Accra is no place for people living with disabilities

I was running late for work yesterday. The trotro I had sat in was only half full, and the mate was, to my annoyance, hopeful that he could fill the rickety lorry before the driver stepped on the pedal to leave the bus stop.

As we waited, a man in a wheel chair was wheeled to the bus stop. As is typical of trotros in Ghana, there was no ramp in the vehicle to aid his ascent. It’s like he had anticipated the predicament hence bringing along the gentleman who wheeled him to the bus stop.

Like a swaddled baby, the gentleman cradled the mobility-challenged man in his arms and plopped him on the closest seat he could reach. His wheel chair was folded and then placed in the booth.

Then the vehicle finally moved.

For a moment as I sat behind this man, let’s call him John, in the trotro, I thought, so what happens when John’s aid is not available to wheel him to the bus stop?

What happens when someone sitting closer to the window on John’s bench needs to alight and he has to get down and get on again? What happens when it’s time for John to alight, who’s going to help him?

I wondered how he felt always being carried when he needed to get on or off a bus. Did he feel humiliated, like a burden or he has just accepted his situation and moved on from worrying about feelings?

About 45 or more minutes later, we arrived at his stop – Danquah 1st.

John inched closer to the edge of the seat waiting for the mate who had rushed to the back of the lorry to get his wheel chair.

The clueless mate, instead of once again cradling John and putting him gently into the wheel chair, instead held on to the wheel chair to steady it so that John by some means drop himself into the chair. It was a messy scene.

It took direction from passengers to get the mate to hold on to John to ease his descent.

As the car moved from the bus stop, I watched as John wheeled himself through the sands, over the coal-tar, back into the sand, over the coal-tar and back into the sand again trying to cross the dual roads at the Danquah roundabout.

Ghana economy

Let’s be honest, Accra was not built with people living with disability in mind. I mean, even people without disability find the city treacherous, so you can imagine.

I always wonder how blind people navigate in this chaotic city. Traffic lights don’t work, drivers don’t slow down at zebra crossings and there are barely any pedestrian walks. Human beings are an afterthought in this city and it’s worse when those human beings have a disability – they’re invisible to town planners and urban developers.

This country has made the ramp the one-stop shop for addressing all problems associated with disabilities; if you’re blind – ramp, if you’re deaf – ramp, if you can’t walk – ramp, the only problem is after you have scaled the ramp, you then discover that that’s the only aid you’re ever going to get.

There are no disability oriented toilet facilities in public offices not even in public toilets, there are hardly any disability designated parking spots at car parks, elevators are a tricky situation in the country and let’s not talk about how our streets are not disability friendly, in fact, they tend to be anti-pedestrian.

Accra’s entire built environment is hostile to the people living in it. It’s therefore not surprising the amount of filth and chaos that has characterised the city and the city’s relentless resistance to sanitation.

In such a situation, you would expect the government to lead the charge to make the country livable for all and sundry, but even in this quarter of issues, successive governments have failed woefully.

At this point, we might need to elect someone with a disability into the Jubilee House in the hope that his or her lived experiences will push him or her to implement much-needed change.

What do I think is the solution?

It’s time we had a rethink of Accra and by extension, of Ghana’s built environment. Government needs to lead the charge by bringing together a team of architects, and urban planners among others, to redesign the city in such a way that it addresses the many challenges affecting both the city and the people within.

The government through this national planning committee must address the inequalities that affect particularly vulnerable groups like PLWDs, women and children, and the aged. It must bring some form of justice to the physical class and ethnic divide to ensure a more stable and sustainable democracy.

Things like elevators in public storey buildings, disability oriented wash rooms, disability designated parking spaces, and many others should be ensured to ease the troubles of PLWDs who are either accessing a public building for a service or even working in a public institution.

It would also be very good if buses with designated spaces for wheel chairs and ramps to aid ascent and descent are introduced on our roads for people like John to be able to access these services without first being cradled.

I know I’m reaching by asking for these – but I am actually a very realistic individual. I undoubtedly understand this may take an entire generation and billions of dollars to achieve. Heck, it may take three generations to achieve, but then we have to start from somewhere.

Small drops of water make a mighty ocean; likewise, successive governments showing commitment to leveling access for all will help the country achieve this mighty feat.

This may also spur on the private sector to start taking actionable steps to making their office spaces friendlier towards PLWDs – I mean, my knees hurt from scaling four flights of stairs just to reach my office – and perhaps, some form of legislation in this direction could quicken those steps.

Every Ghanaian no matter their dispensation deserves their dignity, and it behoves the state to preserve that dignity by creating a safe, friendly and accessible environment for all.

One day, John should be able to wheel himself onto a bus without help.

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