My dad has been a using a wheelchair practically all my life – since I was one-year-old – so that’s all I’ve ever known.
When I was growing up, I guess I never really thought about it. In my mind, my dad was still my dad. We still got to do all the normal, fun stuff that other people did with their dads. We played basketball, we watched movies, we went on holidays, we learned to play the guitar, he taught me how to cook chicken. Of course sometimes we had to improvise, but other than that it was a very normal childhood. I would like to say that the only limit to how much fun we could have was our imagination, but we were lucky that we could afford to do the things we did. Sometimes though, we could not work around the complete inaccessibility of our environment.
In primary school Sports Day was easily the best event in the school year. The cheering, the colours, the makeup, and – for those who were athletic – participating in the races. I was one of those athletic ones, so was my sister. The rush of adrenaline I got from participating in a race was unparalleled. Our passion for sports is something my sister and I share with our dad. Both of our parents encouraged us to participate in sports growing up, but it is with dad that we spent hours watching sports – football, rugby, tennis, athletics… you name it! So it was really disappointing that the first time dad attended a sports day was when we were in class eight, our last year of primary school. For seven years, he had been unable to access the field, because there was no ramp.
This is not the only time we have been unable to do something as a family because dad couldn’t access the environment, but it is one of the memories at the forefront of my mind.
I cannot excuse public spaces for being unfriendly. I can tolerate older buildings and establishments to some level, but I cannot wrap my head around the newer restaurants, offices, and other such places that are still not making any steps towards making their spaces accessible. For your space to be accessible, it should be easy for persons with disability to navigate it with little to no aid. We get to move on with our lives independently, why shouldn’t it be the same for them?
Sometimes people are not aware as to how inaccessible their environments actually are. This is because you are able to move around and navigate your space without much thought. While those two steps may mean nothing to you, they are the difference between whether someone on a wheelchair can move from one room to another, or even get into a building in the first place. People often don’t think about it until they, for some reason, are suddenly unable to access these spaces, or they are accompanied by someone who can’t. I guess in some aspects I have been lucky to have grown up in such an environment as I have become sensitive to accessibility in the spaces i access.
While it is important for people to educate themselves on these things, it is also important for those of us who are aware to help teach our friends and family. I know lots of my friends, and other people that my family interact with, have become increasingly aware of these things. We talk about it constantly, even in the absence of our dad. We go to a restaurant for a meal and comment on how we can’t come here with dad because of the narrow door, or because of that extra step right there… Nowadays I’ve had friends talking about a public space they have accessed and they remember to point out how it does in terms of accessibility. Constantly having these conversations means we have been able to influence others to think about it as well. That’s what we need to do. By persistently talking about it, it becomes normalised for others.
While it is important to talk about these issues among our peers, it is even more important to let establishments know how they’re doing on these issues. When I was younger, my mum would always do this work. My mum is one of the most amicable, pacific people I know, but she never shies away from speaking out about the injustice of inaccessibility. I have many, many, many memories of us going somewhere and her asking to speak to the manager about one issue or another. I have never been a confrontational person. At the first sign of conflict, I often turn and run. When I was younger, I would always wish the earth would just swallow me whenever Mum spoke up on these things. Now that I am older, I get it. While I am still terrified of confrontation, I have become – and am becoming – increasingly better at speaking up, speaking out, and following up on these issues. I ask to speak to managers and owners, I send emails. I am not afraid to boycott places or even take to social media if I have to. No matter what I do, I refuse to be silent.
On March 1 we marked International Wheelchair Day. I looked through dozens of posts online and read amazing stories of people achieving great things and leading normal lives despite the negative or discouraging things people have said to them about being on a wheelchair. We constantly say that disability is not inability. Persons with disabilities are determined to live their lives to the full despite being on a wheelchair. Let us ensure that we enable them to live their best lives independently by making all spaces as friendly and accessible as possible. Let us not wait for it to be our turn, or the turn of a loved, in order to make some change. Let us not make another father wait eight years just to be able to see his daughters run a race and cheer them on.
If there is no limit as to what I can do and where I can go, the same should hold true for persons with disabilities. If my space is everywhere, theirs should be too.
By Sophia Nasimiyu