Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Fighting for her rights

From The Times of Malta:

An 18-year-old girl is fighting for her right to access clothes shops, restaurants and cinemas with her wheelchair as she is determined to lead the same kind of life as any other teenager.

"Like others, I enjoy shopping and going out with friends. However, most of the time I end up disappointed when I realise I can't enter the premises because the only way in is by going up steps. I feel this lack of access is shameful and erodes my rights," Roberta Magri said.

A few days ago she had to give up watching a film at the Eden Century cinemas in Paceville because it was being shown in a theatre that was not suitable for wheelchair users.

The experience was the last straw for the teenager. When she got home, disappointed and angered, she wrote a letter to the Prime Minister expressing her frustration in the name of all wheelchair users.

Ms Magri has had enough of going to stores or cafes and having to turn back or wait outside because there is no ramp or it is too steep. She is also tired of trying to manoeuvre her way through bumpy pavements that force her onto the road, often pitted with potholes.

She is asking the authorities to take the issue of accessibility seriously as it is turning the lives of wheelchair users into a hectic obstacle race.

Speaking at her home in Ibrag, Ms Magri said that before going to the cinema she had phoned and was assured that the film she wanted to watch was accessible to her - only to be disappointed when she turned up. She was told she would have to get up from the wheelchair if she wanted to see the film there and a staff member offered to help her out. When she asked to stay by the door, she was not allowed due to safety regulations.

Nine of Eden's 17 cinemas are not accessible to wheelchair users. The ones that are accessible are located in the new part of the complex, which was built after the Equal Opportunities Act came into force in 2000. But Ms Magri insisted: "Don't I have the right to watch a film in a cinema because I am in a wheelchair? Do I have to be constrained as to which films I choose?"

The young woman stressed she would not allow her disability to take over her life.

"People often complain and don't do anything about it. I decided to try and do something, so I wrote this letter... I hope that it will not fall on deaf ears."

The chairman of the National Commission for People with a Disability, Joseph Camilleri, said the letter had been forwarded to him by the Prime Minister's office and the commission would be looking into Ms Magri's complaints.

The issue will be discussed during a meeting of the commission's legal unit tomorrow. However, he explained that buildings built before the Act came into force were not bound to ensure wheelchair access.Mr Camilleri added that, according to an agreement with the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, the commission was to vet buildings "of major use" for accessibility.

However, he said, not all plans were forwarded to the commission for vetting. Also, due to a lack of resources, the commission was not always able to ensure that buildings were built according to the approved plan.

Ms Magri's cry to developers is to keep people like her in mind: "These occurrences can have a negative mental impact on an individual... Without wanting to, you feel different despite the fact that you try to lead a normal life," she said.