Metrorail is bad enough if you can see: it’s worse if you’re blind

Blind commuters recount their daily battles on the trains

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Photo of two men and a dog
Colleen Willemse and Andrew Wewers with Willemse’s dog Volt. Photo: Tariro Washinyira

Using Metrorail in Cape Town is a challenge for any commuter, with daily delays, unscheduled stops between stations and constant insecurity. But for Colleen Willemse, 48, and Andrew Wewers, 55, commuting is even more difficult: both of them are blind.

Willemse and Wewers work for the Cape Town Society for the Blind in Salt River, where they specialise in weaving. They are regular train commuters on the Northern line.

Willemse says Metrorail employees see them on the platform, him with his guide dog Volt and Wewers with his stick, but still blow the whistle for the train to leave before they have boarded the train.

“They should not blow the whistle until they see that blind people with sticks, dogs, disabled or elderly are on the train. They see that we are facing the doors and attempting to get on but still blow the whistle, putting our lives in danger.”

“We can’t move like people who can see.”

Both are married and have two children each. Willemse travels from Eerste River while Wewers travels from Firgrove. Wewers’ family live in Robertson and worry about him using overcrowded trains, with frequent reports of stabbings and robberies.

Wewers says other passengers are frustrated and in a hurry and don’t care about blind people. They push him out of the way so that they can get through.

He says he cannot board a full train, so if a train is full he lets it go and counts until five other trains have also passed, in the hope that the sixth will be less full.

Most days the men arrive at work about 9 or 10am and then leave early, to avoid travelling during peak hour. But they are paid according to how much they have produced.

Willemse says besides travelling to work, all his life he has been using a train, for social life, for going to the mall and for visiting friends and families in different suburbs.

He wants Metrorail to have separate carriages for blind, elderly and disabled people.

Spokesperson for Metrorail Riana Scott told GroundUp that this request would be forwarded to the team dealing with a feasibility study on the possibility of segregated carriages.

She said the two should make their travel times and needs known to the station staff. “Until PRASA’s modernised facilities and fleet are fully universal access compliant, we encourage commuters with specific travel requirements to develop a relationship with the respective station managers to assist them to travel with dignity,” she said.

Willemse says three weeks ago he took a train from Salt River to Eerste River which was due to leave at 2:10pm. Between Bellville and Tygerberg the train stopped and several trains were piled up. People were jumping out of the carriages but he could not jump.

“I was left in the carriage with my dog with three women. I couldn’t do anything besides wait for the train to move to the platform. But it remained still. The three women had to call for someone to come and help me to get off the train. It was only 5:50pm when I managed to get off the train.”

He had to walk back to Tygerberg station and walk along Voortrekker Road looking for a taxi. But the taxis were full and could not accommodate both him and the dog.

His wife then suggested that he get someone to walk with to Tygerberg hospital where he took a bus home. He got home after 8pm.

“That was the hardest time for me and my dog … stuck for six hours, hungry and thirsty,” he says.

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TOPICS:  Transport

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