Sunday, 2 May 2010

Polished Apartheid

Discrimination with style.


Maybe I should wait a while to calm down before posting this. The following may get deleted, as my blood pressure drops.

I thought that every (volcanic) cloud has a silver lining… Well I was wrong. What I should have realised is that I always get the shitty end of the stick again.

A good friend is in the international tourism business. He had arranged for a whole trip (for a BMW promotion) to fly a group out from Germany, and show them around South Africa, prior to the World Cup. One of the "highlights" of the trip was to have been a trip on the famous Blue Train, from Cape Town to Pretoria. But the flight restrictions meant that they could not fly out… So this friend had to cancel what he could, but he could not cancel the train, as he had booked out the whole train. So he contacted all his friends, offering us a trip on the Blue Train at a really good price (normally the trip from Cape Town to Pretoria is over R10,000 per person).

So, as it is my birthday coming up, and my wife felt that we deserved a break after a really hectic few months, we joined the trip. Now, our friend obviously knows that I am a wheelchair user, and double checked with the Blue Train management that the train was accessible. We were informed that the whole train is fully accessible, and that there is a specific cabin for wheelchair users. So we booked…and paid several thousand Rand over. We also booked return flights, and then last night, took my car to the airport, so we would be able to get home again when we flew back on Sunday night. We were really excited about the trip; the Blue Train is famous all around the world, and having the whole train full of our friends promised to be a once in a lifetime experience…

So this early this morning, we were collected by the minibus we organised, and drove through to Cape Town Station. We were greeted in the Blue Train lounge with champagne and bucks fizz, and checked in. Our wheelchair accessible cabin was booked… So we caught up with all our friends, and excitedly discussed the trip ahead. Then we were called to the train…

I began to get a sinking feeling with the way that the staff were treating me. Each of them trying to push me, even though I each time told them that I prefer to roll myself…and have no handles on my wheelchair for that reason. So we get taken to the train, and the feeling sank a bit further when the doorway into the train was a typical narrow door.

    "Can you walk a few steps?" Hmmm…sink a bit more…

    "No, I am sorry, I cannot walk or even stand at all"

    "oh…." Sinking fast now.

They then 'find' the train's wheelchair, which is a bit narrower than my own wheelchair, and inform me that I will have to use that. OK…even though I am much more comfortable in my own wheelchair, and the wheelchair they offer is certainly not in keeping with the 5 star plushness of the rest of the train; it looks a really tatty old thing. The baggage trolleys look much smarter!

But even that narrow wheelchair cannot fit through the door... They all scratch their heads for a while…delaying the train. Friends begin to come out of their cabins to see what the problem is. Some of them offer well meaning, but useless advice… I am really sinking fast now… No ramp, no way in… And the departure time has now been passed. So…against my wife's advice, I bum shuffle onto the train, and lift myself into their narrow wheelchair. OK, at least I am on now…and hopefully the crowd will dissipate.

So I roll down the narrow corridor (there is no way my wheelchair would fit), thinking that it is pretty stupid to have the wheelchair accessible cabin so far from the dining car & bar… The smoking lounge is also at the opposite end of the train…never mind… So I decided to check the "accessible cabin".

Now remember that this costs over R10,000 per person, and I could have been a traveller from Europe for this experience. Surely the cabin will be fantastic, to make up for this… But that sinking feeling is still with me, and going down, as I graze my knuckles down the corridor… I get to the cabin, but I cannot manoeuvre the tiny wheelchair through the door… It is impossible…

Oh, no, this is getting worse!

So my 'butler' lifts the wheelchair across and into the cabin…but I still can't get in. I am stuck in the doorway, as the furniture inside (the specific wheelchair cabin) means that a wheelchair cannot get in. So I am lifted out of the room again. Still the train has not moved, and I warn the manager not to let it leave until we have this sorted… The furniture is then lifted out of the room…and I am lifted back in… But then I try to get into the one suite bathroom, and no way. The door from the "wheelchair accessible" cabin into its "wheelchair accessible" bathroom is too narrow to fit a wheelchair through.

At this stage there are tears rolling down my wife's face… I am feeling shit, for again being the reason for spoiling another nice weekend… This is not going to work… So I decide to get off… If I cannot go to the toilet, get into bed, and have to be assisted in and out of my room, I am not going to be good company for this weekend. My wife wants to get off with me, but, through her tears, I convince her to stay on, and to enjoy the weekend with our friends. The staff look on hopeless… The manager is getting increasingly irate calls asking why the train is delayed… They all look suitably embarrassed. I am keeping my increasing anger under control. Several friends come along, and try to remonstrate with the staff, but I point out it is not their fault, and I do not want to spoil all their weekends… So I reverse down the corridor, and bum shuffle off the train, back into my wheelchair… The crowd has reformed, and while keeping my anger under control, I squirm in their collective sympathetic looks and comments. They all mean well, but I just need to get out of here.
The train manager assures me that someone will come to collect me, and they will arrange for a taxi to take me to the airport to collect my car. I kiss my wife, and tell her to enjoy the trip…while she wishes me a happy birthday… Our other friends look on helpless…

The doors close, and the train pulls out of the station…

But no one comes, as expected… So I make my own way back to the lounge. There is only the receptionist there…everyone else has gone. She then phones to ask for a taxi to the airport, and I decide to leave before I say or do something that I may later regret. Having to pay (R200) for my own taxi did not help my mood… I think the taxi driver could sense there was something wrong…as I was not able to enter a conversation with him… Angry that we were all given false information… Angry that a world recognised icon of South African tourism is not accessible… Angry that I have left a bad taste of the weekend with my friends… Angry that I cannot enjoy this special adventure… Angry that it has upset my wife… Angry that I can't enjoy my birthday surprise… Angry that the management compounded their mistakes by not following through, and leaving me to pay for the taxi… Angry that the situation has embarrassed my friend who organised the trip…. Angry that I was put in the situation where all my friends could see my predicament, and angry that they are all feeling sorry for me now… Angry that I have hurt my shoulders & skinned my knuckles more getting into and out of, and around an inaccessible train… Angry that a 5 star luxurious facility has absolutely no idea of how to deal with people with disabilities… Angry that I have been discriminated against directly because of my disability… Angry that I am missing out on a once in a lifetime experience… Angry that something as well known as the Blue Train all around the world is blatantly breaking South African laws, and ignorant of the responsibilities it has under our constitution…. Angry not only that they are inaccessible, but that they claim to be accessible, which makes it worse...

Really angry…

I shall calm down slowly over the weekend at home alone… Next week I shall write them a long letter, explaining where they went wrong, and how they need my company's services to ensure that they comply with their responsibilities as a South African company. But not just yet. I am too angry. I have been excluded from joining my friends for a wonderful weekend, because of my disability. This is the same (in the eyes of the law) as kicking me off, because I have the wrong colour skin. Let no one tell you that we have got rid of Apartheid in South Africa. I got a dose of it today. I know how it feels to be excluded, discriminated against. Sod "Previously" disadvantaged individuals, how about trying to fix things for "Currently" disadvantaged individuals??

Just had a phone call from a tearful wife… She tells me that the friend who has organised the trip is feeling really awful, as are a number of our friends… There was talk apparently of them all getting off the train in support of me, but my wife pleaded with them not to do that, as it would only make me feel worse…

I need to go and kill something now...

3 comments:

Skard said...

this is terrible glad you wrote about it, sorry that you have to go through these things though.

Guy said...

Thanks Skard; yes, it was a pretty miserable experience all in all...

Guy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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