In the many years I have been navigating Kenyan markets and cities I've developed a mental database in my head that tells me what bars and restaurants I can get into and which ones have accessible toilets. If friends ask where is good and accessible in the CBD, or in most of the inner suburbs, I can generally offer at least a couple of useful suggestions.
And so, it really does burn my crumpets when previously accessible venues suddenly become inaccessible for no good reason.
I smile when I am asked by my sighted counterparts.
How did you know we have reached the building or a particular location?
This is because they assume that I have not adapted to the inaccessible world which never had persons with disabilities us in mind.
Earlier this week I found myself in the CBD with a couple of friends after planned catch up. We were in search of dinner and the usual access conversation ensued. We settled on a place I'd been perhaps a dozen times, and actually taken other persons with disabilities to. We sat down, asked for a food list and menus, and then I excused myself to pop to the loo.
Heading in the direction of an accessible toilet I've used many times before, a staff member stopped me in my tracks. he informed me that while there used to be a ramp on the way to the loo, it had been removed and there were now steps. Um, what?
Not to worry, he assures me, I can go next door.
this is a common practice in Kenyan public spaces. Well, we can go next door. The alternative is in fact two doors down, up two separate sets of steps with wheelchair lifts (both of which look like they could cark it at any moment) and behind another locked door - a door outside which the aforementioned staff member will wait while you were. Too bad if you need to do anything more time consuming, like check Twitter or reapply your lippy.
As annoyed as I was, I made polite conversation with the man who escorted me to the toilet. I doubt that the decision to remove the ramp was hiss. he only knew that it was removed because "drunk people in heels" had trouble navigating it and kept slipping over. he seemed genuinely confused about why it mattered to me whether I used the toilet in the venue or the one in a separate building I needed to be escorted to. Why, indeed.
The thing is: The ability to go to the toilet without asking someone else is a privilege. It's a privilege White cane and wheelchair users enjoy only when there's proper, independent access. It's a privilege we lose when venues use their accessible toilets to store the fridge that broke last week, or the over-ordered stock they don't have room to keep. We also lose that privilege when an establishment removes a ramp, rendering a previously accessible toilet off limits for us.
The privilege of just going somewhere else is one that we don't enjoy, because there simply aren't that many options. New friends are often shocked at the relatively small number of places with adequate access, and surprised that it isn't against the law to run an inaccessible venue. I briefly explain the inadequacies of the people with disability act 2003 - it is a complaint-based system where disabled people have to prove discrimination (so it's not actually "against the law" to deny access until someone complains), it's time consuming, and hardly ever yields satisfying results.
When your ask these questions, one is seen as a rebel.
This lack of even basic data on accessible toilets in any platform in Kenya and low-income nations puts persons with disabilities in precarious positions.
Moreover, my personal experience mirrors the culture shock which I still possess duet to the proper, clean, accessible public toilet experience I had in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney.
Back to my Kenyan experience, Then I offer a few accessible suggestions and hope like hell they don't decide hanging out with me is actually more trouble than it's worth. (As an aside, this is a particularly terrifying conversation to have on a date - no-one wants to be that high maintenance).
The truth is, I give much less of a shit (access permitting) whether persons who are yet to be disabled people use accessible toilets or not. In a world where everyone is polite and considerate, we'd all think of others before ourselves. We don't live in that world, and so I accept that persons who are yet to be disabled people will occupy accessible toilets and parking spaces from time to time. But I'd much rather wait outside an accessible toilet while a person who is yet to be disabled uses it than have to ask permission and be accompanied to another building. Or use the ladies with the door open. Or give myself kidney stones - I've had them three times - restricting my fluid intake and holding on.
Sometimes I just want to go out for dinner with my friends and go to the loo without stressing about it and without having to complain to staff, write emails and consider an inevitably ineffective persons with disability act complaint. I want to go to parties without the nagging anxiety that my access requirements will mean I have to bail early. I want to accept invitations without interrogating my friends.
Physical access is one of the very first issues disability rights activists of the 1960s and '70s fought for. The fact that we're still having the same conversations so many years later is disheartening. Particularly when there are so many other issues to address - like the alarming statistics surrounding violence against women with disabilities, or the astronomical rates of unemployment among persons with disabilities.
If I wanted to talk about toilets all day, I'd have been a plumber.
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The views expressed here are for the author and do not represent any agency or organization.
Mugambi Paul is a public policy, diversity, inclusion and sustainability expert.
Australian Chief Minister Award winner
“Excellence of making inclusion happen”