A society’s goodness is measured not by how well it treats the majority, but by how it treats citizens with different physical and mental challenges. If this is the true standard of measurement of society, then Bulawayo is failing dismally at meeting the needs of all its citizens. In December, the world celebrated world international day of persons with disabilities. If there were any festivities held across the city of Bulawayo, people who use wheelchairs would have been unable to access most of the facilities. It only takes a tour of the city of Bulawayo, with eyes open, to comprehend the gravity of how inaccessible the city is to wheel chair users.
Let’s discuss the Disabled Persons Act
In 1992 Zimbabwe was a global pioneer and set an excellent example by promulgating the Disabled Persons Act. However, it has been decades since that act was passed and a number of its provisions are no longer relevant. The terminology used in the Act – and the title of the act itself – is archaic and reminiscent of a bygone era where disabilities where approached from a purely medical perspective instead of an internationally recognized human rights approach. The human rights approach sees persons with disabilities as individual human beings who deserve the full enjoyment of all that society has to offer.
To keep up with international obligations, Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution is very progressive and has gone a fair way, at least theoretically, in ensuring that a human rights approach is used when approaching matters concerning persons with disabilities. The Constitution under section 83 clearly articulates that the State has a duty to take the appropriate measures to ensure that people with disabilities “become self-reliant” and they “participate in social, creative or recreational activities”. As with all socio-economic rights, these obligations are subject to available resources and require progressive realization. Yet, despite this, no one can argue that ensuring that there is adequate wheelchair access is an expense that the State cannot afford. Wheel chair ramps are fundamental to the enjoyment of the most rudimentary of human rights, the right to human dignity. Such that wherever necessary the State must ensure that those who use wheelchairs are granted access in order to protect their right to dignity as well ancillary rights.
The risks for people with disabilities
In Bulawayo, an overwhelming majority of buildings are not wheelchair accessible. The failure to place wheelchair ramps in public places forces wheelchair users to have to ask complete strangers for assistance. This places them in vulnerable positions where they must approach unknown persons to ask them for assistance going up or down sets of stairs.
This opens up wheelchair users to dangerous situations where the persons they approach may easily take advantage of their vulnerability and steal from them. For female wheelchair users, the situation is doubly troubling as the compromising position exposes them to the possibility of sexual assault.
Wheelchair users are not charity cases
Furthermore, not all persons who use wheelchairs are able to communicate verbally in a manner understandable to the majority of the population. When they are placed in situations of having to explain themselves in order to get assistance, they are limited and are often left without recourse. Forcing wheelchair users to have to constantly look for assistance from strangers perpetuates the dangerous and false stereotype that using a wheelchair renders a person incapable of taking care of themselves. The notion that wheelchair users are charity cases requiring assistance from the society is untrue and is far from the reality. It is only necessary that reasonable accommodation be made by the State through placing ramps to release wheelchairs to go about their daily business.
Bulawayo’s inaccessible buildings – which are they?
There are key locations around the city of Bulawayo that are wheelchair inaccessible. Several government buildings including Tradgold Building, Mhlanhlandlela and the Public Library are not accessible to people who use wheelchairs. Even the main police station – ZRP Central – has no wheelchair access. Does this mean that people who use wheelchairs are not meant to have business in those government offices and perhaps they are not avid book lovers? As the protector of the citizens, the government has the first duty to ensure that its own buildings are complaint with legislation through ensuring access for all its citizens. There are other key locations around Bulawayo that have essentially closed their doors to wheelchair users. These include the Bulawayo Art Gallery, Amphitheatre and Bulawayo Centre.
Horror at Bulawayo Centre
I recently had an experience at Bulawayo Centre that was particularly harrowing with a dear friend who uses a wheelchair. Bulawayo Centre, which by its very name indicates that it is meant to place where all denizens of Bulawayo can feel welcome, is the complete opposite. The Centre does not have wheel chair ramps into most of its shops that have steps at the entrance. Some of the main entertainment areas are on the first floor of the building complex. There is an elevator that one can only assume was meant to grant access to wheelchair users, however this elevator works sporadically and on days that it does work, it ceases to operate at 5pm. As such, a wheelchair user who conducts business or is employed at some of the first-floor shops is restricted to working until just before 5pm if they are to leave the office peacefully. Even movie-going patrons who wish to delight in a late-night show are left stranded; firstly by the building centre itself and secondly by Sterkinekor’s lack of wheelchair ramps anywhere. This restricted access is as though it is inconceivable for wheelchair users to be engaged in similar activities as those of the general populous.
The biggest challenge is not having a disability
Many wheelchair users fail to fully enjoy all that society has to offer, not because of whatever disability they might have but often because of the circumstances and surrounding environment that they inhabit. When a movie theatre refuses to build something as simple as a ramp for those with wheelchairs it indirectly sends that the message that it does not consider them to be worthy patrons who can also enjoy movies.
Exclusion of people with disabilities violates constitution
The National Disabilities Act prohibits denying people with disabilities access to public premises. This includes access to government buildings, private businesses and public recreation spaces. As such, it is clear that any buildings that continue to fail to place wheelchair ramps are in violation of the legislation and the Constitution. The National Disability Board, which is entrusted to address all matters concerning persons with disabilities, can issue adjustment orders to owners of public premises and service providers to make necessary adjustments to their premises. It is baffling as to why the Board has not taken a stronger stance over the years concerning the placing of wheelchair ramps.
Wheelchair ramps don’t cost much
Zimbabwe is a country that has been ravaged by both political and economic hardship. Some might even argue that whilst not excusable, it is reasonable that some areas of our society have gone neglected. I find this excuse to be wanting. Societies will spend as much as they can on areas that they deem worthy. Compare the price of one bag of cement ($12) against the cost of the mayor’s luncheon or the petrol allowance for a bank CEO.
It is time that the citizens of Bulawayo demand more from our local government to ensure that all citizens of Bulawayo are able to participate fully in all the city has to offer.