Wheelchair Ramps as Metaphor

Here’s a simplified history of Turkey since the Tanzimât era:  Someone in a position of power had a look at the West and concluded that there might be something of value to learn from it. Admiring Practice X and thinking “Practice X must be the key,” the reformer imposed Practice X upon a bewildered populace, if necessary by force, with mixed results.  

That explanation should alert the wary to the danger of trying to simplify Turkish history, since there was no such thing as Turkey in the Tanzimât era, but those who want more detail can go to a library.

I went for a walk last night with a Turkish friend who has spent enough time in the United States that his Westernization is probably as advanced as my Turkification.  (For example, his expectations of punctuality appear to be higher than mine–I’ve pretty much completely given up.)

As we walked past a particularly lovely little mosque on the Golden Horn, he took a look at the newly-constructed wheelchair ramp outside of it and practically had a hemorrhage. It’s a ramp, to be sure, and there’s a proud sign indicating that it’s intended for wheelchair use, but anyone who has ever given a moment’s thought to “getting a wheelchair safely down a ramp” can see that something’s not right: it’s too narrow; there are no rails; and were you to lose control of the wheelchair–assume any disability that leaves one with less fine motor control than a Cirque de Soleil trapeze artist–you’d end up toppling off the ramp and falling about six feet on to the very hard stairs. 

I considered it, and said, “Yes, but it’s definitely better than the alternative.” The alternative was the staircase, which would be impossible to get down, not just “risky.” With the ramp you at least had fighting odds.

“No,” he said with annoyance, “It’s not. Because at least someone in a wheelchair would know better than to try to roll it down the stairs.”

I said that I reckoned someone in a wheelchair would still know better. The ramp was, I proposed, an improvement in so far as someone in a wheelchair, if accompanied by someone who could help them navigate the ramp, would have an easier time getting down the ramp than the staircase. To which he replied (I paraphrase) that the larger point of wheelchair accessibility is to allow someone in a wheelchair to have an independent life, and if you’re going to build the damned ramp, obviously at no inconsiderable cost, why not do it right? In other words, why not consult what is obviously a large literature on building wheelchair-accessible ramps; and why not ask people in wheelchairs, “Would this design be helpful to you?” Why not just apply some common sense?

His infuriated judgment was that the people building the ramp didn’t actually care whether it served its purpose. Some edict had come down from on high that now everything they built was supposed to be “wheelchair accessible.” They mindlessly complied. 

Indeed, this seems quite plausible: 

Having set up a special Barrier Free Tourism for All committee, TURSAB is participating in international fairs and workshops organized for disabled persons, at which it distributed copies of the “Barrier Free İstanbul for All” booklet. TURSAB Chairman Başaran Ulusoy pointed out in a statement from the union, “These efforts to open up Turkish tourism for disabled persons will not only reach a huge market, but will also fulfill Turkey’s social responsibility toward disabled persons.”

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Interior Ministry sent out warning notices in January drawing attention to recent legislation ruling that all facilities, sidewalks and social and cultural infrastructure must comply with the needs of the disabled persons within seven years.

Those doing the building probably thought, “This is ridiculous, what are they on about, this is just another dumb bureaucratic thing we have to comply with, but what choice do we have.” Voilà, the wheelchair death-slide. 

His argument: Better not to change the law at all than to pass cosmetic laws that encourage disabled people to break their necks. There was an old system in place that basically worked: They knew better than to try to go down those stairs. You can’t just impose this stuff from the top down and have any hope of it working.

My argument: I doubt anyone in a wheelchair in Istanbul is unable properly to assess the hazards of this. Given that it’s probably safe enough if you have someone to help you get down the ramp, it’s better than no ramp at all. I think if I were in a wheelchair I’d consider this an improvement, if not perfection.

His argument: But it’s just so stupid! Why not do it right in the first place? 

(I’m representing this as “his argument versus my argument,” but in fact we were both pretty confused by this and we both took both sides of the argument.)

My question: Assume you’re a Turkish official who is either genuinely inspired by the idea of fulfilling social responsibility to the disabled or genuinely inspired by the idea of generating tourist revenue, both of which are, as far as I’m concerned, noble ideals that should inspire us all.  Do you sit there and wait until everyone in Turkey understands these ideals, from the ground up–and you will be waiting a long time–or do you issue these edicts in the knowledge that they’ll be very imperfectly applied, but could well do more good than harm? 

  1. Gaby Charing

    Non-metaphorically, this connects with the fact that Turkish buildings seem to fall down at the slightest tremor. Building regulations, do they have them? If so, the regulations should incorporate specifications for wheelchair ramps. Which would be ignored, of course … but might occasionally be enforced, as with the 5-star hotel in Sultanahmet which has been pulled down (did no one notice it was going up?).

    I think your friend is right, though: might as well do it properly or not at all. If I were a wheelchair user, I think I’d be livid.

  2. Nick Stuart

    Having used a wheelchair to augment crutches for getting around for a couple months while a broken foot healed I concluded that “facilities that are wheelchair accessible frequently aren’t”

    The US has more than it’s share of 60° curb cuts and similar snares for unwary wheelchair users. Don’t get me started on accomodations for the blind.

    Sounds like a step in the right direction, but it will probably be a long, long time before the savvy wheelchair user feels confident going out alone in Istanbul, just like I would imagine wheelchair users anywhere.

  3. Israel P.

    So Mitt is the imperfect ramp that we are supposed to settle for,  since there is no one likely to actually build it right?

  4. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Gaby Charing: Non-metaphorically, this connects with the fact that Turkish buildings seem to fall down at the slightest tremor. Building regulations, do they have them? 

    Of course they do–the building code is one of the toughest and most advanced in the world, where seismic safety is concerned. Were it enforced, Turkey would be in great shape. 

  5. genferei
    Gaby Charing: the regulations should incorporate specifications for wheelchair ramps.

    After, of course, doing a cost-benefit analysis. I can hear the voice of Prof Epstein pointing out the resources spent on that ramp are not free. Perhaps a shoddy wall or earthquake-prone foundation has gone unbuilt because of it… (e.g. http://www.amazon.com/Forbidden-Grounds-Against-Employment-Discrimination/dp/0674308093

  6. jhimmi

    I usually spend significant time researching even the most minor home improvements. But, is it because of pride? Or because I don’t want to reduce the value or safety of my home?  Or a general appreciation for even the smallest things done well?

    Maybe this goes back to mandates from the top – why ask why? When the king decrees something, there’s nothing we can do about it. If, somewhere along the line, any of the people involved in the construction of the ramp thought they would be rewarded, or even praised, for innovating the design of the ramp, they probably would have. Prejudice against bid’ah, perhaps.

  7. Marythefifth

    The first thing that comes to my mind are the inward opening doors to the stalls in women’s public restrooms in the US. Someone decided the standard is that they must open inward. It’s obvious that the men building these restrooms never bother to consult the women using them. If they did, they’d know to allow more room or make the door open outwards. It’s not a danger, but just as maddening.

  8. Percival

    I once lived in a building that was an old, converted state armory.  Lovely building, interesting architecture, solid as a cement block.   The door in the back was level with the parking lot outside, and the requisite number of handicapped parking spots were all right outside this door.  Everything was up to code. 

    I had lived in the building one day before I realized that there was no way to get to the mailboxes that didn’t involve traversing a staircase.  The staircase in the front of the building could have had a ramp, but that would involve going outside and around the building to get to the mail.  The internal staircases were too narrow for ramps to be practical.

    Every box on the building code checklist was checked off, and the result still wasn’t accessible.  Ain’t government wonderful?

  9. Leslie Watkins

    If you’re a Turkish official (or a U.S. official, for that matter), it’s probably never crossed your mind that issuing an edict could do more harm than good, and since issuing edicts is what makes the official an official, a well-intentioned edict is probably the happiest edict of all. That people will interact with the result and thereby effect changes that make it more workable (add some mismatched railings, create chair stops on the way down) will only serve to make the official feel even more proud.

  10. raycon and lindacon

    In a former life I designed the disability accommodation part of the building code for Lahore, Pakistan.  Genferei, above, covers it nicely.  Everything you do consumes your available resources.  Add a new thing, and you dilute the rest.

    Begin with the understanding that wheelchair users in less developed countries have already learned how to live with very limited accommodation.  The disabled have it hard, but not impossible. 

    For 10 years our lives were focused on providing wheelchairs to people in less developed parts of the world.  Every incremental improvement gets the disabled further.  But it is an underestimation to believe that the disabled, whether paraplegic, quadriplegic, deaf or blind haven’t already figured out how to live their lives to the best of their abilities.  Our accommodations simply give the disabled more and better options.

    If you look at any country, you will find many barriers to the disabled, and that includes America and Europe.  When traveling to underdeveloped countries, I always took Linda, my wife, around the city in her wheelchair.  It familiarized us with the reality that 18″ curbs in Latin America, or cobblestones in Antigua were normal for the wheelchair users.

    We all cope.

  11. raycon and lindacon

    A short metaphor:

    My wife, Linda, once worked as a secretary for a man who was totally blind.  Although she spent her life on crutches, and could even do a 14 hour day at Disneyland, she could not understand how Terry could manage his office without sight.

    Here was a blind guy who would go running with his dog in the mornings, climb the trees in his back yard to prune them, and Linda would try to even organize his desk top and make note of whether he had zipped his fly. 

    Terry was always gracious, and it wasn’t until I made a point of telling Linda that he managed quite well before she came along to help that the irony of the situation became clear.

  12. genferei

    On an ever-so-slightly related note, since I’m on my way to the airport to fly to IST, I’d be grateful if Claire and the Ricochet members from Istanbul would arrange for there to be less rain this week than is forecast. Thanks in advance.

  13. iWc

    I was shocked to see this thread on my beloved Ricochet this morning.

    Wheelchair ramps? Really? Since when should accessibility be required by government in the first place? Why should someone be forced to spend hundreds of thousands of their own dollars?

    Don’t get sucked into answering the wrong question. The question is NOT “Why doesn’t government do it right?”. The question is “why is this the government’s business?”

    I guarantee you that if a property owner wanted his property to be accessible, he would, by and large, make it so.

  14. Capt. Aubrey

    It seems to me that in the “developed world” where ideas of property rights and individual liberty have been more prevalent for a longer period of time, there is a greater opportunity for order to emerge…so we get a top down thing like the ADA that makes builders comply but we also have competition that helps prevent shoddy compliance. While we are far from perfect I think there is more shoddy compliance in the “developing world”

  15. iWc

    Government does not care about wheelchair accessibility! As Steyn put it this weekend: Government health care is not about health care. It is about government.

    Think of those “wheelchair accessible buses”. In city after city, it was shown that wheelchair-bound people could be given their own driver at far less cost and more convenience than adapting all the buses. But it made no difference to the outcome, because actually giving people in wheelchairs freedom is not the purpose of a bureaucrat’s existence.

    Anyone who thinks wheelchair ramps are there for the few people in wheelchairs who can (and want to) push themselves into those buildings, has not thought this through.

  16. Leigh

    Don’t issue any edict.

    If you can’t figure out whether a government edict is going to do sufficient good — and there’s a possibility it could do harm in some cases — it’s a perfect example of a government regulation that shouldn’t exist.

    You could create an inspiring example by investing in well-designed wheelchair ramps to government buildings…

  17. Leslie Watkins

    Thanks for this post!

    raycon: In a former life I designed the disability accommodation part of the building code for Lahore, Pakistan. … Everything you do consumes your available resources.  Add a new thing, and you dilute the rest.

    Begin with the understanding that wheelchair users in less developed countries have already learned how to live with very limited accommodation.  The disabled have it hard, but not impossible. 

    For 10 years our lives were focused on providing wheelchairs to people in less developed parts of the world.  Every incremental improvement gets the disabled further.  But it is an underestimation to believe that the disabled, whether paraplegic, quadriplegic, deaf or blind haven’t already figured out how to live their lives to the best of their abilities.  Our accommodations simply give the disabled more and better options.

    If you look at any country, you will find many barriers to the disabled, and that includes America and Europe.  When traveling to underdeveloped countries, I always took Linda, my wife, around the city in her wheelchair.  It familiarized us with the reality that 18″ curbs in Latin America, or cobblestones in Antigua were normal for the wheelchair users.

    We all cope. · 1 hour ago

  18. Haakon Dahl
    Marythefifth: The first thing that comes to my mind are the inward opening doors to the stalls in women’s public restrooms in the US. Someone decided the standard is that they must open inward. It’s obvious that the men building these restrooms never bother to consult the women using them. If they did, they’d know to allow more room or make the door open outwards. It’s not a danger, but just as maddening. · 11 hours ago

    To say nothing of the women who design the bowls and seating on most modern toilets, judging by the evidence.

  19. Haakon Dahl

    I thought the purpose of this was to use wheelchair ramps as a metaphor.  Instead, we are discussing wheelchair ramps as wheelchair ramps. 

    For a metaphor of the history of Turkey *since the Tanzimat era*, the wheelchair ramps strike me as the metaphor for “practice X” mentioned early in your piece and soon forgotten, where X is the western separaton of religion from government.  Except that Western secularism is the bathwater with which Ataturk discarded the baby of separatism. 

    The problem is not that X has been improperly imported to an environment where it will not work, but that it has been improperly understood even in its original contect when seen from without, which is understandable in a wide range of cases, but not at all the same problem.

    Or we can talk about ramps.

  20. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Haakon Dahl: I thought the purpose of this was to use wheelchair ramps as a metaphor… for “practice X” mentioned early in your piece and soon forgotten, where X is the western separaton of religion from government.  

    Thanks, Haakon, for seeing the more important point (although the discussion of disability access is very interesting). I wasn’t getting at the idea of “X=Western separation of religion from government,” though; I was getting at “X=half a million ideas that are not deeply understood here, and when imported without that deep understanding, don’t produce quite the original effects.”  So, for example, Turkey imported an entire legal system, verbatim, from the Swiss and the Italians. But it turns out that its tricky to make this work for you without centuries of coterminous political, social and economic evolution. The reforms recently made as part of the EU accession process have been made in the letter, but not the spirit, of the EU’s demands: The EU insisted upon the dissolution of the military’s notorious State Security Courts; Turkey replaced them with DGM courts, which were exactly the same thing.(1)

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