Friday, December 10, 2010

In Malta, 20-year-old wheelchair user advocates for accessible parish church

From The Times of Malta:

When wheelchair user Roberta Magri (pictured) was unable to go to the Vittoriosa parish church for her aunt’s funeral she decided to do something about it.

The 20-year-old communicated her frustration to The Times and, in so doing, sparked a process that could address the inaccessibility of St Lawrence parish church.

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority committed itself to have talks with the parish to find a solution that would address the accessibility issue while safeguarding the church’s historical integrity.

Built between 1681 and 1697, the Vittoriosa church is only accessible through a steep flight of steps.

When Ms Magri went for her relative’s funeral last month, she was forced to turn back as there was no access for her wheelchair.

“I went to church to pay my last respects but there was no access for my wheelchair... Utterly disappointed, I had to return home,” Ms Magri said, recounting the frustrating experience.

“Not only did I lose a family member but I could not even pay my last respects. Furthermore, I had to face, once again, a daily occurrence in my life – no accessibility to wheelchair users. I was extremely disappointed,” she added.

She feels a church should be one of the most accessible public places. “It is, after all, the house of worship where inclusion is preached on a regular basis. This, therefore, begs the question: Are we practising what we preach?”

Vittoriosa parish priest Fr Joe Caruana explained that a ramp could not be installed because it would be too steep and dangerous for wheelchair users.

“We do not encounter the problem of wheelchair users very frequently. But this is not about numbers. It’s about the principle. Everyone should be able to have access to the church,” Fr Caruana said.

He explained that in 2003 the parish filed a planning application to install a lift in the belfry that would allow wheelchair users to access the church through St Lawrence Street. The application was rejected by Mepa on grounds that the belfry was scheduled property.

A Mepa spokesman said over the years it had worked with church authorities and found accessibility solutions to nearly all the parishes in Malta and Gozo considered national heritage sites. Where possible, the regulator allowed the installation of ramps to solve the accessibility problem.

St Lawrence church, an example of Roman baroque architecture, originally served as the main church of the Order of St John before the building of Valletta and St John’s Co-Cathedral.

“The Vittoriosa church, one of Malta’s oldest, is quite an exceptional case and one of the only parishes that has an accessibility problem... The authority will discuss this problem with the parish authorities to ensure that a solution – which safeguards the historical integrity of the church while providing the necessary facilities ensuring access for all – is found,” the Mepa spokesman said.

Ms Magri was glad to hear this but had one point to make: she hoped the solution would not be a chairlift because “it isn’t good for everyone”. The solution lay in installing a lift or a ramp, she said.