If Istanbul can, we all can

 

Ari Seirlis recently had the opportunity to travel to Istanbul, Turkey. He shares his experience in this historic city

Ari Seirlis in Istanbul, Turkey.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Istanbul to present at a conference. Having watched the movie Midnight Express many times, I was quite nervous to accept the invitation. I was totally influenced by the brutality of the prison that Billy Hayes had spent some time in, albeit in 1977.

Invitation accepted, I flew Turkish airlines from OR Tambo International Airport (ORTIA) to the new Istanbul Airport (IST). The airline was pretty average although I was seated in the bulkhead row, courtesy of the kind Turkish airline manager at ORTIA, for which I was very grateful.

Menzies provided an excellent passenger assistant service when leaving Johannesburg and also on arrival again seven days later. They were superb.

In Istanbul, I stayed in the Divan Hotel in Taksim square. The hotel ticked most of the boxes for wheelchair access and Taksim square is the right place to stay if you want to spend some time in this beautiful city.

I was certainly contemplating how I was going to get around knowing that this is one of the oldest civilisations in Europe and Asia. With some information from the concierge, I ventured out to look for public transport, hoping for an accessible experience. There are plenty of pedestrian areas and streets. All of these were wide and relatively smooth.

I was surprised at how independent I was in my power-assist wheelchair. It took me a while to find an accessible toilet facility and whenever I did, I noted these on my map.

They were few and far between. But the concept was the following: Where there is a renowned tourist attraction, you will find an accessible toilet facility. It will cost you a couple of Turkish lira, but it is well worth those coins. Public transport using the vernacular and tram system was superb. I soon got used to the universal transport card, which was dispensed from a machine using cash.

Every time it got low, you could replenish the credit and continue your journey using any of the public transport systems available. The vernacular takes you from the main Taksim square to the source of the tram at Kabatas.

This is a new modern tram system, running every five minutes with an easy roll-on and roll-off on any particular platform. I could access the coach without so much as tipping my wheelchair.

They are really fast and efficient. If you miss a tram because it’s quite full, don’t despair. They run every few minutes. We could navigate all of the main tourist attractions in Istanbul using this transport system.

What a delight and what a wonderful experience being in a city and managing to move around without much trouble at all; relatively cheap and fast.

The staff at the platforms were very helpful and that makes a huge difference. The general population were very tolerant of the space I needed when getting on and off.

If you want great street food, amazing markets, incredible history, and value for money, Istanbul is the place to go. The major tourist attractions like the spice market, the grand Bazaar, the mosques and historical sites are not always as accessible as you would like, but, bearing in mind how old they are, it was sometimes understandable.

However, I did notice that there were always willing hands to help me over an obstacle or up a steep alleyway. That was impressive.

After a week of fun, sights and sounds of a very interesting city, my last port of call was navigating the airport at Istanbul. This has got to be one of the biggest and busiest airports in the world.

Modern, absolutely accessible, a superb assistant passenger service available, clean and everything works. All you need to do is have a few useful words in Turkish to get someone to go out of their way to assist you with any query.

I have never seen an airport in all my travels globally that is so functional for a wheelchair user as the new Istanbul Airport.


contributor

Ari Seirlis is the former CEO of the QuadPara Association of South Africa and, presently, a member of the Presidential Working Group on Disability. He is a wheelchair user and disability activist.

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