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?