Although the late Taiwanese writer Liu Hsia suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from childhood, she not only relied on a pen to show her concern for the world, but also single-handedly created the build-operate-transfer project “Rehabus”, which provides a shuttle service to those with disabilities.
But she probably did not expect that this bus, which was certainly intended to bring benefit to those with disabilities, even charging only half the price of a taxi or nothing at all, would inadvertently come to exclude many of those with limited mobility!
There are six conditions for using a Rehabus bus. First, passengers need to possess a Disability Card. Second, they are not allowed to move between counties or cities. Third, they can only take the bus at certain times. Fourth, advance reservation is required. Fifth, the bus can only be used for medical treatment, schooling, care for the elderly, and employment. Sixth, itinerary changes at short notice are punished by deducting merit points.
Those most frustrated by this are the elderly, as although they may not have a Disability Card, they require more specialised vehicles for travel when their physical functions deteriorate. Particularly in Taiwan, where the ageing rate is the fastest in the world and where those 65 years of age and over account for 10.98% of the total population, there is huge demand for a specialised shuttle service.
It is a clear fact that the Rehabus service is not adequate to cater for those with disabilities. At present, Taiwan has more than 1.1 million people with disabilities. Of these people, 160,000 need access to a shuttle service, yet there are only around 1,000 vehicles, which does not even satisfy one third of actual demand.
As they cannot take a bus and cannot always call an ambulance, it is fortunate that there finally appeared Duofu Care & Services in Taiwan in 2009.
Relaxed conditions, where there is a demand, it can be met
The reason that Duofu was set up came from the personal experience of its founder. After founder Jeff Hsu’s 93-year-old grandmother had a fall at home, it became difficult for her to bend her limbs when travelling in a sedan. Her family had no choice but to ask Rehabus for help, but she was refused access as she was not disabled. After that, her family members needed to take turns off work to help her travel.
Originally, Jeff Hsu found it difficult to understand the rejection of his grandmother by Rehabus. “Later, I went online and found that there were more than 3,000 messages complaining about the service quality of Rehabus. I had no choice but to agree,” he said.
In order to respond to the various limitations of Rehabus, he set aside his 12 year-long career as a director, and personally bought vans, ladders, wheelchair lifts and wheelchair straps to establish Duofu Care & Services, providing an accessible shuttle service in the Taipei area.
Duofu’s service principle is simple, that there are no limits. Therefore, regardless of whether people are pregnant, young, old, or use a wheelchair, they can designate any place and any time to use the shuttle service, whether it be to visit relatives, go out for entertainment or go sightseeing. Changes at short notice are not punished.
Jeff Hsu thinks of Duofu as part of the service industry rather than the car rental industry. For example, when receiving a call from a customer, the staff must carefully ask about his or her physical and mental condition. When a passenger appears 20 metres in front, staff must say hello and remember his or her name. When staff need to find change for a customer, they must give new banknotes. When they deliver a passenger to his or her front door, they must inquire into the passenger’s satisfaction. Every action must be read aloud to customers to ensure they understand, and there are more than 100 standard operating procedures relating to the entire journey.
Jeff Hsu emphasises, “We are not transporting goods, but people. People with physical disabilities tend to be especially more sensitive. Thoughtless expressions on others’ faces might leave a shadow in their hearts, so empathy is very important.” He remembers one customer who had not left his house for three whole years before accepting help from Duofu.
Meeting a variety of needs, providing all-round accessible services
Jeff Hsu has also found that people with disabilities often hold dreams that are difficult to achieve. For this reason, Duofu has launched a “slow travel” service for which sightseeing, diving, watching movies, bowling, listening to concerts, and even providing a look-alike wedding car are all missions that have been reached. Moreover, each journey is first trialled to ensure safety.
As a result of word of mouth, when the Regent Taipei accommodated foot and mouth painters from all over the world in 2012, it entrusted Duofu with providing shuttle services and planning the hotel facilities, rooms and passageways by taking into consideration various obstacles. In addition, Duofu also helps the National Palace Museum to deal with crowds at its peak hours.
While originally the National Palace Museum was always noisy, after carefully calculating data related to the visits of those who are pregnant, young, old and use a wheelchair, Duofu can now promptly prepare vehicles during peak hours to quickly shuttle passengers, thereby significantly shortening passenger waiting time, and restoring order to the great hall.
Demand for accessibility has always been difficult for the government to grasp. In the past, the government had sought more information from social welfare organisations, but they are mostly non-profit, making it difficult for them to understand real consumer demand. On the contrary, Duofu is the only private business providing such a service, so it can estimate market trends based on average sales per customer, consumption volume, high and low seasons, reasons for use, etc. Laughing, Jeff Hsu said, “It turns out that even though I have not requested resources from the government for all these years, the information I have accumulated is unexpectedly very valuable!”
Today, “slow travel” is booming, although the shuttle service has continued to lose money. Duofu must now use “slow travel” to make up for its losses, while using the shuttle service to broaden its customer base. However, Jeff Hsu remains optimistic, saying, “Barriers only exist in environments, they do not exist in people.” He hopes to turn Taiwan into a model barrier-free tourism zone in Asia, and looks forward to a future when people in wheelchairs can go travelling without any obstacles at all.