This profile is dedicated to the memory of Narong Patibatsarakich who passed away in 2016. Narong Patibatsarakich, himself crippled in his early 20s, is putting together Thailand's many classes of disabled people to challenge the age-old belief that disability is a matter of dharma, something shameful and a penalty for bad behavior in an earlier life. Instead, he seeks to ensure each person an equal opportunity to contribute.
The New Idea
Narong's chief focus now is on jobs. Reflecting on his own sense of near despair when he could find nothing, he commented, "Getting a job is real happiness for the disabled." However, he also recognizes that the ability to contribute requires rehabilitation, that prevention is far preferable, and that individual victims as well as a broad disability movement must deal with all aspects of the problem.
He founded and became the first chairperson of the Association of the Physically Handicapped of Thailand and then of the even broader umbrella Council of Disabled Persons of Thailand. With his colleagues he is pushing for a basic law that would ensure the disabled of basic rights of access (e.g., through construction of ramps and curb cut-outs at key points), to education, and to work.
Narong studied law at home because he could not travel to and from university. Once he finally got a job, he drafted several particularly intriguing employment provisions, e.g., government agencies and companies with two hundred or more employees must either hire one half of one percent of their work force from among the disabled or pay a penalty equal to this portion of their staff paid at a minimum wage rate. These penalties would then go into a special fund that would pay for access ramps and other investments needed to ensure the disabled equal opportunity.
Since, according to the United Nations, roughly ten percent of the population suffers one form or another of significant disability, this provision is not intended to create adequate demand. Narong's objective is to open up the country's thinking. Seeing disabled people contribute equally in many of the country's most visible institutions is ultimately the best argument against leaving them hidden in back rooms and dependent. Right now he is preparing a booklet describing 30 successful job placements.
Heretofore what little help had been available for the disabled had gone to a visible, generally urban, token few. Narong is determined to reach all the others.
The most advanced thinkers in the field have increasingly been talking about "community-based rehabilitation" or CBR, but the statistics remain grim. Narong estimates that in Thailand "not more than 2% receive some kind of rehabilitation services." He is not only going beyond rehabilitation to jobs, but he must cause thousands of villages and slums to change how they perceive and deal with their disabled neighbors. To do that, he knows he must work through other institutions. He is especially hoping to tap the Ministry of Public Health's volunteers, religious leaders (he has been encouraged by the recent reaction of one Buddhist abbot), and private voluntary organizations. (Two of the most important voluntary rural development groups, both headed by Ashoka Associate Members, have expressed strong interest after meeting Narong during the election process.) Narong expects these grassroots leaders to identify and give primary help to their area's disabled. Moreover, "the cost of running the project is cheap but the result is the concept or attitude that will be within the resource persons in the community forever."
Not everything can be done at the village level alone. Narong will provide backup support, including guidance volumes. One of his first objectives is to open an emergency house just outside Bangkok where needy disabled people will be able to stay for a while when they come to the capital for specialized training or care.
There are as many as 6 million disabled people in Thailand if the World Health Organization's worldwide percentages apply. This includes the physically handicapped, the blind, the hearing impaired and deaf, and the mentally handicapped. The available institutions can only deal with one or two percent -- and then at great cost.
Traditional attitudes towards the disabled, moreover, make progress difficult. Many families see disability as a punishment which they can do little to Change and would prefer their neighbors not to notice. Moreover, Thailand is still a developing country that can afford only modest welfare expenditures, hence Narong's emphasis on giving the disabled the right to contribute.
Narong's strategy proceeds on two levels:(1) changing attitudes and (2) building aconcrete set of supports for the disabled that reaches from their homes to the most specialized services that can only be provided at the national level.
He's working to change attitudes at all levels, from the poorest disabled person and his or her family to the Royal family. He works to encourage both individuals and groups of the disabled. His own successful struggle and the personal calm and happiness his presence communicates make him immediately credible and persuasive.
Narong works to strengthen the organizations of the disabled because these organizations are key to the disabled feeling less isolated and weak. Supported by peers, they challenge society's assumptions and begin to demand the right to a decent, contributive life.
Narong is also seeking change from the top of society. Since his issue has a strong ethical element, he feels it is appropriate for the extraordinarily respected royal family to take it up. He has recently sought and won the support of a royal princess and hopes to build on this beginning. Through the educational opportunity presented by the legislation ensuring basic rights for disabled, he is building support in the cabinet and among the parties. His strategy of working through and not competing with or paralleling the major government and private voluntary organizations should also help engage another group of key social thought leaders. Finally, Narong hopes to make increasing use of the press.
Narong's service delivery mechanism will reinforce these educational objectives at the same time they bring practical change to the lives of many thousands of heretofore ignored disabled people. His plan begins by working chiefly through the resource people in existing organizations with broad outreach among the poor, identifying these people and defining their needs. As much as possible, again through the same resource people, community help will begin. His own organization will provide specialized backup to its allies in this grassroots work and then step in to link those in need with more specialized diagnostic and support services.
As this process makes the extent of this now hidden suffering and waste apparent, and as the disabled become less acquiescent, pressure will build. Throughout, Narong will help his disabled brethren seek out help and opportunity - and in the process create the awareness in the broader society that ultimately will bring systemic changes.
Narong was born in Pitsanuloke in the north. He entered the Royal Military Academy in 1951, looking forward to a powerful career. Two years later, however, he was struck down by rheumatoid arthritis, spent two and a half years in the hospital, and emerged with a fused spine (which makes sitting down impossible and getting in and out of cars incredibly challenging) and other joints locked in place. His military prospects closed, and he found it terribly difficult to get any job - an experience he can never forget. He finally obtained a very low paying job in a library for the blind.
While serving there he made it possible for blind students to obtain an education by producing the braille books card and, more recently, tapes. This job allowed him subsistence and a tiny margin of savings that he used to study law at home as he gradually regained confidence. Ten years after he first went to the hospital, he received his law degree from Thammasat University. In 1984 he also earned a B.A. in education from Sukhothai Thammathiraj University. Especially in the early demoralizing years of his disability when the future seemed a wreck, reading helped Narong. His own character, his suffering, his commitment, the skills he has developed, and his ideas now promise to allow him to make a great contribution.