Kelvin Ang has spinal muscular dystrophy and uses a motorised wheelchair to move about. An administrative co-ordinator at SPD, he commutes between work and home using the MRT. Gordon Ho, senior communications executive, followed him on his journey home to Woodlands from work to understand the overall connectivity and accessibility from the perspective of a wheelchair user in Singapore.
Part One: From SPD Ability Centre to Tiong Bahru MRT Station
While most SPD staff get off work at 6pm, Kelvin leaves for home at 5pm as he lets in that any later, things could get tricky on the train. Being in a wheelchair means that he requires a bigger space, which makes it very challenging for him to board the train during peak hours.
The first stretch of the journey setting out from SPD was smooth as there were ramps and even surfaces, that was until he reached a T-junction. As Kelvin is only able to execute small movements with his head and body, he has trouble seeing any oncoming traffic behind him. Luckily, the vehicular and pedestrian traffic were light, so he made it across safely.
The second stretch involved travelling under a covered walkway to the Tiong Bahru MRT station. The path was narrow but fellow pedestrians were generally gracious and willing to give way. A mother even asked her young son to make way for Kelvin to move up onto the pedestrian walkway first.
Kelvin worries when it rains. Fitted with mechanical and electrical parts, his motorised wheelchair would be compromised when it gets wet. He also does not have the strength or dexterity to hold an umbrella while operating the wheelchair.
Part Two: At the Tiong Bahru MRT Station
The lift into the Tiong Bahru MRT Station was easily accessible and the buttons were positioned lower, which is ideal for Kelvin who cannot lift his arm too high. The space inside is limited to one large wheelchair so it would take a while to get into the station if there are other wheelchair users or commuters using the lift as well.
It did not take long for the lift to arrive but as passengers walked out of it, no one held the doors open for Kelvin and they closed on him. “This happens quite frequently as I have to position myself out of the way and when I try to get in, it would be too late unless someone holds the doors open for me,” shared Kelvin. While this could be seen as an ungracious act, I hope it is due to the public being used to seeing people with disabilities and trusting that they can be independent.
Part Three: From Tiong Bahru to Jurong East to Woodlands
I was concerned about Kelvin’s wheels getting caught in the small gap between the platform and the train but he overcame it easily. Commuters were quick to ask if he wanted to move to the dedicated space for wheelchair users within the train, to which he politely declined. His motorised wheelchair is heavier and more stable as compared to the lighter manual wheelchairs so he would not topple over. Besides, Kelvin does not have strength in his arms to hold onto the railing for support, and manoeuvering his way out when the crowd builds up would be challenging. Instead, he chose to stay where he could alight more easily.
Being in a wheelchair also means he is below the eye-level of most people and sometimes he does not get noticed. He would need to speak loudly or tap on the person if he needs to get their attention. Just then, an elderly wheelchair user boarded the train, parked in the wheelchair space and held onto the railing, “See, that space is more suited for wheelchair users like him,” said Kelvin.
The journey was rather uneventful but I did notice a warm side of Singaporeans. A teenaged boy boarded the train and sat beside a gentleman who had his earphones plugged in and was watching what I assumed to be something funny on his cellphone. The boy leaned over to watch and laughed loudly while making big gestures. Clearly understanding that the boy may have special needs, the gentleman smiled broadly and tilted his phone so the boy could have a better view. Together through quite a few stops, they watched and laughed without attracting stares from anyone. It was a heartwarming scene where I saw so many barriers being broken and how far Singapore has come in terms of being an inclusive society.
Part Four: From Woodlands MRT Station to Home
It was 6.20pm by the time Kevin reached Woodlands MRT and the crowd had started building up. Proving that not all commuters are glued to their handphones and oblivious to their surroundings, many were more than willing to give way to Kelvin. A father who was holding the lift doors open for Kelvin even told his son to stand aside to allow people to get out of the lift first.
The stretch home was fraught with challenges. Due to a major construction site along the route, a temporary traffic light was erected with the button positioned at a height beyond Kelvin’s reach. He had to rely on fellow pedestrians to help press it. Along the narrow and dark walkway were personal mobility device riders negotiating pedestrians, making this part of the journey less safe. There were also steep slopes and no railings which would be difficult for manual wheelchair users to overcome.
The final stretch of the journey was slightly hazardous as Kelvin chose to go onto the road between the blocks. When asked why he was not going under the blocks instead, Kelvin pointed out that there were kerbs along that way which his wheelchair could not overcome, and to find an accessible alternative would make the route a much longer one. “This situation is quite common. Sometimes at other places, the pavements will lead to steps too and we would have to turn back. We just have to adapt and be more careful,” Kelvin said. Thankfully, the motorists were patient and made sure to leave enough space for him as they drove past.
I felt a sense of relief when Kelvin finally reached his block. However, when we reached his doorstep, a single step at the entrance separated him from the comforts of his house. He needed someone at home to lay a ramp out for him to go inside. I asked why not have a permanent one installed? Kelvin explained that due to the design of the block of flats, the installation of a ramp was assessed to be a hazard as it would block access to the corridor.
Having dinner at the coffeeshop below his block, it was evident that Kelvin was a regular patron as the stall owners were friendly and knew what he liked. Kelvin nudged some chairs away from a table using his wheelchair before he tucked heartily into his noodles and cuppa whilst soaking in the warmth and familiarity of his neighbourhood.
Following Kelvin back home has been an eye-opening experience. The Transport Masterplan was first launched in 2008 with the overall idea of providing a convenient and connected land transport system for everyone including families, the elderly and persons with disabilities. Since then, there have been vast improvements in the hardware and infrastructure to meet commuters’ needs. Campaigns and initiatives have also nurtured a more gracious and caring commuting culture in Singapore, which I got to see first-hand.
While further improvements such as making older infrastructure more accessible and ensuring all pavements do not lead to obstructions should still be made, nevertheless it is good to see that the developments made slowly but surely over the years have allowed persons with disabilities like Kelvin to be able to step out and travel and participate in the community more independently.