Disabled persons’ agony of criss-crossing city roads

Wednesday, 06 March 2013 15:07 Written by  Alon Mwesigwa

It’s 6pm and boda bodas are racing at break-neck speed along Jinja road roundabout – each hustling to get a hold on a passenger. Meanwhile, taxis are hooting endlessly, calling on commuters to board.

“Nakawa, Spear, Bweyogerere…,” yells a taxi tout.

A few metres from the road, sits Ronald Ogwang staring oddly at the criss crossing vehicles. He is waiting for a taxi heading to the Kampala suburb of Kataza in Bugolobi. While Ogwang, who is physically handicapped, wants a taxi home, he can’t get closer to the road to stop it. He has to ask a well-wisher to help him stop the taxi. This, however, doesn’t guarantee he will get a vehicle to take him right away.

“When they stop and see me crawling, many of them just drive off; others take me,” Ogwang says.

That’s not the worst. He says it’s hell when he tries, for instance, to cross on Kampala road. He has adapted to hiring a boda boda cyclist to help him cross at a fee of Shs 1, 000.
“I can’t cross here. I have to hire someone to help me cross,” he says.

Ogwang, 19, was hit by polio when he was a child – all his legs are lame. He works as a cobbler on Kampala road. Although he has been in town for the last three years, he confesses that using the city roads is still a nightmare for him. And he is not alone. Millions of persons with disabilities (PWDs) find it tedious to traverse Uganda’s roads. This has not only limited their mobility, but has also denied them opportunities to work in distant places.

For those who must move, they rely on their wheelchairs, but at the risk of being knocked. Others rely on lifts from well-wishers to reach their workplaces. Yusuf Tabu, 52, also physically handicapped, works half a kilometre from his home in the western district of Ibanda. With no wheelchair, he crawls a few metres to the main road, where he requests bicycle riders to drop him to his workplace.

“I know some of these people complain that I disturb them, but I have no option,” Tabu says.

Tabu says even if he had a wheelchair, he would not be able to use it, as there are no designated walkways to avoid getting knocked. All this points to one fact: our roads are not designed to accommodate PWDs. Roads here have no walk lanes, some have manholes and most users do not recognise PWDs as road users. Yet the 2008 roads’ policy statement for the PWDs and the elderly persons demands that government eliminates all obstacles to mobility for PWDs on roads.

It points out that the current road design standards and the specifications don’t adequately cater for PWDs and the elderly. In section 4, the policy shows that most urban areas lack ramps and slabs to be used by PWDs and elderly people (EPs) on wheelchairs to access the road. In section 4.1.2, the policy notes that the few walkways already in place are in urban areas and are used improperly, leaving PWDs exposed.

“The pedestrian walkways are shared with cyclists and hawkers. The mix of traffic and business on the walkways exposes the PWDs to the risk of accidents,” notes the policy.
The policy, in section 4.1.4, points out the lack of appropriate road signs.

“There are no appropriate road signs to enable PWDs and EPs to cross the roads.”
“The complete absence of road signs in some cases makes it difficult for PWDs and EPs to conveniently use the roads, especially the deaf persons who [largely depend] on sight,” notes the policy.

“Even the available road signs are not legible, neat and can’t easily be identified by the PWD and EP.”

According to Esther Kyozira, the programmes coordinator  for the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu), says PWDs’ mobility has been affected by poor roads.
Depending on the different kinds of disability, most PWDs have had their share of poor transport, especially of roads, and negative attitude of other passengers who feel they can’t travel with a disabled person in one vehicle, Kyozira argues.

“Even where there are zebra crossings, they aren’t user friendly. There is no one to help [PWDs] cross [the road],” says Kyozira. “Even the traffic [officer] is not there to help.”
All these are contrary to the provisions of the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities. State parties, Uganda inclusive, are supposed to realise these demands.

Article 9 of the convention provides that helping PWDs move at ease will help them live independently and enjoy their lives fully. Article 9(1) states that “To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, the physical environment, and transportation…

“The measures, which shall include the identification and elimination of obstacles and barriers to accessibility, shall apply to, inter alia,  buildings, roads, transportation and other indoor and outdoor facilities, including schools, housing, medical facilities and workplaces…”

Article 20 echoes the issue of personal mobility with greatest independence of PWDs. Article 20(a) says the measures shall include, “Facilitating the personal mobility of persons with disabilities in the manner and at the time of their choice, and at affordable cost”.

This means that a country must ensure zebra crossings are on the roads, put clear road signs as well as walking lanes for those who use wheelchairs. However, in Uganda, even the few lanes which are there are full of manholes and can’t allow PWDs to move conveniently.

Ministry on track

The minister of Works and Transport, Abraham Byandala admits that all is not well, but does not believe his ministry can do much.

“Yes we sympathize with [PWDs]. They go through a lot of pain. And my ministry is trying hard to ensure their mobility is made easier.”  
To Byandala, the issue of confusion in the city is up to the police enforcers to ensure order for the convenience of the PWDs.

Indeed, a traffic police officer, only identified as Mugisha, says they are always there if any disabled person needs help.
“We [traffic officers] are many and in every corner. We also have [traffic] guides on the road, they can also help,” he says.

“It is very difficult to find a distance of 200m without a police officer. If I am on duty, I happen to see a disabled person, it is [my] duty to help them.”
On manholes, Byandala said, “At the national level, we have very few manholes. But in Kampala and other urban centres, it’s a big problem.”


Byandala says while his ministry would be willing to do anything to ease the mobility of PWDs, they are constrained by one thing: limited funds.

“All those [walking] lanes you are talking about, we would love to have them on our roads, but our budget limits us,” he says.
But Joseph Mbulamwana, the advocacy coordinator for the Uganda National Association of the Deaf (UNAD), says government should come out and implement what it puts on paper.

“If you look at all these polices – the Access to the Road Act, the Traffic and Road Safety Act, and then the 2008 roads policy; all are good, but what’s on the ground?” wonders Mbulamwana.

“Government must come out of her slumber and implement these policies.”

Perhaps if government wakes up, Ogwang and Tabu will move freely and conveniently as they run their errands.

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This Observer feature was prepared with support from the National Union of Disabled  Persons of Uganda (Nudipu)

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The Observer