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.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Special Guest Post: Flat Stanley Comes to Visit

Going on the motorcycle.  Look!  I'm wearing a helmet.
Editor’s Note:  This week I received a visit from Flat Stanley.  Flat Stanley is a character from a Children’s book.  I’ve received visits from Flat Stanley occasionally, since I’ve been here.  This time he came from a second grade class in El Cajon, CA.  I’ve asked Flat Stanley to write down his thoughts as a guest post.

Hello from Taiwan!!  This is your old friend Flat Stanley.  As soon as I came out of my envelope I met a friend and he took me to see Taoyuan City.  Taoyuan City is a city with 380,000 people in Northern Taiwan, near the capital, Taipei.

The first adventure we took was a ride on Chris’ motorcycle.  He rides a scooter.  Lots of people ride scooters in Taoyuan City and I had a lot of fun buzzing through town on the scooter. 

A Temple in Taoyuan City.
On our ride we saw a lot of things.  The first was a Taoist Temple.  These are the types of buildings you think of when you think of China.  Taiwan is a religious country.  Most of the people believe in Taoism or Buddhism.  There are only a few Christians in Taiwan.  People come to the temples to offer incense and food to their gods.   They even burn a special kind of money, this money is supposed to go to their dead ancestors so they can buy what they need, while they wait to be reincarnated.  When they worship they play music and light firecrackers.  It’s very different. 

This place is to honor people who died in the war!
The next place we saw was called the “Revolutionary Martyr’s Shrine.”  In 1911, China fought a war called the Xin Hai Revolution.  This war was a war of independence, like the USA’s.  The people wanted to govern themselves.  In that war many people died, this is a building to honor those people who died.  Every hour they have a ceremony to change the guard.  The soldiers march in precision and toss their rifles back and forth.  It is done to honor those soldiers who died.

After that, we went to the Taipei 101; it is the second tallest building in the world.  This building is 101 stories tall.  You can go up to the 89th floor in the fastest elevator in the world.  It takes 38 seconds to go all the way to the 89th floor.  I’m glad Chris had put me in his pocket or I might have just flown up to the top when the elevator stopped.  What a cool ride.

The Taipei 101:  It's pretty tall!
After the 101 we went to a night market.  These are very popular in Taiwan.  It’s kind of like a swap meet where people sell lots of things and a lot of different types of foods.  I ate a food called “Shui Zhen Bao” (shuay jen bow).  This is some seasoned pork wrapped in bread that’s fried in water.  It was delicious.  There’s another food that’s very popular called Stinky Tofu, but I was afraid to try it.  It’s really stinky, but Chris has tasted and he says it’s delicious.

They have a holiday here called the lantern Festival, and it’s really cool they make lanterns and write things on them, then they release them and they fly above the city.  I got here a week too late for the lantern festival, but I saw some lanterns that were made.

Taiwan is known for growing rice and tea.  There are rice fields everywhere.  People even have rice growing in their front yards.  This is only in the country areas, because in the cities people don’t have any yard.  But all the vacant lots grow rice and it is neat to see the fields. 

This man is fertilizing the Rice!
I was getting really tired so we decided to go home.  Houses in Taiwan are different from houses in America.  A house in Taiwan is usually three or four stories tall.  Many of them have a balcony on the roof, so people can grow plants and have a place to sit in the evening.  They don’t have yards.  These types of houses are called tou tians (Tow Tians).  But most city people live in apartments.  Many Apartments are 20 stories tall. 

Taiwan has a lot of American restaurants.  Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s and TGI Fridays all have restaurants in Taoyuan City.  Guess what, in Taiwan, McDonald’s will deliver the food right to your house.  Wow, you don’t even have to leave home to eat McDonald’s. 
Here I am eating Shui Zhen Bao.  If I eat too many I'll be Fat Stanley!
This is Stinky Tofu.  Boy is it Stinky!

This is a lantern from the Lantern Festival!

I made some videos for you to see what Taiwan is like:

I hope you enjoyed my visit to Taiwan.
Now I have to go back in my envelope so I can come back to you.  Oh well, at least I always travel first class!