Wheelchair bound and in search of accessible public transport

After spending R300 on a taxi trip one afternoon, Palesa Manaleng decided to put public transport for wheelchair users to the test, in the city of Johannesburg.

I landed my first job interview two months after being discharged from hospital; I was 28 and in a wheelchair following four months of hospitalisation and rehab sessions; before that time I could walk but now I push around in a wheelchair. I was anxious and really wanting to start rebuilding my career.

It was a warm summer morning on April 2015 that I got the call to a follow-up interview. In the weeks leading up to the big day I had my outfit planned, as well as what I would say to impress my potential employees, but I had not figured out how I would reach my destination. My experience with public transport was still limited, but even at this early stage of being in a wheelchair, I knew that the options of getting to any destination cheaply, easily and in good time was limited.

On the day of the interview I decided on the easiest, yet most expensive transport option- calling a cab. I did not want to be frustrated on my way to a job interview nor did I wish to get lost in a wheelchair. The damage was R300 for a return trip.

When I got home I was upset at the money I had wasted on going to a job interview that may not yield positive results and on my way there I noticed the place was in an awkward place meaning I would struggle to get there on a daily basis had I gotten the job.

After my interview I decided to put the public transport system to the test by going to downtown Johannesburg on my own. In my mind a minibus taxi is, to put it quite simply, not an option. I dislocated my spine after an accident in 2014; leaving me paralyzed from my belly button down. This means my legs don’t move at all and I have poor balance sitting down, so in order to get into a minibus taxi someone has to lift me into the taxi and then fold my chair; I also have to pay for the space taken up by my wheelchair.

The taxi would need to have proper seats that didn’t fall all the way back when the driver drove off or stopped unexpectedly; and would preferably have a seat belt that would help hold me in place as we swerved between the busy lanes of notorious Johannesburg traffic. More importantly, and even harder to come by, the taxi would have to have a driver who wouldn’t curse at me for wasting his time and taking up precious seat space with my wheelchair.

I decided to skip the minibus taxi all together and settled instead for the Metro bus as the first mode of transport to test out. Besides, I still had a valid bus tag. I pushed uphill for about 1.5 km to the bus stop on Kingsway Road, and that’s where I hit my first obstacle. The bus stop itself is an island, and does not have a ramp. This means I had to wait for someone to help me onto the pavement, or take my chances with cars on the street. Eventually someone helped me onto the pavement; not ideal, but a reality for anyone in a wheelchair. When the bus finally arrived, there was no ramp. I had to be carried into the bus by two boys who were passing by on their way to school. Inside the bus there wasn’t a wheelchair-designated spot, the driver instructed me to lock my chair and grab hold of the yellow horizontal pole between him and me. Less than five minutes into our journey I had flipped backward when he braked unexpectedly, I was holding onto the pole and my chair was laying on its back. For the rest of the journey one of the male passengers stood behind me as a form of support; which could have been avoided had there been a spot for wheelchair users, as well as a seatbelt.

Despite the infuriating experience, the Metro bus is probably the best bet for a wheelchair user, as far as public transport by road goes. The Putco bus is just not an option, there are too many stairs and the entrance is narrow. Able-bodied passengers themselves look like squashed bugs against the windshield, there’s no way I would be able to fit into the narrow aisle with my wheelchair.

Another good option are the Rea Vaya buses, which are accessible and wheelchair friendly. Sometimes the seat belts don’t work, which means finding an able-bodied passenger to stand close to you in order to help you balance. There are two major problems with the Rea Vaya buses to keep in however, and it’s not just the steady uphill push to the station. It’s the fact that the stations are in the middle of very busy roads, the pavement is also not accessible and very often wheelchair users are required to push towards the station in the middle of the road facing oncoming traffic; this terrifying experience includes facing buses and trucks. As accessible as the Rea Vaya is, it does not reach half the places that Putco and the Metro buses reach either.

While the Gautrain is accessible, it is rather expensive and therefore only caters for the few who can afford it.

Despite the growth of the public transport system since 1994, there are still serious shortcomings that make getting around in a wheelchair more burdensome than it should be. The disabled do not only have to face issues like getting to the bus stops, with pavements making the task impossible without assistance, but also have to rely on able bodied passengers for extra support when the means of transportation lacks basic necessities like seat belts and space. We certainly have a long way to go.

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