Handicapped accessible Africa? Not so much.

So when I was in high school, my dad got into an accident.  His accident landed him in the hospital, undergoing a couple of surgeries, that ended with him having a scary Frankenstein-like (at least in my teenaged eyes) contraption made with metal bars coming out of his leg.  He was bed-ridden for a while, followed by a period in a wheel chair.  During that period, I realized exactly how unfriendly the world can be to those who get around on two wheels.  Our home at the time wasn’t too bad for that purpose, having been designed by someone who had medical concerns of their own.  The majority of the living space was on the main floor, and not going down to the basement (where my room and the rec room were) was not a hardship to my dad at all.  With the help of some family friends, all we needed to do was to put a wheelchair ramp over the stairs up to the front door and some bars to grab onto in the bathrooms – where spills are more likely and more dangerous, and the house was all set for my dad to get around in.  The hallways were wide enough, the floors were hardwood or tile, and even the bathroom in my parents’ room was outfitted with a shower stall that he could fairly easily get in and out of, when he was able to get around.

The world outside our home, however, wasn’t always as friendly.  For some time, we became much more aware of which places were sensitive to the needs of the handicapped and which weren’t.  Then, my father got onto crutches, and through physical therapy got back to walking without assistance again, and though I’d like to think that I remained somewhat more sensitive to the needs of the handicapped, admittedly, I didn’t think about it quite as much for a while.  I’m starting to become a bit more sensitive to it again, for various reasons I won’t get into now, but when I pay attention, I have to say that I’m frequently disappointed.

Getting around airports can be a challenge to those with physical disabilities.  For one thing, needing to sprint from one terminal to another can pose a big challenge.  The good news is that in many airports worldwide, the airlines provide great assistance to those who require it (or the airports themselves do), and almost every major commercial airline allows for priority boarding to those who need assistance.  Heck, with those golf-cart-type things that many of us have almost been run down by at the airport, sometimes the disabled can make better time getting from one gate to another than the rest of us!

All of these issues were at the forefront of my mind when I was moving to Africa for 6 months.  My parents spend much of their time in Italy, so being in East Africa, I was actually closer to them than I normally am on the East Coast of the United States.  It seemed like such a great opportunity for them to come to visit me!  But then I thought about the ease of travel around the area, and whether or not I felt that it would be a good idea for them to come out.  While my parents aren’t wheelchair bound or disabled, my father does have Parkinson’s disease, which makes him more nervous about the likelihood of falling.  And while Djibouti does have its share of wheelchair-bound people, to be honest, I don’t know how they do it.  The streets have gigantic pot-holes, and there aren’t too many sidewalks to get around on.  Able-bodied young people sometimes have trouble keeping their footing on the ill-maintained or poorly paved streets and crumbling sidewalks!!  And some of the government buildings I went into at various points were crowded and most had stairs at the entrance or inside, with no elevator alternatives.  There doesn’t appear to be any Djiboutian equivalent to the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring that US government buildings be handicapped accessible.  Even the newer Djiboutian government buildings I saw had no wheelchair ramps or elevators to allow access.

The hotels I stayed in there, however, do seem to be largely accessible.  The Kempinski hotel has access to all major areas on the ground floor, and has elevators to access all other floors.  The hotel seems to be entirely wheelchair accessible, and the large shower stalls in many of the rooms (though, notably, not all the rooms – you would have to request a room with a large shower stall not one with a tub for maximum wheelchair accessibility) would be easily used by someone in a wheelchair, many even having a built-in bench that you could easily trans from a chair onto in order to bathe in comfort from a seated position.  The Kempinski hotel seems to be the best set up for handicapped guests.  Les Acacias hotel, a new hotel by the German hotel chain, Bavaria Hotels International, also seems to be quite well set up for handicapped guests.  I have only seen one of the rooms here, but there is elevator access to the various floors, and the hallways seem wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs.  The bathrooms are spacious enough, and the shower stalls offer a 1/2 door and access to the shower is easy for wheelchair guests to get in to.  My concern with their bathrooms, however, is that only having a 1/2 wall on the shower stall, the water gets everywhere in the bathroom, so anyone on crutches or using a cane or walker would have to be careful not to slip in the bathroom after anyone takes a shower.  But this is a brand new hotel, so maybe that’s something that they will work out in time.  If I were them, I’d have some concerns about liability with the way the showers have been designed, but with some minor adjustments, they could be made much safer for everyone – disabled or not.

Turning back to the airports though, here’s an example of something that I saw that highlighted exactly how difficult handicapped life in Africa can be.  I was in Addis Ababa’s Bole airport, waiting to get a flight to London.  My whole epic journey was the subject of another post, so I won’t get into my personal ups and downs on this trip now, but I would like to share the struggles of one of my fellow passengers.  When you enter the waiting area after checking in for your flight at Bole, they issue you a color coded loading zones boarding card.  You are supposed to be called in order of the seats in the plane – Blue zone might be the back of the plane and get called first.  Then Red zone for the middle of the plane and get called second.  You get the idea from there.  Anyway, after carefully assigning everyone color codes, when they actually call boarding, they disregard the color-code system and call everyone at once.  What that does is result in a bum’s rush of the door that presumably leads you to the plane.  During that bum’s rush for this flight, I noticed an older gentleman, seated in a wheelchair, looking a little lost as fellow passengers streamed past him towards the exit.  His eyes were wide, and he looked very alone.  I walked over to him and asked if he spoke English.  He did.  I asked if he was traveling alone.  He was.  I asked if the airline was supposed to be sending someone to assist him.  He said yes.  I looked around and saw no one.  I told him I would go check with the staff at the front and make sure someone was coming for him.  He looked at me with very grateful eyes and nodded his head.  I briefly thought about just helping him myself, but then I was worried about liability issues (though in Africa that probably wouldn’t be as much of an issue – I don’t think they’re as litigious in Ethiopia as they are in the US!) and taking responsibility for a stranger, so I just went to the desk, fighting the crowd to get there as I was going against the flow of traffic.  I got up there and confirmed that someone should have been going to offer the gentleman assistance, and I pointed out that it would’ve been better to assist him before calling the other passengers for boarding, as most airlines allow people requiring assistance to board first and avoid the rush, but obviously it was too late for that.  I went back to the gentleman and gave him a thumbs up letting him know that someone was coming.  He returned my thumbs up along with a hesitant smile, and I let myself get swept up by the flow of the crowd towards the exit and went on my way.  The crowd followed the turns of a hallway and came to an abrupt stop right before a turn.  As we turned the corner, I was surprised to see the people ahead of me lining a flight of stairs, their rolly suitcases dragging behind them, or their big shoulder bags threatening to knock over the people crowded next to them on the steps.  I didn’t see an escalator, but presumed that they would be taking my disabled friend downstairs by way of an elevator or something.


As I stood there, I heard people behind me saying ‘Excuse me! Excuse me!’, and I turned to see two Ethiopian airways employees pushing my new friend’s wheelchair right to the top of the stairs.  Then they asked him if he could walk down the stairs!  They got the crowd to give way just enough room for one employee to walk next to this elderly man as if the employee were a crutch or a cane as he was helped down the flight of stairs.  Of course, the crowd did their best to accommodate them, but being tightly packed in, there was only so much room they could make.  Then, the other Ethiopian Airways employee followed them with the chair, which he had folded, dragging at times in front of him, at times behind him.  His small frame and the size (and likely weight) of the chair didn’t really inspire confidence, and I think everyone around him was holding their breath hoping it wouldn’t slip from his hands and knock the old man down, while essentially bowling for other customers as it flew down the stairs.  I know I held my breath until all 3 were safely down the stairs, thankfully not having taken anyone down along the way.

Anyway, watching the difficulty that this man had just getting to the transit bus I admired the fact that he was traveling at all!  It can’t be easy for him, and it did make me wonder what had motivated his trip.  I should also explain that after the stairs, you get on a transit bus that brings you to the tarmac, where you walk a little ways and then climb stairs up into the plane – I didn’t see how he made the rest of the journey onto the plane, so I didn’t see if the bus was one of those hydraulic kneeling ones that make it easy for people with physical disabilities to climb aboard, or if there was a wheelchair assistance method to board the plane – I suspect they just found a bigger Ethiopian airlines employee to carry the gentleman up the stairs (in my mind, piggyback style).  I don’t think that age or disability should stop anyone from seeing other parts of the world.  I hope that maybe people will start to think about that a bit more, and more of an effort will be made to improve the handicapped accessibility level of other parts of the world.

Here’s a little US-pop-culture aside:  the popular US show Glee includes a singing and dancing wheelchair-bound student, Artie, in the glee club that is the focus of the show.  The character, whose disability was the result of a car accident when he was young, allows the show to explore the issue of challenges that the handicapped face in a way that makes it very easy for viewers of all ages to relate to.  Interestingly, the actor, Kevin McHale, who plays Artie, is not physically disabled, and had to become comfortable with being in a wheelchair for the role.  In one episode, called “Wheels” the whole glee club performs a musical number in wheelchairs and they become more aware of how hard life is for Artie, the need for wheelchair ramps in schools, and the isolation Artie sometimes feels due to simple things like not being able to take the same bus to competitions with his club-mates.  I highly recommend watching the episode for anyone who is interested in this issue – I think they handled it pretty well!  Here’s a clip of the cast of Glee, talking about doing a choreographed wheelchair routine and how hard it was to be in a wheelchair:

OK, well, that’s it for now.  Wishing you all safe, comfortable, and happy travels,

One response to “Handicapped accessible Africa? Not so much.

  1. Your style is so unique compared to othuer people I’ve read stuff from.

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