In Eritrea, one of the most popular modes of transportation for citizens is the public bus. Since the country won its independence in 1991, public bus transportation services in Eritrea have rapidly grown and improved significantly: there are more buses on the roads and more routes, regions, and people are being served.
Positively for users, the cost of a bus ride is also cheap. Every single day throughout the country, thousands of Eritreans rely on the public bus service to get to school, to work, and to conduct various other activities. However, despite the considerable progress and noticeable improvements, there is one important segment of the country’s population that is unable to make full use of public bus services and is thus being left behind: the disabled community.
Today, many people with disabilities in our country are faced with significant barriers to using public bus transportation services. For example, many individuals with disabilities who rely on wheelchairs are unable to enter public buses because the country’s fleet of public buses lack low-floors and do not have foldout ramps. Moreover, public buses are often heavily crowded with passengers and they thus lack the space to accommodate disabled passengers who utilize wheelchairs (generally, public buses do not have foldout seats). Additionally, since there are no wheel clamps or belts on buses, wheelchairs cannot be secured during travel, thus posing a safety hazard and discouraging those in wheelchairs from riding buses. It should also be noted that for many individuals with disabilities, the costs associated with purchasing a car or regularly utilizing a taxi are prohibitive.
Overall, the significant challenges they face in accessing public transportation hinders individuals with disabilities from fully participating in society. Unfortunately, for those who are disabled, the lack of access to public transportation means that employment, health care, education, leisure or recreation, and other aspects of everyday life are often out of reach or a great struggle. Thus, although Eritrea has exerted great efforts and made significant progress in improving public transportation services and ensuring equality and social justice for its citizens, there is still much work left to be done.
For starters, local policymakers and authorities can explore a number of different measures to make public transportation more accessible and convenient for persons with disabilities. For example, one possible step is to invest in accessible vans, buses or small buses, or taxis and to provide specialized transport services. Such transportation programs, which generally are referred to as “paratransit”, supplement larger public transportation systems and they provide specialized transportation services as needed for those who cannot use available mass transit. Notably, they are a regular part of public transportation systems in cities around the world and they have positively impacted the lives of millions of people globally.
It should go without saying that such a program would require that drivers for paratransit services receive special training to ensure that they are sensitive to the needs of passengers with disabilities (e.g. the mechanics of how to board and secure persons using wheelchairs, safe driving, etc.). Of course, there are other possible steps that could be explored by policymakers to improve accessibility and mobility for people living with disabilities, including the development of curb ramps on more street corners, the construction of ramps to public buildings, larger doorways and reserved seating locations in public areas, and the establishment of priority parking spaces.
The importance of improving access to public transportation for people living with disabilities should not be overlooked or casually dismissed. First, and probably foremost, access to transportation and mobility are fundamental aspects of human and civil rights. For example, the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in particular, provides that: “States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, […] to transport” (Article 9). Quite simply, individuals with disabilities are a key part of our society and they deserve the same rights, services, and opportunities as all other citizens.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that an individual’s access to or realization of many civic or human rights may often be conditioned by or directly related to their access to safe and reliable transportation (e.g. realizing the right to education is predicated upon being able to get to school).
In addition to the above, the lack of access to transportation and various other mobility constraints are an important issue because they are major obstacles to disability-inclusive development. According to the World Bank and a number of other regional and global development organizations, the lack of access to transportation can exacerbate the economic, social, and personal isolation of persons with disabilities and tends to push them (further) into poverty. Notably, the situation of people with disabilities being “left out” due to a lack of access to transportation leads to significant costs for communities and nation-states.
For instance, when people with disabilities are immobile and remain at home, they are kept out of jobs, away from shopping, and out of community life, and also prevented from making valuable contributions to communities and society as individuals, as workers, as consumers, and as taxpayers. Importantly, in the process of improving access to transportation for persons with disabilities, numerous other segments of the population will also greatly benefit. For example, the provision of a lift or ramp to board a public bus is not only beneficial for wheelchair users, it can also be helpful for people dealing with temporary physical impairments, elderly people who cannot climb stairs safely, or a parent pushing their child in a stroller.
As a final point, it is critical for us all to pause to consider just who so many of the people in our society facing challenges to accessing transportation actually are. Only a few seconds of consideration will reveal that a large number of the people living with disabilities in our society are war veterans. They are individuals who, without hesitation, accepted the call of duty and fearlessly responded during the critical periods in our history. They sacrificed so much to ensure our nation’s freedom, sovereignty, and independence. However, many of them now face a daily struggle in the process of conducting basic activities. Championing their cause is only right and expanding services to support their mobility, help them to maintain their independence, and allow them to retain their dignity, is really the least that we can do.