Aware Of My Disability

‘I feel totally independent in my house. Outside, I am made aware of my disability.'
By Scott Grech, Malta Independent | August 2009

It is the middle of August, and the heat out there is as unbearable as ever. A group of teenagers pack the bus terminus located outside Paceville. They are discussing which beach to visit. The 645 will take them to Mellieha Bay, and the 652 to Golden Bay. After all, nothing beats a cool and refreshing swim in the middle of summer.

It is not the biggest dilemma these youngsters will have to cope with in their lives. Apart from the increase in electricity, water and gas prices, probably the only things that remain accessible to everyone free of charge in this country are the sun, sea and beaches.

Or are they?

Not quite. A visit to the most popular beaches on the island revealed that accessibility to wheelchair-bound people is evidently limited.

The perched beach along the Bugibba promenade is one of them. Original plans had marked this beach to be in line with the principle that there should be equal access to all, including people with various disabilities.

To Rita and Kevin Vella, a married couple who are wheelchair users and go out often, this is contradictory. “The plans and the promotion made were that this was going to be the first beach on the island that would be accessible to everyone. We had to write letters to the minister at the time but the beach still does not comply with the original information. Up to today, Malta and Gozo cannot say that there is a bay that is really and truly accessible to everyone.”

A lift was supposed to have been installed to hoist immobile people up and down to the beach. However, such plans failed to materialise, without any explanation or the provision of any alternative whatsoever.

A lot of wheelchair users tend to use the pools at Razzett tal-Hbiberija. Other places, most notably hotel pools, have adequate facilities. However, while beaches are free, these places are definitely not.

Vickie Gauci, a manager with the National Commission for People with Disability, argues that just constructing a ramp adjacent to a pavement leading to a beach is not the only solution.

“Building a ramp is all well and good. What happens then? Isn’t it obvious that the wheelchair is going to get stuck in the sand?”

According to Ms Gauci, sandy beaches should have wooden platform trails at the end of the ramp, and another ramp leading to the water’s edge for those who want to go for a swim.

Moreover, maintenance should be carried out throughout the year. “A lot of ramps are often very slippery, while no one takes into consideration the corrosion that occurs on certain rails in the winter months,” she added.

Ms Gauci, who used to be an avid beach-goer in the past, has recently purchased an innovative wheelchair that is easy to roll from the beach into the sea. Made of an aluminium alloy that won’t corrode, the wheelchair, technically referred to as the “hippocampe”, is finally the light at the end of the tunnel she has long been waiting for.

Its purchase however was not without problems. “It costs over e1,300 to buy in Malta, whereas an exact replica from overseas costs e700. I had no option but to buy the wheelchair from abroad.”

Ideally, said Ms Gauci, such wheelchairs should be made available to everyone, even if just to rent for the day. “Just as one can go to Mellieha Bay and hire an umbrella, a sun-bed or a jet ski for the day, why shouldn’t the government invest in 10 of these wheelchairs and divide them among the most popular beaches around Malta and Gozo? For an island surrounded by the sea, more can be done,” she argues.

Ms Gauci speaks on the subject with passion – and a certain amount of frustration. Toilet facilities are few and far between in other popular places across the island, and there are not enough parking spaces for the disabled.

“Shopping in Valletta is a nightmare. How many shops have ramps instead of one or two stairs? When it comes to watching a film at the cinema, why are the places reserved for disabled people either at the back or right in front of the screen? And even opening one of the doors at Mater Dei is a struggle, because they are so heavy.

“Trying to steer a wheelchair on a pavement is an adventure in itself. Either you have to dodge the chairs or tables of bars and restaurants, or else you are more than likely to come upon a telephone booth or a post box. The man in the street has no idea how damaging all this is to a wheelchair user’s self-confidence. When I’m surrounded by my family and friends in my house I feel totally independent. Outside the house, I am made aware of my disability,” said Ms Gauci.

Nevertheless, all is not doom and gloom. Ms Gauci says that she has seen progress over the last few years, but it is the “attitude and mentality” of the Maltese people that needs to change, first and foremost. She was pleasantly surprised at the level of accessibility at the 2007 MTV concert, which also coincided with the launch of this year’s “Equal Opportunities for All” programme.

At the beginning of 2000, the government approved a series of schemes to reduce discriminatory actions in situations specifically concerning employment, education, accommodation and accessibility, among others.

When I asked Ms Gauci whether she felt such ideas had been implemented, she replied: “Although improvements have been made, they happen at a snail’s pace. Restaurateurs fail to realise that by providing proper toilets and access for the disabled, they could easily generate more revenue. Furthermore, we constantly see and hear of all these blocks of flats being built. Why don’t they come with a short ramp or other adequate facilities?” she concluded.

Source: Scott Grech, Malta Independent


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We remove attitudinal and systemic barriers that persons with physical disabilities must handle on a daily basis by educating and talking with able-bodied people.