Father and Baby on the Move: No Wheels Allowed in Valletta

If I were a cartoon character, I’d be Super Dad and combat Malta’s villainous ways, one at a time. I’d have nappy changers not only placed in the female toilets, I’d make changing rooms in clothes shops big enough for a stroller to fit in for daddy’s (or mummy’s) solo trips.

I’d ban the term ‘Mother and Baby Room’, thereby lexically barring fathers from changing their child’s nappy, I’d use my laser-eye superpower to terminate the ‘how sweet’ or ‘what-a-good-daddy’ looks daddy-and-baby excursions bring to passersby as I babble with my baby in public or give him a bottle alone in a coffee shop.

This is the 21st century – and being a dad is more than putting the bacon on the table. Being a dad is indeed sincerely motivating me to moan, nag, whine. Fatherhood has turned what used to otherwise be mundane daily tasks into explosive moments of critical observation: attempting to buy clothes and try them on in-store in an undersized changing room (as about 50cm2 is what’s left for a dad to try on clothes with a stroller behind the curtain), changing my son’s nappy in a female toilet (including an almost too aurally close encounter with the opposite sex), and more recently, spending an afternoon in Valletta trying to get into shops and public spaces without having to turn my son’s push chair into a rocking-horse experience for him.

Republic Street, Valletta. Pedestrian area. Recently renovated. Some shops have a 1-cm high elevation off the pavement. Others, the height of a small ruler. Some shops have two steps. I use one hand to count the buildings that have ramp-access in all of Republic Street (and Merchant Street, which has also only just been redone). Churches, jewellers, shoe shops, fashion retailers – someone forgot to design ramps to gain access into each building.

A ‘Step Inside’ sign takes on a whole new meaning: I first sway the pushchair backwards, towards me, and push the stroller handlebar down, to gather enough momentum to hinge the two front wheels on the building’s doorstep. I then tilt his pushchair forwards, raise the stroller’s back wheels off the ground, lift the pushchair from the handlebar, pivoting the two front wheels in the building’s threshold, and eventually gain access into the building. How can a wheelchair user get in, independently? Sometimes, the good will of a passerby or a shop sales assistant gives me a helping hand. I’d rather roll inside, to be honest.

I need to buy a white shirt. I might find one on sale. Even better. I shake and jerk my son’s pushchair into a clothes shop on Republic Street, as the front wheels get blocked by a smaller step just above the entrance’s doorstep. I’ve startled him in the process. Great. I seem to have made an entrance into the shop, and the sales assistants look at me.

“Someone forgot to put a ramp outside. How does a wheelchair user come in here?” I ask.

The sales assistants give me an I-can’t-do-anything-about-it look. The blonde one takes pride in admitting that they carried the wheelchair and its user in the shop the other day. Is this necessary in 2016? Can’t wooden ramps be installed in front of every shop, to allow me to push my baby’s chair in, instead of having to lift it?

The Law Courts on my left-hand-side, I’m at a crossroad. Ahead of me, the Grandmaster’s Palace. To my right, St Lucy Street. I attempt to try get my shirt in one of the shops here. In the retail outlet’s grand entrance, all lit up with feats of marketing par excellence, a steep flight of stairs and an escalator leave me stranded, wondering how on earth I could get down. No lift. Then I remember, I’ve got to use another shop, two doors down to get in. I do so. I get in the lift. Press ‘0’. I descend. I push the stroller ahead of me and find a ramp, preceded by two steps! Someone has forgotten to design a ramp, in-store. And to add insult to injury, it’s only been recently done up. The cashier said he’d tell the ‘ones above him’, whoever they may be. I trek back out to St Lucy Street. I’ve forgotten I wanted to look for a shirt.

Next time you’re strolling through Republic Street (or any other road for that matter), count how many times you’ve got to raise your legs to step into a shop. Now do this with a push chair, or a wheel chair. I might have somewhat accepted this reality in other Maltese towns and villages, but in what is to be the cultural capital of 2018, I do not. I wonder what ‘Community Inclusion and Accessibility in Valletta 2018‘ might mean. The best way to get around Valletta is truly on foot.

© 2016 – VIDA Magazine – John Paul Vella