Frustrated in South Africa: A National Week of Disability Simulation?

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The weight of social exclusion is made even more burdensome when attitude and design align to layer an apartheid-like system on top of disability.

Here, with a touch of defiance in the face of despair, author Sharon van Wyk illustrates how the failure to adopt Universal Design debilitates even those without a disability. In a previous article, "A Rainbow Nation No More" she recounts incidents at the popular Johannesburg family destination - Gold Reef City - and the underlying South African tension of a broader dream of racial inclusion delayed.

In my limited experience, I observe distinct differences between the narratives told by Blacks and Whites here around race and privilege. Heroes and villains, facts and their significance vary greatly depending on the speaker. Yet a desire for change is everywhere and entering into this still-contested space has been essential for finding a way to communicate the needs and aspirations of the disability community.

Accessible tourism - a pipe dream

Lynnridge Mall, Pretoria - It's 32 degrees outside and I've been waiting in the car park for a quarter of an hour, getting more and more frustrated with each passing minute. Next to me, my mother sits patiently, apologising for the inconvenience she is causing.

Mom, you see, had a stroke and is confined to a wheelchair for a while. She wants to go shopping and needs to go to the bank, but there are only four disabled bays in this car park. Four. Out of more than 2000 bays. And in each of them is a car belonging to an able bodied person.

In one is a delivery van. In the other a motorbike. The remaining two on the other side of the mall are occupied by a snazzy-looking two-seater sportscar, parked at a jaunty angle, and a cash-in-transit vehicle, presumably on a coffee break.

This is the sad, day to day reality of life as a disabled person in South Africa. And one which leading US disability expert Scott Rains will probably not see on his visit to South Africa.

Rains, currently visiting our shores to assess the issue of accessible tourism, has been confined to a wheelchair for 37 years. He's here to see what we can offer disabled and older travellers and to build awareness of the importance of good access to our tourism industry.

Well, my dear Mr Rains, let me share with you some of the pitfalls I have seen each and every in the year since my mom had her stroke.

First off, there is zero awareness of the disabled in this country. In the same way that women with a pram magically disappear in a crowd, so do people in wheelchairs. You are ignored by all but the most well-meaning of people.

I have been watched by security guards, strapping men in their prime, and fellow women as I have struggled for 15 minutes to get my mother's wheelchair out of the car and her in it. And that was on a rare occasion when I managed to find a disabled bay vacant.

The bays themselves offer no succour. They are invariably badly designed, not wide enough to allow full maneouvrability and rarely have a ramp up to the pavement or entrance to a mall.

In the case of a mall like dear old Lynnridge, the disabled bays are invariably in full sun, meaning I have to put dear old mum into an extremely hot and stuffy car, and on occasion she has burnt herself on the hot leather seats.

There is shade parking at Lynnridge. But not one disabled bay under cover.

The problem, I find, is that disabled facilities are usually designed by non-disabled people. Take, for example, tourism facilities at Mapungubwe National Park in northern Limpopo. Because it's a relatively new park, the facilities are largely pristine and, at viewpoints like the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers have been designed with less abled tourists in mind. But has anyone tried to push a wheelchair round the twisting, turning path which leads to the lookout points? Or accompany a frail, wobbly elderly person as they battle fatigue on the long, uphill section?

And yes, Mapungubwe offers disabled facilities in some of its chalets at Leokwe Camp. In two, to be precise. Out of 18. And while we were there they had been given to non-disabled tourists which actually defeats the object, n'est pas?

None of the shopping malls I have been to since my mom's stroke have provided adequate parking, assistance or facilities for disabled people. Toilets are a nightmare, shops are for the most part impossible to negotiate in a wheelchair without bumping into something and no one understands the huge problem of food shopping with a wheelchair-bound person. How do you push a wheelchair and a trolley at the same time?

We tried it with mom pushing the trolley while I pushed her. That didn't work. We tried mom pushing herself in the chair while I followed with the trolley, but she couldn't manage it with her stroke-weakened arms. So I invariably left mom at the check-out, took her list and did the shopping for her, and then went back to do my own.

There are so many simple things which could be done to aid disabled people, and disabled tourists. No one realises, for example, that deep, plush carpets are a pain in the backside for anyone either in a wheelchair or pushing one. As is sand. Or gravel.

A plush, spacious, super-equipped room in a larny, "wheelchair friendly" hotel is so often spoiled by how tired you get hiking across shag-pile carpets while pushing your dear old ma, which you have to do because the poor dear can't even get the wheels moving.

But facilities, or the lack of them, aside. The real problem is people's attitudes. There is a serious lack of consideration for disabled people, which is illustrated best by the way the able-bodied park with gay abandon in disabled parking bays.

I have lost count of the arguments I have had with men and women of all ages and hues in prime physical health who have told me where to get off for taking them to task for preventing me from parking in a bay designated for my mom, and people like her.

People don't care unless it directly affects them, you see.

So forgive me for being a mite disillusioned, Mr Rains, but I think it will take more than you visiting for a month for South Africa to wake up to the fact that its frail, elderly and disabled citizens are hard-done by, let alone potential tourists.

What you need to do is recommend that everyone in South Africa spends a week in a wheelchair. Because until they do, they will never understand.


Reprinted with the author's permission. Thank you, Sharon.

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