Mobility impaired friendly community

A lack of access is frustrating, but a friendly community and willingness to ask for help can make a difference. George Louw shares

Much has been written about the poor structural compliance of public spaces and buildings (including even hospitals) to the needs of the mobility impaired. Possibly the three most talked-about structural deficits that are absent or inadequate are parking bays, absent or poorly designed access to buildings or public spaces as well as inaccessible accommodation such as hotels, lodges, and Bed and Breakfast accommodation.

Ari Seirlis eloquently addressed these issues in the first two editions of Rolling Inspiration for 2022. If the designers and owners of public spaces, buildings and places of accommodation would just realise that the population at large are ageing into their eighties, and even nineties. If they reailse that the accessibility and accommodation needs of the elderly and the frail are very similar to that of the mobility-impaired, they may become more accommodating, because they too will one day benefit from improved accessibility. However, there is another side to the mobility- impaired coin. A side that is far more positive. We have an exceptionally mobility-impaired- friendly community, if we have the boldness, the self-assurance and the humbleness to ask. Put our egos in our pockets and simply ask…

In my twenty years as a wheelchair user, I have never been denied when I ask for assistance. In fact, by asking, we make people aware that we are intelligent, fellow human beings with needs. If we specify our needs, people help. But, if we keep quiet, people think we are coping and seldom offer unless the need is obvious, such as a long ramp in a shopping centre. Then, people don’t really ask. They just say, “Let me give you a hand”, and push you up the ramp. A smile and a fist-bump is thanks enough.

I learned to ask from a close friend. He once said to me: “I can see you are coping, but also that you are struggling. I want to help you, but I am unsure of how. I am also not sure if I will impose on your independence. Please talk to me. Tell me how I can help.” Said with compassion and love. This made me realise that my efforts to get along independently were ego-driven and arrogant. With this attitude, I built a wall around myself that isolated me from other people, even friends and family. However, when I realised that independence is just a figment of imagination in the minds of teenagers and that, in reality, we are all interdependent, no matter how able we are in body or mind, I discovered community.

I realised that if I want to be a part of a community, I should open myself to the empathy and compassion of those who cross my path. This is how friendships are forged, how respect is earned, and how strangers have the candour to say: “You are an inspiration to me.” Probably the most momentous example of community happened to me in Cresta Shopping Centre. I was hurriedly rolling along when I noticed a woman with a beautiful young Dalmatian on a leash. When the dog spotted me, she dragged her owner across to me, sat down in front of me, placed her front paws on my legs and her head in my lap. She stayed like that for a minute or so till her owner gently pulled her away. The experience was heart rendering and uplifting, not just for me, but also to all who witnessed it. It will remain with me for the rest of my life.

But, let’s look at how accepting assistance has helped me overcome structural obstacles to accessibility. My car is beyond its five year service plan, so I started making use of a nearby Bosch Service Centre. Access to reception is up a flight of about 10 stairs. Instead of throwing my toys out of my cot when I first went there, I parked in front of reception, phoned them and explained my situation.

Their response was that I shouldn’t worry and that they’ll send someone to the car. A gentleman came down, took my details, retrieved my wheelchair from the back of my car and helped me transfer to my wife’s car. In the afternoon when I came to fetch the car, the same routine was repeated. He placed the chair in my car and the card machine was brought to the car so that I could make the payment. Now, after three years with them, they know the routine so well that when they see me arrive, they are ready to do it all again.

I recently wanted to sell my Karet trailer to my daughter, but the registration document was lost. I made an appointment to apply for a duplicate document and explained my situation to the gentleman who took my call. “Not to worry,” he said. “Give me your details and we’ll sort you out.”

I pitch up at the entrance gate and a large security officer approached. “We are expecting you, please follow me,” the security officer said. He took me away from the parking area, along a winding private road, to the entrance of the licencing department. I asked him to please lift my wheelchair from the back of my car, but he told me that it wasn’t necessary.

He instructed me to remain seated in my car and disappeared into the building. Within a minute he returned with a lady who took my application papers, processed them and brought me a receipt to collect my duplicate document in two weeks. When I came to pick up the documents, I had to go into the offices, but a friendly policeman assisted me there and back. In both instances, access was compromised, but people made the difference.

So, it is wherever I go. At the shops, the car guards know me and I tip them because that is how they make a living. At the gym, the instructors know the routine. I have their cell numbers to call when I arrive. If I park where there are no car guards, I wait until someone passes. Then, I ask them to help me, which theyarealwayshappytodo.Inallinstances, we strike up a conversation and able-bodied people learn that persons with disabilities are also a part of community and that we too contribute to society.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited our son who, at that time, was living in Fishhoek. He wanted to take me to a popular pub in Noordhoek with a deck overlooking the bay. But, he forgot that there were four steps between the entrance and the deck. “Not to worry,” said the waiter who received us. He called two of his mates and they carried me up the stairs – chair and all – to the cheers and laughter of the customers, my son and myself. The view was beautiful and the craft beer tasted great. My son and I shared a special afternoon.

Perhaps just a last story. In the last years before retiring, when arriving at work I parked my car in the basement. The person who parked next to me and, more often than not, arrived at the same time, was a man with short stature who walked with callipers and crutches. We shared a lift up to the office and he always made a point of getting out of the lift ahead of me as he took great pride in opening the door to the office space for me. We never became real friends, but this was our moment together. One day I managed to sneak ahead of him and with some difficulty I opened the door for him. He thought it was a huge joke and we both burst out laughing.

So, the message is: By all means advocate for structural changes and accessibility, but drop the sense of entitlement. Society does not owe us anything just because we are mobility impaired. Particularly so if our impairment was caused by our own negligence or stupidity. Even if we were born with an impairment, that is not the fault of society. Sounding off demands with a sense of entitlement just rub people up the wrong way and raises barriers. Integrating into communities by contributing and engaging with others will get us much further than abrasive accusations and demands.

Ida’s Corner is a regular column by George Louw, who qualified as a medical doctor, but, due to a progressing spastic paralysis, chose a career in health administration. The column is named after Ida Hlongwa, who worked as caregiver for Ari Seirlis for 20 years. Her charm, smile, commitment, quality care and sacrifice set the bar incredibly high for the caregiving fraternity. email:

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