Universal Design: Beyond the exclusive “Barrier-Free” labels by Fiona Tan

“Universal Design: Beyond the exclusive “Barrier-Free” labels”
Fiona Tan

Seeing red: an unfortunately all-too-common sight waiting for someone, often not a wheelchair user, to emerge from the universal bathroom. Image shows the door of a universal bathroom. It is closed, presumably with someone using it.

Staring at the red keyhole intensely as if willing it to turn green, several sarcastic quips had formulated in my mind. Perhaps I would enlighten the emerging non-disabled person that the symbol on the door meant that it was for wheelchair-users, not simply a caricature of a person who is well-endowed in the pelvic region.[1] After ten minutes during which no one had emerged or entered the empty toilets nearby which unfortunately had doors too narrow for my wheelchair to pass through, a person emerged without any visible walking difficulties. My throat constricted. I was reduced to wide-eyed glaring, which had the same impact on the emerging figure as my earlier intense staring at the keyhole – none whatsoever.

Such encounters happen at least once every month. Depending on the mood I was in, I might knock on the door aggressively and loudly shout to ask if it was a person with disability in there. Sometimes I would be joined by non-disabled bystanders who have come out from their toilets. Sometimes subconsciously worried of an ugly confrontation when the person does emerge, I would wheel away, off to another floor to find another toilet wide enough to accommodate my wheelchair. Sometimes I would sit and wait (if I could afford to) just to shame them. It does not usually work. Rarely would there be a mumble of apology; in most cases they would just briskly walk past without establishing eye contact.

As I reflect on these everyday encounters of using public toilets, my thoughts turn to a controversy that happened back in 2005 which further illuminated the issue of (disabled) access. Toilet access might seem like an inconsequential issue, but it has its fair share of controversy with the occasional letter to the press. The issue was heightened in 2005 by the proclamations of (in)famous bloggers Xiaxue and Sarong Party Girl that anyone should be allowed to use the toilets meant for disabled users.[2] Xiaxue’s comment that she used toilets meant for disabled users all the time sparked off an uproar in the blogosphere which trickled into mainstream media. This furore led to hair salon Kimage and nail studio Voxy cancelling their endorsement deals with Xiaxue.[3]

While I am no fan of either blogger, I found that I understood where their views were coming from on reading their posts when researching for this short reflection. Though I disagree with Xiaxue’s criticism of Peter Tan, whom she holds accountable for costing her the sponsorships,[4] her polemical posts do highlight pertinent issues about how the needs of people with disabilities are (mis)understood by society. Both Xiaxue and Sarong Party Girl mention that such toilets are underutilised by people with disabilities, and by extension people with disabilities are not often seen in public spaces. For them, non-disabled people have a right to use facilities meant for disabled people.  Such views assume that the provision of such facilities for people with disabilities is a luxury, not a right, provided for with taxpayers’ money.[5] On the other hand Peter Tan, a Malaysian wheelchair user argues that access to such toilets are part of disabled peoples’ rights to basic amenities.

Such tussles over accessibility and integration can be observed in other facilities provided for people with disabilities. When first mooted, the initial arguments against having wheelchair-accessible public buses centred on the drain on public resources arising from the provision of such facilities.  This included not only the financial outlay but also the time wheelchair-users will take to get on and off the bus, lengthening the travel time for commuters.[6] Yet Singapore has come some way, with over 95 per cent of buses fitted with manual ramps as of September 2017. The recent announcement to trial automated ramps was also accompanied with praise from a presumably non-disabled housewife featured in the daily newspaper.[7] There are also more accessible toilets and parking lots in shopping centres today.

This lengthy prelude brings me to the main point of this reflection on the issue of integrating people with disabilities into society. Should there be exclusive facilities and services provided for people with disabilities, declared out of bounds to everyone else? Does that risk dividing society and the further alienation of people with disabilities? Is Singapore going to be a place where turfs are clearly demarcated and infringements dealt with mercilessly, as the actions of Kimage and Voxy illustrate? Is legislation and public shaming the only way that we can hope people will be more understanding and realise that while people without disabilities have the freedom to choose between different facilities, there are no such luxury for people with disabilities.

The “us-versus-them” mentality resulting from the segregation of facilities meant for people with disabilities is a two-way process. On the one hand, people with disabilities resent the use of facilities viewed as exclusively their prerogative, as seen in the uproars they created over parking lots and toilet facilities meant for the physically disabled being occupied by others. People with disabilities have also voiced resentment against having no say at all on matters relating to their life.  . When in 2011 the SMRT abruptly decided to phase out London cabs, a vital mode of transport for some wheelchair users,  one Miss June Hoo commented that “you can’t have able-bodied people making decisions for disabled people”.[8]  With the uproar from disabled people, a U turn was made, with the government supporting SMRT’s subsequent purchase and doubling of their fleet of London cabs.[9] While it ended well, this episode highlighted how the question of who gets to use such facilities extended into the question of who represents people with disabilities.

On the other hand, people without disabilities resent the drain of resources in providing public facilities which they feel do not benefit themselves, as highlighted by the general concerns regarding making public transport wheelchair-accessible when it was first mooted in 2005. While moral justifications for the provision of such facilities are abundant, rhetoric is often divorced from lived realities. The pragmatic nature of Singaporean society means that such facilities will always be provided grudgingly, as attested grotesquely by Xiaxue’s comment that people with disabilities ought to be “thankful” for the accommodating efforts made by society, which she calls “a privilege”. Hers might be an extreme and attention-seeking position, but one that is perhaps lurking in the subconscious of many others.

It would be impossible and undesirable to not recognize the divide between people with disabilities and those without. The current assumption that these are facilities provided for people with disabilities lends itself to a patronizing attitude that may lead to resentment when conflicts arise over whose rights are more valid. The non-disabled person may assume that the facilities are luxuries funded by their taxes and thus they are justified, while the person with disabilities may argue that they have no other recourse or alternative mode of transportation, toilet facilities or parking lots with the ‘handicapped’ sign.

Yet these lines of divisions are fluid in many cases. After all, there are many people with disabilities who work and pay taxes, and could have both an economic and needs-based claim to the use of these facilities. There are also people with acquired disabilities, either due to injury or ageing. Thus, we need to recognize that both categories – ‘people with disabilities’ and ‘people without disabilities’ – are labels and consist of heterogeneous individuals with different needs and aspirations. The acknowledgment that these two groups are not mutually exclusive goes a long way in ensuring that facilities are provided with less resentment and with more thought. The recent drive to provide for the ageing population which has resulted in island-wide upgrading efforts to ensure public spaces have universal design features is pertinent in this respect.[10]

The emerging popularity of the term “universal design” to refer to disabled-friendly infrastructure is a move in the right direction. This emphasis on viewing such facilities as free-for-all was reiterated in discussions between disabled commuters and representatives of government agencies regarding the planned removal of London cabs, the only means of transport for many users of high-backed motorized wheelchairs, from Singapore’s roads by March 2012. When the use of the Handicaps Welfare Association’s van as an alternative was raised Miss June Hoo, a wheelchair-user pointed out: “You shouldn’t be pushing this to the association and segregating us further from regular commuters. This is not a welfare issue but one about universal access.”[11]

Miss Hoo’s comment about universal access and her sentiment about how disabled people are excluded from making decisions and having their voices heard, highlights the dilemma we face in terms of integration. On the one hand, universal design seems to be the best way to go, ensuring minimal segregation and maximum priority as the amenities are not exclusively built for one group to the exclusion of another. On the other hand, who decides on the features of the universal design? The lived experiences of people with disabilities are so different from people without disabilities that it might be a fallacy to assume the latter can plan for the former adequately. More importantly, our history of segregating disabled people from mainstream society in institutions and the like, shows the importance of taking into account disabled voices. The need for mutual understanding is clearly necessary for the grand ideal of integration to be realized. Prejudices and mindsets, once formed, are difficult to change, especially when they are reinforced by each unsavoury encounter.

The task of integration is an uphill one which requires more than the provision of universal design facilities, though that is a firm foundation to build upon. Until society realises that people with disabilities are not a homogeneous group known as “the disabled”, to be viewed as an “other” to the normative able-bodied, the tussles over access will continue to be framed in terms of people without disabilities having the right to use facilities which they feel they have financially contributed to. Given the limited facilities with universal design features available compared to facilities which only able-bodied people can access, simple demand-and-supply principles would mean that there will be greater demand for the former. Universal design has to be made available before universal utility can occur.

On my part, I will try to keep my “othering” tendencies under control when I’m in situations where I urgently need to use the toilet occupied by someone who could have easily used the many available toilets inaccessible to wheelchair users.  After all, they are not the enemy who has trespassed into my territory, but merely another user of a toilet with universal design features. They are not ‘enemies’ but are simply inconsiderate or possibly ignorant fellow humans. My simple statement to them will be “You have the option of using other toilets, I don’t.”

Fiona Tan completed her B.A. (Hons) in History at the National University of Singapore on a scholarship provided by the Asia-Pacific Breweries Foundation for people with disabilities. Her aversion to being typecast and fear of not being sufficiently detached from the subject has prevented her from attempting to write about disability issues but that is gradually changing. Recognition of the need to do so trumps her hesitation.


[1] The international symbol of access, or the disabled symbol, has a protruding arm, which can be misconceived as a portrayal of being well-endowed.

[2] For Xiaxue’s original post, see Xiaxue, “I am hungrrrrrry”, updated 16 October 2005 [Is it worth reproducing one of these posts as an appendix? Or would that promote xiaxue etc, whose aim is to be outrageous so as to get attention. <http://xiaxue.blogspot.com/2005/10/i-am-hungrrrrrry.html> (Cited 5 January 2012). For Sarong Party Girl’s defense of Xiaxue’s comments in Today, see “Give the disabled a toilet break”, Today, 8 November 2005. For an instance of an occasional letter to the press about the same issue two years after the blogosphere war, see “Able people ignore handicap toilet sign”, The Straits Times, 2 January 2007.

[3] “Hard-hitting blogger flushed with success”, The Straits Times, 31 December 2005.

[4] I certainly disagree with her comparison of Tan to the disabled villain Maximilian Kohlerin in Dan Brown’s fictional Angels and Demons. See her response to the furore caused by the initial post on 16 October in Xiaxue, “Before we take credibility for his words, we must first question his motive”, updated 24 October 2005, <http://xiaxue.blogspot.com/2005/10/before-we-take-credibility-for-his.html> (Cited 5 January 2012). For Peter Tan’s arguments about why people without disabilities should not use toilets meant for people with disabilities, see Peter Tan, “Accessible Toilets for Wheelchair Users”, 19 October 2005, <http://www.petertan.com/blog/2005/10/19/accessible-toilets-for-wheelchair-users/> (Cited 5 January 2012).

[5] Xiaxue puts it across most strongly when she comments that people with disabilities ought to be “thankful” for the accommodating efforts made by society, referring to it as “a privilege”.

[6] Christopher Tan, “Installation of ramps on buses may be approved by year-end”, The Straits Times, 7 February 2005.

[7] Adrian Lim, “LTA testing out automated wheelchair ramp for buses in six-month pilot”, The Straits Times, 2 February 2018.

[8] “Bigger issue is affordable transport for wheelchair users”, The Straits Times, 11 November 2011.

[9] Jermyn Chow, London cabs for wheelchair users grow to 30, The Straits Times, 11 July 2013.

[10] Awareness of the need to make the city barrier-free and public transport wheelchair-friendly only surfaced in official discourses in the 1980s With the success of the government’s family planning policies the need to plan for an aging population became a priority. The Advisory Council on the Disabled spearheaded the public discourses. For instance, see “Do it for the long term”, The Straits Times, 23 February 1983.

[11] Maria Almenoar, “London cabs ‘not a luxury but essential’”, The Straits Times, 4 November 2011.