On a shopping trip along the Sliema seafront, Clifford Portelli was able to easily enter just one shop.
During the half-kilometre stretch of pavement towards Gżira, his access was either blocked by steps or tables and chairs.
It’s an experience the 41-year-old from Paola has had to get used to since he was left using a wheelchair after a swimming accident on his 16th birthday.
“I’ve been hit by cars, tipped over, I’ve fallen over pavements,” he says.
Times of Malta joined Mr Portelli on a shopping trip to see what such an ordinary experience is like for people with disabilities in Malta.
It comes after an inspection by the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability of 334 businesses along the Gżira and Sliema seafront found just 42 were physically accessible for people with disabilities.
As part of the experiment, Mr Portelli negotiated his way into shops and cafes, encountering tables and chairs on the pavement or steps blocking entrances.
Of the 20 or so businesses, only a handful were in any way accessible to him. Even then there were problems. One sports shop, for example, had a ramp but it was quite steep and not at the correct gradient.
“Most of the ramps are broken or are inadequate,” he notes.
“They end up in a funnel sort of shape or are too steep for a wheelchair. So, if you go at the wrong angle, the wheelchair can slide on its own. In the rain that’s very dangerous because drivers don’t know this can happen and you can slide onto the road in front of a moving car.”
And Mr Portelli doesn’t only experience problems when he tries to enter shops. He also has to navigate potholes in the road, illegally parked cars, tables and chairs from cafes, as well as businesses which take up large swathes of the street with their products.
The state of pavements and roads is also a difficulty
“Most of the shops are blocked with things outside that business owners don’t realise can affect us. Many of the shops have steps so a person can’t go in. In many restaurants – even if you can get in – you can’t use the toilet.
“If you want your business to do well, you should give everyone access, as everyone likes to go and spend their money or wants to go out, so everyone should be able to contribute to society and enjoy it to the full.”
The state of Malta’s pavements and roads is also a difficulty Mr Portelli identifies.
“It’s not a matter of accessing a pavement, it can mean the difference between actually going under a car. So, it might seem like just a small issue when we talk about a little hole in the road but it’s a massive issue when it comes to people with a disability who use mobility-aid on the road.”
Mr Portelli doesn’t necessarily blame the businesses he encounters and thinks there would be improvements if they were given more information on how to have proper access.
“I’ve been in a wheelchair a long time and I know things are getting better but much more needs to be done,” he says.
“I know how to get around and make allowances for my chair but someone who has an accident today and is suddenly in a wheelchair would see a huge change in their life overnight and I feel like they would really struggle.”
Mr Portelli is among 19,261 people registered with the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) in Malta.
That is why CRPD carried out its own inspection on the 334 companies. Breaking the figures down further, 187 companies on the Gżira and Sliema waterfront only require the installation of a temporary ramp to become accessible, while 55 only need minor works to be accessible to those with disabilities. Another 11 require major works such as the installation of a passenger lift.
The report follows another one undertaken last year in Valletta, which painted a similar picture. Onsite inspections carried out on Republic Street and Merchants’ Street between June and July found that only 31 of 375 commercial outlets passed the test.
Reacting to the report, the Malta Business Disability Forum, which is tasked with improving dialogue between the business and disability communities, said it was discussing the reports and would shortly present proposals on how to increase the physical accessibility of Malta’s businesses.