermarket or the dentist can still be an arduous experience.
Given the rapid aging of the Taiwan population – by 2026, 21% of the people will be over the age of 65 – the need for better accessibility will only be increasing sharply in the years ahead.
Uta Rindfleisch-Wu, a German who has lived in Taiwan since the early 1980s, credits Taiwan with having “come quite far” in terms of access for the physically challenged. Ramps have been retrofitted to thousands of buildings, for example. Elevators large enough for mobility scooters can be found at almost all Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) stations, and TRA staff have been trained to assist those who need help.
Rindfleisch-Wu, whose daughter has cerebral palsy, is a consultant at the Therapeutic Riding Center in Taoyuan City’s Xinwu District. Recently Rindfleisch-Wu traveled to several places in Taiwan with a friend who can walk, but not for significant distances, and who finds stairs difficult. “Nearly everywhere we went there were toilets for the disabled and wheelchair ramps,” she says. “In places managed by government agencies, one can always borrow a wheelchair.”
However, she rates conditions at Taoyuan International Airport as less than ideal. “In Terminal 1, there are no benches or chairs between the security checkpoint and gate A5. People who usually don’t need a wheelchair might need a rest between these points. Similarly, in the departure hall of Terminal 2 there are hardly any chairs. This is something that really needs improvement.”
A similar problem exists at the Fengshan TRA Station, which was recently rebuilt when the central Kaohsiung stretch of railroad was moved underground. Inside the station, no seating is available until one has passed through the ticket barrier.
On the plus side, physically challenged people face less discrimination than was traditionally the case. In the past, Buddhist notions of rebirth and accumulated merit caused some Taiwanese to assume that disability was a punishment for violating moral axioms in a previous existence, but such views are no longer very common. As National Taipei University sociologist Chang Heng-hao noted in a 2014 paper in the international journal Review of Disability Studies, until the 1980s people with disabilities were often referred to as cánfèi (殘廢). The first character means “disabled,” while the second implies “worthlessness” or “uselessness.” Now the preferred terms are cánzhàng (殘障, “disabled and impaired”) or zhàng’àizhě (障礙者, “people with disabilities”).
Still, according to activists, the overall situation in Taiwan remains mixed at best.
“As a result of protests and grassroots action, the government has amended various regulations, resulting in a great improvement in terms of access at scenic spots, cultural venues, restaurants, and hotels,” says Sylvia Li-chi Yu, a social worker and project manager at the Taiwan Access for All Association (TAFAA). The organization, which was founded 14 years ago, campaigns to change attitudes and seek adoption of a comprehensive approach to accessibility throughout Taiwan.
The negative side, Yu says, is that “disabled people themselves are seldom invited to participate in the planning – and even though ‘accessibility’ is usually listed as a priority when projects are launched, when it comes to the final inspection, it’s typically one of the most neglected criteria. Oftentimes, the facilities end up being unsightly and impractical.”
The terms “barrier free” and “accessible” are often used interchangeably, but whereas the former typically denotes an environment equipped with the elevators, wider gates, and ramps that wheelchair users require, the latter implies a broader approach to ensuring the disabled can accomplish everything they need to do. “The fact that they talk about ‘barrier free’ rather than ‘accessibility’ reflects a general reluctance on the part of the government and other people to comprehensively meet the needs of the disabled,” says Yu.
At least 16 different central-government agencies have powers and responsibilities relating to accessibility, says Ali Chen, TAFAA’s office manager. The lack of coordination among different agencies can be frustrating. The sociologist Chang cites the example of ramps that were installed so wheelchair users can enter parks, only for the ramps to later be blocked to prevent motorcyclists from riding on the sidewalk.
Government agencies also often appear reluctant to discuss issues surrounding accessibility. When the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Social and Family Affairs Administration (SFAA) recently organized a contest for elementary school students, encouraging them to read and write responses to picture e-books designed to boost awareness of disability and the rights of the disabled, this writer requested an interview. SFAA instead referred me to the Construction and Planning Agency of the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. The former sent an automated acknowledgement but failed to follow up; the latter did not respond at all.
Although Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it enacted legislation – which came into effect in December 2014 – in line with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The convention and the 2014 law enshrine the right of “persons with disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to others [so they can enjoy] full inclusion and participation in the community.”
But since then, implementation of the law has come in for criticism. “In the past few years, the government has not increased its accessibility budget substantially, and they haven’t transferred most of the institutionalized services to the community as the CRPD requires,” says Chou Yueh-ching, a professor at National Yang-Ming University’s Institute of Health and Welfare Policy. Chou argues that programs such as residential services and daycare centers for disabled people “have developed in such a way as to create large institutions and institutional services that run counter to the spirit of the CRPD.”
Last year, a panel of five foreign experts reviewed issues relating to disability and accessibility in Taiwan through the lens of the CRPD, receiving input from disabled people’s groups and other civil society organizations, as well as from government units. The committee urged the government to phase out residential institutions and provide “persons with disabilities adequate support to live and actively participate in the community and prevent their isolation and segregation.”
Chang, the sociologist, says “there’s been good progress in making public transportation in Taipei accessible, but in the private sector, especially in the workplace, little has changed.” The biggest single factor hindering progress, he says, “is that people still see accessibility as a charity issue, and a goal they should work toward out of pity for the disabled, not because disabled people have a right to access.”
“It’s easy to find facilities that satisfy the regulations for accessibility, but which – in practical terms – are useless,” says Chang. He urges Taiwan to adopt the principles of “universal design,” which makes buildings, products and environments accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors.
Wheelchair users generally require a corridor 0.9 meters wide, and a minimum of 1.5 meters is needed in order to comfortably turn around completely, but even where flat sidewalks exist, the available width is often too narrow. TAFAA’s Chen lists 16 commonly found obstructions, including fire hydrants, transformer boxes, mailboxes, U-Bike stations, and temporary pipes that drain water from construction sites.
“There’s a very serious gap between major cities and rural areas. Taipei does best in terms of accessibility – about 80% of public transportation in the capital is accessible – but the other special municipalities are some way behind,” says TAFAA’s Yu. Neither the TRA nor the High Speed Rail are as wheelchair-friendly as they should be, she says.
In addition, “there are no accessible long-distance buses or accessible taxis,” Yu says. “And Rehabuses [minibuses with a ramp at the rear of the bus to load passengers in wheelchairs] must usually be booked a week in advance, because the number of vehicles is inadequate.”
In written answers to questions, the Taiwan High-Speed Railway Corp. (THSRC) said “the company’s barrier-free seating design is designed to exceed the requirements of Taiwan’s Person with Disabilities Rights Protection Act.” On each train, car no. 7 has an accessible compartment for two electric wheelchairs and two folding wheelchairs; each space has a “help” button that passengers can use to call for assistance.
Car no. 7 is boarded via doorways that are 105 centimeters wide, compared to 70 centimeters elsewhere on the train, and the entrance to the carriage is at the same height as the platform. Each car no. 7 (and each HSR station) has an accessible toilet with an automatic door, grab bars, a help button, and enough space so a wheelchair can turn around.
The THSRC points out that many bullet trains in Japan have just two barrier-free seats. In Taiwan in 2017, the barrier-free seat utilization rate was 34.8%. Between 2015 and 2017, 214,668 passengers with physical or mental disabilities or reduced mobility were given assistance when taking high-speed trains.
Many would benefit
TAFAA’s Yu argues that enhancing accessibility would make life easier for several segments of the population, including those pushing baby strollers, tourists encumbered with luggage, and residents who are ambulatory but impaired.
Carrie Kellenberger falls into the last of those categories. A former chairwoman of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan, Kellenberger has lived in Greater Taipei since 2006. In early 2009, she was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a form of arthritis that affects the spine.
“The first time I used a wheelchair and a cane was shortly after my 2009 diagnosis,” recalls Kellenberger, who with her husband runs Reach to Teach Recruiting. “That’s when I started learning how unfriendly public transportation is in Taipei, and how very little the general public knows about invisible illnesses. After that year, I improved a bit and only had to use mobility aids for severe flare-ups.”
Her health took a turn for the worse in 2015, and the diagnosis was Fibromyalgia and ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). “It wasn’t long after that that my ability to stand or walk for long periods of time declined, and it has continued to get worse every year,” says Kellenberger. “My mobility had become extremely compromised. I can’t ‘push’ myself in my wheelchair because of extreme muscle weakness in my arms, shoulders, and back. Also, I can’t sit up straight when seated unless I have a chair with a back and arm rests. It takes great effort to hold my body upright in a seated position on a bench, for example.”
Her condition necessitates frequent hospital visits, but driving there is not an option because parking is so difficult. “I wonder why it’s so difficult for disabled patients to get parking passes. We’ve asked many times and we’ve been laughed at,” she says.
Kellenberger says going anywhere in Greater Taipei can be extremely frustrating. “I plan every detail of my outing before I leave the house,” she says. “I think about how much walking I’ll need to do to get out of my building and into the venue I’m going to. I’ll call ahead to find out if the venue has stairs. If it does, we don’t go.”
Calling ahead or exchanging information with other wheelchair users is very common, says TAFAA’s Yu. “Official websites seldom carry the kind of information disabled people need,” she notes. “Confirming details ahead of time reduces the risk of setting out for a place only to find, when they get there, that it’s inaccessible.”
Even when basic accessible facilities have been installed, she laments, “they’re sometimes derelict, unusable because goods are piled up in front or inside, or rendered pointless by subsequent alterations that, for example, block access to an accessible toilet.” In some hotels, accessible guest-rooms are used for other purposes, and thus unavailable to travelers who need them.
Kellenberger makes a similar observation. “I’ve noticed places which have a ramp leading to an access door, but they’ve locked the door. I’ve seen some really dumb things that make me furious. Unfortunately, most places of business in Greater Taipei aren’t accessible to me. Additionally, if I ask for disabled seating and I don’t have a visible mobility aid with me, businesses tend not to believe me.”
Taipei is often held up as the most accessible city in Taiwan, but Kellenberger disagrees. “The city governments in Taipei and New Taipei could take a cue from what Kaohsiung has done. Of all the cities I’ve been to in Taiwan, Kaohsiung is the most accessible. It’s the place that’s put the most thought into making places accessible to people with disabilities.”
Kellenberger mentions a popular restaurant in the heart of Taipei that “gave me a hard time every time I went there, so I stopped giving them my business in January 2018 because the waitress refused to seat me on the first floor even after we told her I was sick and couldn’t take the stairs.”
Another complaint is that “people park their cars and scooters or dump old furniture on the sidewalks,” which forces disabled people to “walk on the street with their cane or use their wheelchair on the road, among the cars and motorcycles.”
Kellenberger urges the government to carry out more awareness campaigns directed at the general public. Unlike standard behavior in North America or Europe, “people often don’t give way to those of us who need to use the disability elevators, nor do they move out of the way when they see someone with a cane or a wheelchair,” she says.
“The MRT has introduced a sticker you can put on your wheelchair or bag to show that you’re disabled or have an invisible illness, but nobody pays attention.”