Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Living in Taiwan: Coping with Disability

Somehow, over the years I’ve become sort of ancient.  I don’t know when it happened but in fact, my once boyish good looks have been obscured by the gray hair, wrinkles and bifocals.  I’m sure they’re still there someplace, but they haven’t been seen in quite a while. 

I remember stuff like party lines, cars that were actually made of metal, The Beatles first visit to the Ed Sullivan Show, (just knowing who Ed Sullivan is marks you as ancient), Herman’s Hermits, Batman on TV, (Holy Old Guy, Batman).  I remember when transistor radios first became available.  I remember pre-color TV.  Gadzooks, I even remember saying Gadzooks. 

What I don’t remember is why I walked into a room.  I forget what I’m looking for.  I blank out on people’s names; I lose a thought in the middle of a sentence.

There is one other way that I can tell that I’ve reached my dotage.  Everything hurts a little more than it used to.  I used to laugh when Curly on the Three Stooges would say, “Oh my aching sacroiliac.”  I didn’t know what a sacroiliac was; now mine is aching.

But aging isn’t really the issue here.  It only exacerbates the real issue.  Because I’m aging the problems that I have are just a little harder to deal with.  I have Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy.  The disease began to make it’s presence felt twenty-six years ago, but in the last ten or so years, life has become more of a challenge.  There has been a gradual weakening of the muscles in my thighs and arms for all of that time.  I find that as I age my stamina and physical abilities have decreased.  My ability to tolerate pain has also decreased.  So age and disability has combined to make my life a challenge.

The question is, “What do you do about it?”  I think there are a number of approaches one can take.  The first is to just give up.  It’s hard and it’s painful, and it isn’t going to go away, so why bother.  The second approach is to curtail your activities, and only do what is easy.  The third is to continue with life, doing what you’re doing, and keep doing it until you no longer can.

The third approach has always been my philosophy.  I just keep doing what I’m doing looking for ways to adapt to the changes taking place in my life, continuing to press on.  I made a decision a few years ago, to move to Taiwan and continue on in life, rather than stay comfortable in the place I was.  I don’t regret that decision.  But moving to Taiwan has led to some obstacles that I need to address in order to live here.

In the US there is a law called, The Americans with Disabilities Act.  The law requires handicap accessible features to be built into every business and public facility in America.  I recently read that the Justice Department is working on making all public swimming pools wheelchair accessible.  The act is wide ranging and designed to protect disabled people from workplace discrimination and other things, but what I want to focus on here is accessibility.

The law requires accessibility.  There are requirements for wheelchair ramps, access to sidewalks, sidewalk width and specially designed parking spaces for wheelchair accessible vehicles within a specified distance from the door to a business or government office.  Because of this law many disabled people are better able to function independently within society. 

Taiwan makes some provisions for disabled people.  You are able to get a Disability placard and book that describes your rights as a disabled person.  There are some provisions made for discounts in vehicle registration costs.  The placards that can be used to have access to special parking in places where these parking spaces exist.  But the laws are not nearly as comprehensive in terms of access as in the US.  I’m not saying this as criticism; there are reasons why US style access would be difficult to implement here.

So what kind of difficulties exist for disabled people?  One difficulty is parking.  Everything is built close together.  Everything is built up rather than out.  There is no requirement for off-street parking.  The reason for this simply is:  Taiwanese cities are crowded and there often isn’t any room for off-street parking.  Cars have to park anywhere they can.  If you have difficulty walking, a two-block hike may be a problem.  There is little, if any, special parking for wheelchair vehicles that provides room for safely getting into or out of your wheelchair without being in the traffic lane.  Once you do get to the business there may be stairs that you must get past to enter the building.  Often the steps have no handrail, so for a person who walks and climbs with difficulty this is another problem. 

Look at the wide clear sidewalk, this is unusual for Taiwan
Many times sidewalks are uneven.  The front of one building may be lower or higher that the one next to it.  Non-disabled people are often tripped up by the unevenness of the sidewalks.  This is even more of a hazard for unsteady walkers and may be a real difficulty for wheelchairs.  Finally, there are barricades that have been set up to keep scooters from in front of a business; they also keep wheelchairs from passing as well.

When I go to a place I have to plan how I will get up the curb, often very high curbs, up any steps and into the business.  I have to think about parking.  In some instances there is just no way I can access a business, so I have to find an alternate place.  It may be farther away and present it’s own access problems.

There are ways to mitigate many of the problems.  I bought a handicapped scooter.  It’s a scooter with two extra wheels on the side for stability. This easily mitigates parking and walking problems, because I can usually pull right up to the door of the business. Steps are much more difficult.  What I have found, though, is that if you can make yourself known to the business owner or employee they will happily help you climb the steps, get the merchandise for you or handle the transaction right where you are.

A scooter designed for disabled people.
The two approaches to accessibility are interesting.  The US approach is to legislate that businesses and public facilities build in access at their own expense.  The Taiwanese approach has to do with business owners and public facilities providing human assistance.  

The legislative approach has advantages because accessibility is guaranteed under the law. 

The human approach also has advantages, one of them being, interaction and compassion between individuals.  I always look for relationship over legislation. 

Disabilities are always a challenge.  I think it is a part of the human spirit to meet and overcome challenges.  What’s powerful, in my mind, is that people will reach out and provide help and concern for each other without being legislated into it.  This is what makes Taiwan such a wonder for me.  Most people are willing to be help and care for their neighbors, coworkers and often strangers without government intervention. 

I want to close with two brief stories.  One takes place in Southern California and one in Taiwan: 

In Southern California, I visited a Walmart on a very hot day.  I got out of my truck and started walking toward the store, and fell in the middle of the parking lot.  The temperature was 108 F (42 C).  Because I wasn’t able to stand up, I had to crawl back to my car in order to get up.  Even though there were a number of people in the lot no one was able to help.  I ended up with burns on my palms and tears in my blue jeans.

In Taiwan, I walked out of building and tripped over a small ledge and fell.  Before I could even start to stand up I was surrounded by people who reached down and helped me get to my feet.  Two men actually reached under my arms and lifted me to my feet. 

I’m not saying that people in Southern California are bad or evil, and that Taiwanese people are better.  But I think it points something out.  In a place where everything is legislated, and laws are put in place and people are afraid of breaking some law or being sued, people are less willing to intervene in another person’s suffering.  That’s why I say I would rather have relationship over legislation.


  1. Disable Foreigner in Taiwan have no right? Based on the Taiwanese "act for disable people"? please correct me if I`m wrong!

  2. Disabled foreigner's rights are based on reciprocity with their home nation or in the US the home state. So a foreigner's disability rights are based on the rights (actually services) provided to Taiwanese disabled people in the foreigner's home country. In my case I am unable to get a Taiwanese disabled book because California doesn't have equal rights for foreign disabled people.