Written by Heng-hao Chang.
Image Credit: Public Domain
In the Taipei Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, electric wheelchair users can be seen moving around the station without hindrance. This is part of the usual routine in the daily life of Taipei City. In 2017, Nagase Osamu, an international disability rights expert from Japan who also served as the chair of the International Review Committee for the Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities, has said, “Taipei City might be the most accessible city in Asia.” However, in December 2020, a tragic news story broke in Taiwan. A family of four, comprising a couple and their two disabled children, committed suicide in a car. The family received low-income subsidies, but there were no records of their receiving disability or long-term care services from the local social bureau. This is not an isolated case. Indeed, we see disturbing stories about family caregivers killing disabled people because of the stresses of long-term care combined with scarcity. This is even though the government has promised support to family caregivers and disabled people with a policy of long-term care and disability support systems.
This contradictory picture shows the complexities faced by disabled people and the policymakers in Taiwan. As a late developed nation, Taiwan designed the Taipei MRT system and built a mass transportation system promoting disability rights and the right to accessibility that disability rights organisations advocated. Although there is always room for improvement, the Taipei MRT system and Taiwan high-speed rail were designed and built with wheelchair access. Furthermore, Taiwan has one of the best healthcare systems in the world. However, society views disability as an individual problem and personal tragedy. Thus, disability welfare policies strongly rely on the family’s responsibility to provide support and care.
The disability social welfare legislation, which is termed the “Handicapped Welfare Law,” was first introduced to Taiwan in 1980. In 2007, after several major revisions, it was renamed the “People with Disabilities Rights Protection Act.” In 2016, the Taiwanese government ratified the Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and committed to the human rights approach to disabilities. However, because of its unique international status (not a UN member), Taiwan cannot submit a CRPD report to the United Nations (UN). Instead, the Taiwanese government invited five international disability rights experts to Taiwan to conduct an international review process. This included meetings with government officials, discussions with civil organisations and disabled people’s organisations. Eventually, the International Review Committee submitted the Concluding Observations to the Taiwanese government in 2017.
In practice, people with disabilities can apply for a disability identification card to retain governmental support. According to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, there are 1,198,358 people with disabilities in Taiwan — approximately 5% of the population. Interestingly, the estimated population of disabled people falls between 10–20% globally. This discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that Taiwanese government data only includes people with disabilities in the social welfare system. Thus, disabled people who do not apply for the disability ID — including people concerned about the stigma attached to a disability or those who do not need or want to use governmental support or subsidies — go uncounted for.
Since the legislation of “the Handicapped Law” in the 1980s, there have been significant social support improvements for disabled people. However, some challenges need to be reckoned with while ensuring and implementing disability rights further. A significant challenge is that society, in general, still uses the medical model to frame and approach disability issues. The medical model views the disabled body as a deficient, imperfect body that needs to be fixed with medical interventions and is dependent on welfare. On the contrary, the social model, which was first developed in the UK and formed the basis of the CRPD, views disability as a social problem. Society ought to adjust to encourage the participation of disabled people and view them as active citizens. Taiwan’s strong medical model view has emphasised medical assessment to identify the disabled, focusing on “curing” disabled people and rehabilitation. This includes waiting for the disabled to become “normal.” The government is also less likely to emphasise abolishing the social and environmental barriers faced by people with disabilities to promote their social participation in an inclusive society.
The other challenge in Taiwan is the lack of a sociocultural understanding of disability. Disability policies underestimate the stigma of disabilities and misunderstand cultural understandings in Taiwanese society. Disabled people are, therefore, still stigmatised. There were still Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) protests against group homes or daycare centres for disabled people last year (2020). Although the CRPD supports both community participation and independent living, there is a long waiting list for existing institutions.
Moreover, establishing community-based programs and support for disabled people’s independent living is very slow. Moreover, the families of disabled people, especially children, tend to overprotect them and reduce their chances of participating in community life. In fact, the cultural belief in the virtue of familial responsibilities and shame associated with having disabled family members makes some families unwilling to seek public support. In general, society is not aware that a multicultural and inclusive society must embrace the participation of disabled people.
After the transition to democracy in the 1990s, all aspects of Taiwanese society changed very quickly, as did the approach to disability rights. The accessibility of public transportation certainly allowed more disabled people to participate in society. The ongoing long-term care policy also covered people with disabilities who needed long-term care. The ratification of the CRPD and international review gave civil society, Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), and the government a chance to enter into dialogue and collectively evaluate current policies and practices, including social and cultural challenges. Therefore, as long as meaningful dialogue can continue, progress in implementing disability rights can be expected.
Heng-hao Chang is a Professor in the Department of Sociology, National Taipei University and president of the Taiwan Society for Disability Studies. His research interests include disability rights movement, representation of disabilities, and inclusive education for disabled people in Taiwan. His current research projects include the vernacularization of CRPD in Taiwan and comparative studies on the indigenous disabled people in Australia and Taiwan.
This article was published as part of a March 2021 special issue on Disabilities and Society. All articles in the special issue can be found here.