Being Disabled (or Elderly) in the Majority World

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This weekend is the International Summit on Accessibility in Ottawa, Canada (hosted by Carleton University).  I’ll be presenting there on Monday about my experiences doing my research on products for people with disabilities to earn an income in Uganda.  Therefore, I decided to post a blog about  my experience with mobility and disability in some countries around the world.

I also recently watched a great TedTalk by Stella Young that I think people should watch.  Often when I tell people about my past hospitalization or disability they talk about how they’re proud, or other words that make you seem like a hero just because you were affected by something you didn’t choose.  Her talk explains what many people with disabilities think of this, and how you can change your mindset.

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Sidewalks

I have found that sidewalks are much more prevalent in some countries than others. For example, Ethiopia’s capital (Addis Abbaba) has lots of sidewalks, while nearby Uganda’s capital (Kampala) didn’t have any that I could see. Also, downtown urban areas are likely to have better paths than rural areas, or even areas slightly outside of the main city. Some governments have obviously made an attempt to remedy the situation, as you can find the “disabled wheelchair” icon literally stamped on sidewalks where a ramp is found (this picture was taken in Cusco, Peru, but I have also seen it in Cuernvaca, Mexico). These attempts might seem like a good start, but it seems that they are more of a band-aid solution, as opposed to a lasting societal improvement. Many times in a Mexico, one of these ramps would start about 20 metres before a super broken sidewalk with a giant whole, or a flight of stairs to get to another street. Making one sidewalk easy for anyone to get on, but unable to get off is quite silly, and can lead to no improved accessibility at all.

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In places like Uganda, there are often dirt roads,where people must walk on the shoulder. These are lined with open-pit sewar lines. Although these ditches serve a valuable purpose, they are quite dangerous and frustrating for anyone with a physical disability, children playing, or anyone at night (since there are no street lights).

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However, in place like Buenos Aires Argentina, I also noticed that there were exercise areas out on the street, which I think is a great idea.  Not only were they freely accessible to the public, they also had some specific to people in wheelchairs.  Although mobility is not the only type of disability, it is a good area to start the discussion.  Big cities like Lima were also the first places in a month where I noticed people walked down the street with guide-dogs, and many people in wheelchairs (not just 1 or 2 per city being pushed by relatives over the rough terrain).  There were also shops available to buy assistive devices.  I guess big cities are preferable to rural locations for a lot of reasons, but not everyone has a choice about where they live, especially when young or in poverty.

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Transportation

Most major transportation sources are accessible to those in wheelchairs or with other mobility aids. However, there is not always a way for people with disabilities to be treated equally in these situations. They are often not able to get themselves into or out-of these different planes, trains, and automobiles without assistance from others, due to a lack of accessibility considerations. This means that everyone must wait while someone carries them onto their assigned seat. Most planes in small airports use a wheeled staircase, and many buses in major urban centers barely stop long enough for the passengers to get in.

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Archaeological (and Other Ancient Sites)

I’m sort of conflicted about these types of locations. Archaeologists, researchers, and other scientists often try to preserve as much as possible about these locations (such as Machu Picchu in Peru or the Duomo in Florence, Italy). This means keeping the ancient steps, eve if they’re tiny, you have to duck, or if there is a great deal of physical exertion. As long as the steps are not going to fall apart they will likely remain the primary way to get to the top, which makes sense. However, how can these sites accommodate people with physical impairments? There are usually multiple options with differing levels of physical exertion. For example, you can take a 4-day hike to Machu Picchu, a 1-day hike, or simply take the train to the nearby town. You must then ascend a hill (which can generally be done by bus,unless there is a rock-slide and you have to take the stairs). Once at the top there are some areas with large easy to climb stairs and other areas with narrow stairs that would be scary for anyone with less balance, strength, or a fear of heights! Is the only solution to leave this as it is, or is it possible to make these locations increasingly accessible? Will adding ramps or elevators allow more people to enjoy the experience, or will it take away from the authenticity of the place? I’m not really sure… especially in places where there already isn’t enough money for reconstruction or any access to electricity on site, it seems prohibitively difficult. However, if I was in a wheelchair I would want the experience, and although I got the chance to see these wonders in my young and able years… I’m sure there are many other beautiful landmarks that I still want to visit when I’m 80 (yet might be unable to fully enjoy).

Concluding Thoughts

I have done a bit of travelling and noticed accessibility as an issue that I wanted to think more about.  As a child I was in hospital for many months, and thereafter confined to a wheelchair for awhile as well. This means that every time I think of these issues I can think of it from a gratitude perspective, where I’m grateful that I am able to do these activities that others are denied, and it makes me feel like I need to do (or at least say) something about it. However, I am not currently in a state of major impairment, I am not an expert on the field, and would welcome those who challenge my opinions or can offer new insights. Therefore, I welcome any additional thoughts in the comments section below.

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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