Friday, February 26, 2016

The birth of Cambodia’s first accessible tuk tuk

By Megan Smith

Megan Smith (right) and driver Mao Vanny with Cambodia's first accessible tuk tuk
© Ivette Yanez/Agile Development Group

Last night as I weaved through Phnom Penh’s congested streets of motos and Escalades in Cambodia’s first accessible tuk tuk, I reflected upon how much of my life revolves around transportation. Finding transportation, keeping transportation, and hoping the transportation that brought you to the restaurant will come back. In some countries such as Morocco and Nepal, I spent more of my time on the back of a camel or a man than I did on my set of four wheels, being carried up steep footpaths to wherever I was working at the time. While the novelty of being carried to work on the back of a sherpa in a rice basket makes for a great pub story, having to depend on borrowed legs limits my ability to work to my full capacity, to network and to socialize.

Moving to Phnom Penh to work with UNICEF, I encountered the same barriers to transportation. Aside from motos; tuk tuks are the most efficient and cost effective way of getting around the city. To lift my 70 kg power wheelchair into a tuk tuk takes quite a bit of labour, more than one person, and an acute knowledge of Tetris. The labour in of itself made my journey price double, and the burden of getting me in and out made some tuk tuk drivers avoid eye contact with me as if we had been on a bad date. While I would eventually find a couple of drivers who were wonderful, and made a friend willing to do some heavy lifting, the process remained laborious and when they were busy, I was largely out of luck.

Inaccessible Phnom Penh

Inaccessible transportation affected various aspects of my life here in Cambodia. Tuk tuk drivers refusing to take me or the sheer time of dismantling my chair made me frequently late to work, and while UNICEF was very understanding and adaptable, my lack of consistent transport had an impact on how reliable I could be. When laid up with the flu, I found it faster to roll the 2 kilometer walk to the clinic in my wheelchair than to go through the process of trying to find a tuk tuk willing to take me. In the evening and at weekends my social outings were confined to a one kilometer radius of my guesthouse to where I could roll in my chair, impacting my ability to experience cultural activities and to easily build a social network necessary if you are alone in another country.

The accessible tuk tuk can be adapted for use by passengers with and without disabilities
© Ivette Yanez/Agile Development Group

For the past few months I frequented the same two cafés in my neighbourhood, that I could roll to and which were accessible. I would often encounter Cambodians who used wheelchairs or had mobility impairments. In our chats over tea they too shared frustrations regarding being unable to access transportation easily and affordably. They shared how tuk tuk drivers would either charge them exorbitant prices, or feel such pity for them that they would charge them next to nothing. Both scenarios were embarrassing, particularly if they went out with friends. A young woman told me that she had been touched inappropriately by a driver when she started school, and as a result her family would not let her go to high school alone until she could manage getting into and out of a tuk tuk without assistance. She didn’t attend school for two and a half months while she learned how to transfer into a tuk tuk by herself.

A new tuk tuk is born

With these barriers in mind, I started discussing with my UNICEF colleagues and later with individuals from Agile Development Group and Engineers without Borders, amongst other supporters, about building a tuk tuk with a ramp. Everyone was on board. With the passion and ingenuity born from a grassroots idea, the engineers had drafted up a design, a local entrepreneur found a tuk tuk manufacturing plant willing to implement the plan, and Agile Development Group funded and coordinated the process. Within a month, Cambodia had its first wheelchair accessible tuk tuk.

A fold-down ramp provides wheelchair access to the tuk tuk
© Ivette Yanez/Agile Development Group

Thrilled to share the news that Phnom Penh finally has a way for people with disabilities to get around easily and independently, I went back to the café where I would meet with my newfound friends with disabilities. Handing them the number of the tuk tuk driver and hardly able to contain my excitement in sharing this invention that I already found to have a tremendous impact on my life, I was met with kind but unenthusiastic responses.

I repeatedly mentioned how the tuk tuk will now allow us to go out independently, that we could go far beyond the neighborhood we lived in, and no one would need to assist us. Both of them said “that’s great”, but that they learned how to use regular tuk tuks and that works for them. The young woman commented that she had worked hard to figure out how to transfer into a regular tuk tuk and her friends are now accustomed to helping her when they go out together; so she didn’t really need an accessible tuk tuk. In leaving the café, through hugs they both said “we are so happy for you”.

I left the café thoroughly confused. This tuk tuk was as much for them as it was for me, right? If not more so, as I will be leaving Cambodia in a few months.

The disability rights movement adage annoyingly kept rattling around in my brain; “Nothing about us without us”, and I realized that there were no Cambodians with disabilities involved nor really consulted within this project. I also reflected upon my own hesitancies in using tools or inventions that other people say would make my life easier. Like the young woman learning to use an inaccessible tuk tuk, I too have worked years to do daily life activities independently in a very inaccessible world, and when presented with a way to do things more efficiently or easily, I am hesitant. In some ways it feels that one has wasted a tremendous amount of effort and time in life doing something that one day a person gives a simple solution to.

While many Cambodians with disabilities adapt to an inaccessible world, sometimes the barriers are simply too great to adapt to. In such cases, people with disabilities are left with few, if any, options. I met an older woman who uses a wheelchair and cannot go beyond a 500 meter radius of her house, as she is too heavy to be lifted into a tuk tuk, moto, or taxi, and she is scared for the future if she needs to go to the health center.  For individuals who can’t “make do” or for newly injured individuals who have yet to learn what their body can and can’t do, having an accessible way to move around may be life changing.

The new tuk tuk can be booked by telephone
© Ivette Yanez/Agile Development Group

A few days later I received texts from the same friends asking if the tuk tuk was available, and if it could come pick them up. I don’t know how frequently they use it, however I hope that more Cambodians with disabilities do. As it’s a prototype, through more Cambodians with disabilities testing it out, I hope to gain more and more feedback regarding how to make it more user friendly. The Disability Action Council has promoted the accessible tuk tuk and is looking to engage with civil society to see more made in the future. Incorporating the accessible design when building a new tuk tuk could cost only nominally more than building a tuk tuk which is not accessible.

For me, the first accessible tuk tuk has increased my quality of life here within a short time. I feel safer, I no longer cringe as I see my precious four-wheeled partner perilously hang out the side of a tuk tuk, and I have more of the freedom of mobility to live the life I want to.

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