No beach for tourist let down by locked-up sand wheelchairs

Lilly Tolu chose St George's Bay so that she could use the sand wheelchairs, but found them locked up on two occasions.

Lilly Tolu: The sand wheelchair services were advertised as operating from 10am to 6pm, but they were locked in the cleaner’s room.
Lilly Tolu: The sand wheelchair services were advertised as operating from 10am to 6pm, but they were locked in the cleaner’s room.

Lilly Tolu wheeled herself into the lobby of the Sliema hotel where she has been staying for the past two weeks, flanked by her husband Fernando and niece Romina.

I say wheeled herself in, because Tolu has been wheelchair-bound for the past year as a result of an illness.

Her smile and easy-going nature indicate an irrepressible character. Undeterred by her recent disability, she says she loves swimming and has recently taken up wheelchair fencing.

Tolu, an Italian, has been visiting Malta since she was two years old and has strong family ties to the island. As she lights up one of several cigarettes she will smoke during the course of the interview and takes a drag, she gets straight to business: she is upset – and with good reason.

In her own words, Tolu has been “misled by the MTA website”.

One of the aspects of living with mobility problems is the necessity to meticulously plan activities. When travelling abroad, airlines have to be told in advance to make arrangements for wheelchair users, hotels and restaurants must be checked to ensure that they are wheelchair-friendly and so on.

Due to the fact that Tolu loves the sea – she swims using a flotation device – and that using a conventional wheelchair on sand is a recipe for disaster, she did her homework before her visit and noted that the MTA website listed the beaches offering specialised sand wheelchair facilities. Based on that information, she visited the bay closest to where she was staying, St. George’s Bay.

According to Tolu, “the sand wheelchair services were advertised as operating from 10am to 6pm, but when I went to the beach at 5:10pm, the beach supervisor told me that the chair was not available, because it was locked in the cleaner’s room.”

On Tolu’s suggestion, the supervisor then called his manager, who “apologised and expressed her embarrassment at the situation”. On the manager’s suggestion, they tried again the next day after 10am – to no avail. Contacted for the second time by the Tolus, Scicluna called the ministry for tourism.

“Nobody came. We waited till ten past midday and then left,” she said, in a defeated tone.

Tolu reports that when contacted, the ministry “expressed its surprise at the arrangement” and said that the cleaners were scheduled to be at St Paul’s Bay that day, which effectively put paid to her plans.

Her suggestion that the lifeguard be entrusted with the storage of the wheelchairs certainly sounds more practical.

The niece, Romina Tolu, expressed disappointment at seeing her aunt’s hopes of spending time at the beach dashed – all because of “half-baked measures that were not thought out well enough”.

The problem is compounded at Golden Bay, where the specialised wheelchairs are stored together with beach umbrellas that are rented out by a private kiosk. “What if the kiosk is not open? We have to choose between going back to the hotel or wasting our holiday waiting”.

“It’s the small things that make you angry,” explains Romina. “Things like calling up a restaurant before booking to confirm it has toilets for the disabled and then finding them locked or out of order.

“Even the direction the toilet door opens should be taken into account. It shows that accessibility is an afterthought in planning. A mere box-ticking exercise. It is not the person who is disabled… rather the environment is disabling.”

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