Supporting role

Supporting role

Thousands of people use commuter buses every day, including the disabled – if they can. The manner in which the needs of those with disabilities are met differs from country to country. GAVIN MYERS looks at the trends, as well as the obligations and opportunities that exist in this area locally

When we think of the disabled, we often visualise someone in a wheelchair or on crutches – but that’s a slightly narrow view.

A disability can be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental, or a combination of these. According to the World Health Organisation, “disabilities” is an umbrella term covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions, where: “An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”

It’s the last sentence that is relevant here, because it’s a person’s interaction with the world around them that is ultimately affected. How do the disabled communicate effectively, where the rest of us are easily able to type an e-mail, read a sign, or even speak clearly? How are simple daily tasks that the rest of us take for granted accomplished when one can’t walk, see or hear? How does the average disabled person get around town?

There are companies that specially adapt vehicles to individual requirements, but what if public transport is the only option?

Supporting roleIn some countries, this is not a problem as regulation makes provision for the disabled. In the United Kingdom, for example, The Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations of 2000 require all new bus and coach public transport vehicles to be accessible to disabled people, including wheelchair users. All buses need to be compliant by 2015 or 2017 depending on size, and coaches used on scheduled services by 2020. In London, all buses are already wheelchair accessible, as are taxis.

The QuadPara Association of South Africa (QASA) is a member of the South African Disability Alliance (SADA) and has a mandate from the alliance to deal with issues of access for people with disabilities. These two organisations, together with the National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities in South Africa, represent the disabled on the Department of Transport’s task team for accessible transport. This task team has been instrumental in, among other things, liaising with the 12 cities that are implementing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems and is responsible for ensuring that the Gautrain is accessible to the disabled.

Various public transport entities have also realised the importance of the matter. In 2002, commuter bus service provider PUTCO began building special-access buses – designed and operated in consultation with organisations for people with disabilities.

A loading platform is used to allow those in wheelchairs to access and exit these vehicles. Once inside, wheelchairs are secured to the floor structure using load binders. There is also special seating, seat belts are provided on all seats, and additional wheelchair storage areas are provided. In addition, coded hand rails and bell finishes have been fitted to assist the visually impaired.

PUTCO has six of these buses, with three in operation in Johannesburg and three in service between Pretoria and Mpumalanga. The crews of all six have been specially trained to assist passengers. The buses are built by Dubigeon Body and Coach in Brits, which also manufactures and converts commuter and semi-luxury buses for disabled access.

A concept that’s very popular overseas is that of exclusive public transport for people with disabilities. A local version of this – Dial-a-Ride – offers a pick-up and drop-off service to wheelchair-bound people in specially adapted vehicles (generally light or medium mini-buses). The vehicles are manned by trained staff and used to transport passengers to destinations on mainstream routes. Passengers must register for the service and make bookings when needed.

As far as can be established, this service is currently only running in Durban and Cape Town, and forms part of the public transport services provided by these cities. The services are therefore funded in part by local councils, so the cost is on par with that of mainstream public transport. According to the City of Cape Town, such systems are “a bridging measure until mainstream public transport becomes universally accessible”.

Is this “universally accessible” public transport likely to become a reality anytime soon? The National Land Transport Act of 2009 says the Minister of Transport makes regulations relating to, among others, “requirements and time-frames for vehicles and facilities to be made accessible to persons with disabilities, including principles for accommodating such persons in the public transport system”.

Unfortunately, no such legislation since the publication of the Act in 2009 can be found.

There’s no question that mainstream public transport needs to be universally accessible, as it is in other countries where legislation has specifically made provision for it.

Considering South Africa’s geography and demographics, it is particularly vital in this country. In fact, with access to private transport reserved to a limited few, and suitable public transport denied to many of those who have disabilities, it’s unconstitutional.

The Department of Transport has a mandate to provide public transport suitable for use by those with disabilities. It’s not enough for government to simply purchase and maintain vehicles. These vehicles must be made accessible for those who need more support and assistance when commuting. This is a fact – and it presents the industry with an as-yet insufficiently tapped business opportunity.

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