Even though Sonel Lindeque has been involved in charity work since 2000, she developed new respect for people with disabilities after taking part in the SPAR Wheelchair Wednesday campaign this month.
Lindeque, chairlady of PE Pearls Ladies Circle No 19 in Port Elizabeth, and the organisation’s secretary, Chantal Myburgh, were among the volunteers who spent four hours in a wheelchair to experience what those with mobility difficulties confront each day.
The project, which takes place weekly on Wednesdays for a period of a month, also raises awareness among businesses in the metro and beyond as to the need for wheelchair-friendly facilities.
“Having been involved in charity work for 20 years, I understood what hardships many people face so I was mentally prepared for what lay ahead,” said Lindeque.
“But even though you think you can imagine what a wheelchair-bound person has to deal with, only once you have spent the time in the chair do you actually realise the huge impact it has on your life.
“I think one quickly develops respect for those who fight the fight as a disabled person.
“It is really not easy and besides managing your own disability, you also have to deal with other people’s inability to accommodate your disability, or the lack of knowledge towards accommodating you.”
She said, thanks to Wheelchair Wednesday, the volunteers’ experience was used to raise awareness about how flaws towards the disabled in society could be improved “one roll at a time”.
Among the practical issues Lindeque experienced was how difficult it was to do monthly shopping like an able-bodied person.
“You can’t just fill a trolley and push it through a shop,” she said. “You constantly need an assistant because you will only be able to buy products within arm’s-length and what can fit on your lap or basket.
“Most of the time you feel vulnerable and some things are difficult to do if you don’t have the upper body strength.
“You need gloves to protect your hands, because a wheelchair is not always soft on the hands and, even if you are able to drive, you still need an assistant to load and offload your wheelchair.”
Another area in which Lindeque struggled was reaching items on the top shelf and she recommends merchandise be placed vertically instead of horizontally.
At the ATM from which she drew money, there was no security and a ramp at one of the shopping malls was difficult to use because of the sharp turning angles.
“I felt you could easily lose control and end up in front of moving vehicles. The access ramp needed to be moved or a safety rail put up.”
Lindeque also found using the toilet at the mall difficult because the doorway was too narrow and a self-closing mechanism made it awkward to negotiate the entrance.
She said she would definitely recommend to her friends to volunteer for the initiative.
“It opens your eyes to what is going on in society because you truly take it for granted what you can do as an able-bodied person.”
Normally held in August, Wheelchair Wednesday, now in its ninth year, was delayed to October because of Covid-19.
The Association for Persons with Physical Disabilities in Nelson Mandela Bay, which runs the initiative, is targeting a total donation of 1 200 wheelchairs by the end of this campaign.
Wheelchair Wednesday has also joined forces with the Amputee Support Group this year to set up the Collect a Crutch drive.