Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Profile and historical context
Official statistics put registered numbers of persons with disabilities at around 2 million people or around 3 per cent of the population in Thailand. Although the Thai state is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which is to some extent reflected in the Persons with Disabilities Empowerment Act (2007) and the Thai Constitution, persons with disabilities continue to be extremely marginalised within Thai society, owing to a lack of legal enforcement and an extreme stigmatization of disability. Entrenched ideas of disability as linked to sin or karma, or alternatively treated as a medical issue promote a charitable approach to disability over the rights-based approach reflected in the law. This leads to discrimination and creates barriers to the full enjoyment by persons with disabilities of their economic, social and cultural rights.
Thailand’s 2017 Constitution outlines the state’s obligation to protect persons with disabilities from discrimination and provide access to treatment and rehabilitation. However, disability rights activists claim that the Constitution falls short, and call for equal learning opportunities and basic rights for persons with disabilities also to be included. The current Constitution, which was revised in 2017 following the accession of the new King, removed and condensed items referring to the rights of persons with disabilities which had been endorsed by disability rights activists in the previous 2007 Constitution. An earlier draft version of the 2017 Constitution was heavily criticised for including no mention of persons with disabilities at all.
The Persons with Disabilities Empowerment Act (2007) outlines the rights of persons with disabilities to social protection and free health care. The current rate of social welfare assistance provided to persons with disabilities is 800 THB per month (around 22 EUR or 25 USD); an amount that does not cover basic living costs. Although there is a planned increase to 1,000 THB per month, this change will only reach those persons with disabilities who are also receiving other benefits or are under the age of 18, leaving hundreds of thousands unable to access the increase. Considering the additional costs of having a disability, this amount is extremely inadequate. Furthermore, receiving the disability benefit is dependent on being registered with a national disability card. Registration relies firstly on national registration, which makes accessing disability benefits impossible for those who are not registered, such as refugees, migrants and indigenous persons with disabilities. Secondly, registration also requires a medical certificate issued at a government or private hospital. For persons with disabilities for whom local transport is inaccessible this process can be a further barrier.
For persons with disabilities from minority communities in Thailand, the challenges outlined above may be reinforced by exclusion, invisibility and other barriers. While the Master Plan for the Development of Ethnic Minorities in Thailand B.E. 2558 – 2560 (2015–2017) made specific references to providing support to persons with disabilities from various ethnic groups, this has now been subsumed into the Co-existence Promotion in a Multicultural Society Plan B.E. 2561 – 2564 (2018–2021), which makes no explicit mention of persons with disabilities.
Though official data on persons with disabilities is not disaggregated by indigenous or minority status, official statistics put number of persons with disabilities in the three southernmost provinces at 51,920 persons (23,072 women and 28,848 men) or 2.5 per cent of the provincial population. As the majority of the population in the Southern Border Provinces (SBPs) are Malay Muslims, who are largely Malay speaking, it is likely that a majority of persons with disabilities in the SBPs belong to this group. A smaller, unknown number of persons with disabilities belong to other minority communities in the area including Sino-Thai Buddhists, the Chinese-speaking linguistic minority and migrants.
The difficulties faced by persons with disabilities in the SBPs continue to be exacerbated by the region’s economic issues and the ongoing conflict as well as discrimination, stigmatisation and stereotyping. As a result, persons with disabilities suffer from high rates of unemployment, restricted access to education, poorer health, fewer economic opportunities and increased poverty rates, as well as marginalization from social and political participation. Generally, but particularly in rural areas of the SBPs, there is limited awareness and inadequate information available about disability rights according to Thai law and the services necessary to realise these rights. Inaccuracies in the translation of information on disability rights and services between Thai and into the local Malay language or sign languages can impede minority persons with disabilities and sign language users from accessing services and benefits to which they are entitled. The inaccessibility of public places and services limits the ability of persons with disabilities to participate in public life and change their low status. For example, physically inaccessible polling stations present a barrier for persons with disabilities to exercise their political rights. In addition, the stigmatization of disability also leads to many persons with disabilities being hidden by their families at home and not being registered for health care or welfare benefits.
As a consequence of continuing unrest in the SBPs, more than 700 people have become disabled in the conflict. Along with orphans, widows and others affected, they are entitled to receive compensation and assistance from the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS). However, some report that they are not receiving the full amount of compensation owed. The MSDHS Human Security Strategy Plan 2013 – 2023 makes several references to persons with disabilities living in the SBPs and notes the impact of the conflict on Malay Muslim widows, many of whom have been left providing care and support for the elderly, persons with disabilities and children in their households without adequate support from government agencies. Mental health services available to those affected by the conflict and particularly for children are also lacking.
Access to healthcare
The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security’s (MSDHS) Human Security Strategy Plan 2013 – 2023 highlights the increasing difficulties faced by persons with disabilities living in the SBPs in accessing healthcare services in the region. A lack of accessible public transport, reliance on family members or carers for transportation to hospitals, high travel costs and a lack of accessible parking spaces at hospitals are all barriers to receiving health care for persons with disabilities. Lack of disability rights training and awareness of health care staff also leads to discrimination. The limited availability of sign language interpreters within health care facilities and issues with accurate translation between languages present difficulties for sign language users to have their health care needs met.
Although assistive devices and equipment, such as wheelchairs, walking devices and hearing aids should be provided by the state, there are issues which impede persons with disabilities from acquiring these devices. A decreased number of locations where equipment and devices can be attained in the SBPs and the absence of specialist medical staff qualified to undertake evaluations and order equipment both present significant barriers. As a result, persons with disabilities are faced with long waits or cannot procure equipment at all. According to the 2012 Disability Survey, up to 18 per cent of persons with disabilities in the South of Thailand, including the SBPs, do not have access to assistive devices or equipment. For many persons with disabilities, equipment is essential to enable participation in domestic and community life and as such, constitutes a basic right. Additionally, a lack of equipment maintenance services and expertise in the area mean that even if devices can be procured, when damaged or broken they become unusable. According to the same survey, 46 per cent of those who had assistive devices or equipment in the South did not use it because it was unsuitable or to maintain.
Women with disabilities
For women with disabilities in the SBPs, the intersection between gender, disability and minority status leads to extreme oppression and abuse of rights. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women with disabilities in the SBPs and particularly women with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable to rape by men within the community or family, which is a widespread problem with little or no public acknowledgement. Rape often leads to pregnancy, yet access to reproductive health services are limited. As community leaders and family members of victims are often reluctant to report incidents to the Thai authorities, many sexual abuse offenders are not apprehended or convicted and there are no official records of sexual abuse and rape crimes. Inaccessibility, lack of culturally appropriate and accessible assistance, and extreme oppression of women with disabilities further prevent protection and recourse to justice for victims. Sterilization of victims is often posed as a solution, although there has also been the development of good practice such as community-based monitoring.
Access to education
Although Thailand sets out to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream schools, a lack of specially trained teachers and accessible resources and facilities, such as braille, sign language, ramps and accessible toilets, prevent participation of children and youth with disabilities at all levels of education in the SBPs. Particularly in private Islamic schools, which are favoured by much of the Muslim population, the lack of accessible facilities limits the option of religious education for Thai-Malay children with disabilities.
Where accessible education services are available, limited information or awareness as well as the poverty of individual families prevent many children with disabilities from accessing them. A new specialist education centre for persons with disabilities is currently under construction in Yala province that might help to address some of the barriers to education for children with disabilities in the region.
Employment rates for persons with disabilities in Thailand in general are markedly low at just 26 per cent compared to 75 per cent for the general population over age 15. This is due to a myriad of factors, including low educational attainment levels among persons with disabilities, lack of accessible or disability friendly facilities in workplaces, discriminatory attitudes and stereotyping. Thailand has a Disability Employment Quota which requires that private businesses and government agencies with more than 100 employees employ at least one person with disabilities per 100 employees thereafter. In the SBPs, however, there are very few large businesses with over 100 employees and, as a consequence, there are less businesses required to employ persons with disabilities in comparison to other parts of the country. persons with disabilities in the SBPs are additionally unable to benefit from income gained as national Thai lottery vendors. The scheme, set up to allocate 1.3 million tickets to vendors with disabilities, is not generally beneficial to those living in the SBPs as some consider gambling to be against the laws of Islam.
Discriminatory employment practices which favour non-disabled workers are also commonplace in the SBPs and persons with disabilities often face discriminatory stereotyping: notions that people with particular impairments are only able to do certain jobs or training. Moreover, it has been reported that persons with disabilities running or starting their own businesses have had issues with accessing financial assistance.
The rights of persons with disabilities are slowly becoming more recognized in Thailand thanks to the work of disability rights activists and organizations of persons with disabilities, as well as a receptiveness on the part of the Thai government to implement a rights-based approach as set out in the CRPD. However, disability rights activists have voiced concern in the slow progress and regression in some areas and have joined others in calling for constitutional reform to address these issues. They also continue to campaign for full implementation of existing disability rights legislation in order to allow persons with disabilities to access their social, economic and cultural rights.
In the SBPs, further recognition that disability rights cannot been seen as a ‘separate issue’ by those involved in conflict resolution and assistance programmes, and by minority rights activists would advance progress in realising these rights. Until the basic needs of persons with disabilities and their families are recognised in the region, particularly access to welfare assistance, healthcare, education and access to assistive devices and equipment, persons with disabilities will continue to suffer from extreme marginalisation, stigmatization and oppression.
Updated December 2020
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