There’s a small part of me that has the makings of a conspiracy theorist. I have what I like to think of as a healthy scepticism when it comes to government and organised religion. I tend to look for the why, the motivation, the compulsion that makes such entities do what they do, and then I try to make sense of it. I’m rarely successful.
One mystery that has been niggling me for years now is the absence of wheelchairs in Budapest. I can count the number of times I’ve seen someone in a wheelchair trying to navigate this city (and practically all were tourists). The fact that many of the metro stations are inaccessible unless you’re upright and walking goes some way in explaining this phenomenon. The fact that so few places have wheelchair access goes some more. I know I’ve told friends who have difficulty getting around that Budapest is not a particularly accessible city. But applying the law of averages, there must be people living in Budapest who are wheelchair-bound. So where are they? Don’t they ever go out?
When residents of Bélapátfalva raised their voices against relocating disabled residents to smaller houses in the community, it didn’t make the headlines. That Hungary is years behind schedule in its deinstitutionalisation of disabled people was of little concern. Separation, not integration, seemed to be the consensus. Fast forward now to Szilvásvárda where 300 of the 1700 or so residents recently opposed the sale of a number of houses to the Szociális és Gyermekvédelmi Főigazgatóság who plan to use them as homes for forty people with disabilities, people who are currently living in Bélapátfalva. And the reason for this opposition: elriasztanák a turistákat (alienate tourists!)
My reaction when a Hungarian friend told me about this was nothing short of incredulity. I actually laughed out loud in disbelief. Alienate tourists? Western tourists? People who live with a disability as part of everyday life? C’mon people, get a grip. Yes, I know… it’s only the opinion of a few … but it has conjured up all sorts of horrible images in my head involving locked doors and barbed-wire fences. I’m looking at Budapest with different eyes now, exploring how restricted my options would be were I in a wheelchair. And I don’t like what I see.
First published in the Budapest Times 27 September 2013