At the age of nine, Nalutporn was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. For the rest of her life, she would use a wheelchair – and for the first part of that life, she had to make it through the Thai educational system. People with disabilities in Thailand have few rights sanctioned – a hot political issue for Nalutporn.
This photo essay is part of our dossier "Young voices on the rise – Youth and democracy in the Asia-Pacific region".
A list of common insults that people with disabilities don’t want to hear anymore; two blind men's review of sex services in Bangkok; an interview with a wheelchair-using lottery ticket seller struggling to make sales as Thailand's COVID-19 cases climb.
Few of these stories would ever make it into Thai mainstream media, whose portrayal of the disabled are often pity-laden and condescending, as cultural attitudes attributing disability to bad karma persist.
But ThisAble.me, Thailand's first and only media news outlet dedicated to disability issues, strives to change that by showing people with disabilities as equally human. This pioneering work in Thai journalism is headed by 27-year-old Nalutporn Krairiksh.
'My friends carried me.'
At the age of nine, Nalutporn was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. For the rest of her life, she would use a wheelchair – and for the first part of that life, she had to make it through the Thai educational system.
She often skipped school lunch breaks because it was too difficult to go up and down the stairs. But in middle school, to her surprise, one teacher included her in a class she never got to participate in before.
"From kindergarten until lower secondary, I never learned PE. All the teachers assumed that I couldn't do anything," she says. "I would sit in a room and get full marks."
But the middle school PE teacher handed her a volleyball – "the first time in my life I got to touch one" – and she hit it. "It only went one meter, but the teacher said that if that's what I could do, then that was good enough. They didn't compare me with others."
However, the toughest hurdle of her education would be at Chulalongkorn University – the country's oldest and most prestigious in rank, its buildings and administration steeped in tradition. Wheeling around the campus, Nalutporn often felt like an 'oddity' as other students and o by the mere sight, they couldn't stop staring.
"To get to classes every day, I had to use the storage elevator at the back of the building, asking the security guard to unlock it for me," she says. "It was so inconvenient just to go to class; I felt like I wasn't really part of university life."
Buildings often only had stairs, elevators that did not stop on every floor, or elevators reserved for professors. The only way to access the central library was to ask someone to carry her and her wheelchair over some metal barriers and then ask to use the storage elevator.
"I only made it through university because my friends carried me, literally," she says.
Nalutporn couldn't even access the student office by herself. Instead, she would have to ask her friends to go in her stead to lobby for the tiniest accommodations, such as an unlocked storage elevator.
"They didn't provide any comfort to me because they don't care," she says. "A security guard told me that I was 'only one person' when I asked if the buses could be made wheelchair-accessible."
When it was time to graduate, Nalutporn was ready to participate in the graduation process like everyone else.
At Chulalongkorn University, students attend two commencement days to rehearse the ceremony of receiving their diploma from Princess Sirindhorn. For many students and their parents, the few seconds on stage with the princess are a great source of pride.
Although Nalutporn went to both rehearsal days, on her actual graduation, she was wheeled outside the hall where she received the diploma from the princess, but not on stage with everyone else.
"For sure, my master's will not be at Chula. The university didn't love me as much as I loved it," Nalutporn says. "They weren't able to let a student learn with dignity."
A unique platform
During the rocky path to her university degree, Nalutporn applied for an internship as a disability reporter at Prachatai, a non-profit news website.
"At first, my career plan was to illustrate children's books," she says. "But working at Prachatai made me see that disabled people aren't even treated as humans in every part of Thai society."
After graduating in 2015, Nalutporn became a full-time reporter at Prachatai and, in 2017, founded their sister website focused on disability issues – ThisAble.Me.
Nalutporn wheeled herself into seminars, advocacy events, and even political protests by disabled people – and soon ThisAble.Me became known among liberal Thais as a unique platform.
"What I can do is give space to these stories of people on the margins," Nalutporn says. "People with disabilities are always portrayed as waiting for charity and aid. News about them is accompanied by their bank account for donations."
A popular game show format is having impoverished or disabled guests come on air to tell celebrity hosts about their debts and play games or showcase their talents in exchange for money.
"Not only are their stories not told, but their level of dignity is also decreased," Nalutporn says. "On these shows, a person with one leg has to show the stump to get a bag of rice in return."
ThisAble strives to show that, contrary to popular belief, people with disabilities have complete lives that don't revolve around suffering. They are people with dreams, friends, careers, and sex lives.
"Some people were shocked when they found out that I graduated," she says. "But when I got a boyfriend, people overreacted even more, treating him as if he was a merciful angel who took pity on me."
The site's content about the sex lives of people with disabilities went so viral that the website's servers were overwhelmed. It included an interview of a sex worker who almost exclusively took clients living with disabilities. Another was a review of various sex services by two blind men who loved to hit the town.
"Out of the blue, she pulled up the topic of disability and sex," says Manit Inpim, a 54-year-old longtime accessibility activist. "Her thoughts are so youthful and free and tackle so many things. Thai society doesn't talk about sex much, and for the disabled, it's even in a greyer area."
Manit, who uses a wheelchair, is the founder of Accessibility is Freedom, a group campaigning for accessible public spaces in Bangkok. Nalutporn often works closely with Manit, writing news about him when he lobbies for elevators to the Skytrain or ramps in downtown malls.
"Few people with disabilities in Thailand will have the mindset and life resources to publish things like this," Manit says. "I'm glad that she's like a megaphone for people with disabilities – not just about accessibility, but about everyday life, including sex."
Auttapon Srichitsanuwaranon, 39, is the founder of the Allism disability activist group known for its political theatre performances and pro-democracy protests. He began using a wheelchair after a gun attack injured his spinal cord.
For him, ThisAble is providing invaluable representations of his reality.
"In Thai soap operas, disabled characters become disabled as a punishment or miraculously get healed. It's portrayed completely without dignity," Auttapon says. "But ThisAble has direct, honest communication, and I'm so happy when I see the non-struggling parts of being disabled as well. One of my favourites is a story about whether blind people are afraid of ghosts."
Pandemic exposes inequities
No event in recent memory has laid bare the inequities of Thai society more clearly than the coronavirus pandemic. Hospitals have become overrun with the sick, emergency hotlines are dead ends, and people drop dead in the streets.
Few other groups are left more adrift than people with disabilities. Nalutporn says many field hospitals refuse disabled patients as some medical staff fear they will be a burden. As a result, one group of blind people recently was forced to self-isolate at home even when hospitals still had capacity.
"The discrimination is ridiculous. The blind people had to stay at home while the regular people got admitted at the hospital," Nalutporn says. "The government has completely forgotten about us."
Important COVID-19 related announcements and lockdown orders came without a sign language translator. In addition, spokespeople who wore masks prevented lip-reading – leaving many socially distanced people with disabilities uninformed of news.
During the pandemic, the government grants disabled people a cash payout totalling 1,000 baht (about 30.34 USD). But Nalutporn says many were unable to access the state's apps and websites to register for subsidies.
People with disabilities without a university degree often end up in a few low-paying professions: selling state lottery tickets, singing for money, divination, and massage. All of these require face-to-face contact, especially on the streets.
ThisAble interviewed a 49-year-old wheelchair-using lottery ticket seller who spent his days rolling around Bangkok's rocky and empty streets looking for customers. When the government delayed one round of the bi-monthly lottery, he was left with almost no money.
"No one would hire me for any other job," he told Nalutporn in an interview. "This is my only way to make a living, even if I risk catching the disease."
A political issue
People with disabilities in Thailand have few rights sanctioned – a hot political issue for Nalutporn.
After the military-backed party of Prayut Chan-o-cha won the election amidst election fraud claims, Nalutporn began going to anti-government protests that sprang up in 2020. Bangkok's inaccessible infrastructure, however, makes it hard for people with disabilities to travel to protest sites.
"Some people with disabilities don't even believe that democracy will improve our lives because we've lived under the patronage system our entire lives. All we have to do is ask for pity and receive charity in return," she says. "The only good things given to people with disabilities from the government are handouts or royally-bestowed things."
After founding ThisAble, a government public relations officer contacted Nalutporn asking her to meet with the prime minister for International Day of People with Disabilities. The offer seemed like an excellent opportunity to promote her platform, but it came with a catch: She would have to join a photoshoot where the prime minister would push her wheelchair over obstacles in front of Government House.
"They wanted pictures to show that he 'loves' people with disabilities, but I found that funny," she says. "I would much rather have the prime minister and a person with disability go into the Government House side by side. Wouldn't that be much better?"
Nalutporn believes the recent pro-democracy protests can help to promote better lives for people living with disabilities in Thailand. She was a founding member of the Future Forward Party, shaping the party's disability rights campaign platform during the 2019 general elections.
If the party had made it into government, Nalutporn planned to change how the state categorizes people with disabilities. For example, under the current system, people who are blind in only one eye, deaf in one ear, or can walk for ten meters are not qualified as disabled.
"I knew this guy who was blind in one eye and did not have money to get treatment for it since he did not qualify as a disabled person. Eventually, he went blind in the other eye and was able to be qualified. By that time, it was already too late for any treatment," she says.
Challenging social perceptions
Prejudices against disability in Thai society are rooted in Theravada Buddhism, the country's majority religion. The lack of a fully-abled body and mind can be attributed to a past karmic bad deed.
"So the only thing a Thai should do is accept it since you basically did it to yourself," Nalutporn says. "Don't try to improve your life, but instead be content with what you have. If you have no legs, stay home and use your arms, that's the mentality."
The deeply entrenched mindset has shaped the national legislature. Registered disabled people get a monthly allowance of 800 baht (24.19 USD), barely enough to eat.
"If the government sees us as normal people with friends who go out, enjoy life, have a career, then we shouldn't get this little," she says. "But with this amount, they just see us as beings at home who breathe and do nothing else."
But Nalutporn is also noticing gradual progress in how Thai society perceives people with disabilities. Some journalists have started contacting her about the correct terminology when referring to disability, a surprisingly positive development in a media environment where words like "insane" and "crippled" are still common.
"We aren't sad, downtrodden, suffering all the time. I want people to look at a disabled person as just another human who also has dreams," she says. "The more people with disabilities we see living out their dreams in society, the more minds will change."