Talk of the Town
Through the eye of a needle
It is November, the month for creating awareness of people with disabilities. Here, I share what it is like travelling in a world that is for the greater part inaccessible to people with disabilities - where design meets the needs of those with 20/20 vision and who are physically able.
To travel around with a long cane, guide-dog, or a wheelchair can feel like what I guess the old camel would feel like trying to go through the eye of a needle.
How accessible a place is depends on the level of awareness of those in a particular community - whether leafy green suburb, seaside resort, township or informal settlement.
When striking out to the grocery, the mall, or the closest restaurant, obstacles across the verge or pavement may include refuse bags, poles, manholes without covers, tree roots lifting pavements - and of course entrances and pavements inaccessible for those with wheelchairs. Poor or no road signage, cars parked in bays for people with physical disabilities and across designated pedestrian crossings and - wait for it – cars on pavements and blocking entrances.
In some cases, there is no pavement at all.
Once you’ve negotiated these obstacles, your next challenge is security guards at public buildings who haven’t been correctly trained when it comes to service dogs and their handlers.
At every shopping mall where security guards are inadequately trained, a prospective shopper with a guide dog is barred from access.
It’s only after a firm explanation, along with proof that the dog is an accredited guide dog, that one is grudgingly allowed into the mall or store. It’s very humiliating and I am thankful that this has happened to me on very few occasions.
The following incident took place in a well known chain store in Cape Town.
My second guide dog, Suki, is in harness leading me. We enter the store.
“No dogs allowed,” says the security guard.
My spouse and I calmly and firmly explain that the dog beside me in harness is a guide dog trained to assist me, as I am blind. I add that according to the law, the dog is allowed everywhere, within reason.
I am then instructed that I should pick up my dog and carry her and walk holding my spouse’s arm.
At this point, it is fair to advise the reader that my dog was about twothirds my body weight: the task may have proven rather difficult, if not impossible.
Afterwards my spouse and I could laugh; however, in the dire reality of the moment, it is not funny in the slightest.
Inaccessibility can also occur at government buildings. The following incident occurred here, in a government building in Port Alfred.
As I approached, an official announced, “No dogs.”
I explained in isiXhosa that the dog poses no risk and is an aid; but she was still not convinced.
A moment later a colleague appeared saying, “No man, this dog is like white stick.”
Understanding dawned and access was granted. I thanked her colleague with a huge smile.
It is not all doom and gloom: there are instances where the staff of shops, airports and other public places do their best to make travelling and moving around accessible. I am proud to say that the Port Alfred branch of the same chain store that denied us access in Cape Town is excellent as far as awareness of guide dogs is concerned. The staff in the Port Alfred shop are kind and helpful and it’s that much easier to do shop for the basics.
At the airport, after the necessary paperwork is shown, guide and service dogs are allowed on to the aircraft to lie at the feet of their handler during the flight.
But when it comes to public transport in towns and cities in South Africa, there is a great deal that needs to be done.
Many buildings are inaccessible, with no ramps, and with doorways too narrow to accommodate wheelchairs. In some cases, where there are ramps, they are not built to the correct specifications and are in fact a hazard, because they’re too steep or too short.
People in wheelchairs are often denied access to taxi services because of the space the wheelchair may take up in the back of the vehicle.
Visually impaired people with guide dogs are often barred from public transport and lift clubs are not the best solution.
How do towns become more accessible for people with disabilities? It all begins with universal design for accessibility, and a good public transport system.
Here are some additional suggestions for municipalities and town planners:
Clearly marked designated pavements and crossings will ensure safer travel. Legible road signs make crossing the road safer.
Bins, electric poles and boxes should be installed off the footfall area of walking routes.
Training for staff in public service and in the private sector about assistance dogs.
Ensure that buildings are designed to be universally accessible.
A public train or bus for the town and surrounding areas would make travelling around much easier.
In the next instalment of Able Beyond 20/20 we will allow people with disabilities out of the stereotyping box and highlight their various roles in diverse communities.