There is a need for disabled-friendly infrastructure in Bhutan to make it convenient for differently-abled people.

This was evident yesterday when people in wheelchairs had to be carried by three to four men to get them on stage at the faculty of nursing and public health hall in Thimphu during an event to observe the international day of persons with disabilities.

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said the day is a global event that is observed globally not only to raise awareness on disability but to create a sense of solidarity.

Globally, 10 percent of the people are living with a disability.

Of the 10 percent, Lyonpo said that about 80 percent are in developing countries where there are infrastructure, employment and opportunity problems.

“In Bhutan, I think the prevalence is 2.2 percent with a majority of them with hearing and visual impairment. As the government, we have the utmost responsibility to provide these services so that they are able to participate as a productive citizen of the country,” Lyonpo said. “Not having a ramp here is an example.”

Being a mother to a son with a learning disability, Lyonpo said it was disheartening to hear people say that her son was not capable of learning.

“I had him enrolled from one school to another. We did not have the capacity to diagnose such condition in Bhutan,” Lyonpo said. 

“He was diagnosed with a cognitive disability from abroad. I then realise that it’s a problem with the institution.”

The institution, Lyonpo said has to first recognise that not every child is the same, and not every individual is the same. “They have different needs and requirements.”

The first step, Lyonpo said was realising that it is a problem and then coming together and working together to solve it. “I approached a couple of ministries and asked them to build the capacities of our teachers so that they are able to recognise this as a problem and not put a blanket assumption that every child is the same.”

“Every child learns differently and as a mother, I think my son is the most intelligent but academically he is pegged against so many ‘normal’ that he is behind,” she said. “We have the responsibility to create a conducive environment and that alone doesn’t lie with one entity.”

“As the government of the day, we are very much committed to providing inclusive services and comprehensive services to our people,” she said. “When I talk about inclusive it means recognising that every one of us is different and that every one of us has the potential to do given the opportunity.”

It is upon the people whether to take the opportunity or not, but, Lyonpo said that it was the government’s responsibility to provide the opportunity.

For instance, Lyonpo said that if a wheelchair is not provided to Kinlay, a differently-abled person present at the event, then he couldn’t go anywhere. Because of the wheelchair, he was able to do some basic chores by himself. “But, how can we enhance that? By providing a wheelchair ramp? If he gets employed today, he cannot go to work because of lack of such infrastructure facilities because we didn’t think we need it a few years back.”

A few years ago, people with disability were hidden at home, Lyonpo said. “But, times have changed and now we must think about empowering them. First, recognise that it is a need and second, we must take action to do something.”

“We need to raise these issues and sensitise people otherwise if we don’t have a realisation and take action, we will continuously observe these days and like any global events we will do something and then go back,” Lyonpo said.

As part of the event, a short wheelchair race was held at Doebum Lam, near the memorial choeten. About 16 differently-abled people on wheelchairs from Thimphu and Paro participated in the race.

Rinchen Dorji, 20, from Zhemgang completed the race in 29 minutes and bagged the first prize of Nu 7,000. This is the second time he participated in the wheelchair race since 2016. Last year, he came third.

Phurba Thinley and Tandin Dorji came second and third winning a cash prize of Nu 6,000 and 5,000 respectively. Certificates and consolation prizes of Nu 1,000 each were awarded to the rest of the participants.

A participant, Chencho Om, 52, said she was happy to participate in the race. “I have to be home the whole time so such an event gives me an opportunity to be outside and meet people. I feel good.”

Physiotherapist with the national referral hospital, Karma Phuntsho, said that while the invitation was sent to all the differently-abled people who were listed with the Department of Physiotherapy at the hospital, some from other dzongkhags could not make it because of difficulty in travelling.

“This year, the day with the theme, ‘Empowering the persons with disability and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,’ was also observed in other dzongkhags which is good because it would help in creating more awareness,” he said.

While the health ministry has achieved many things in collaboration with international and national agencies, Lyonpo said the ministry looks forward to collaborating with wider stakeholders like education and works and human settlement ministries, and civil society organisations. “We hope we will work collectively for the common good of our nation.”

Dechen Tshomo