For most Maltese people, driving feels as basic as breathing. Unfortunately, the current infrastructure does not help everyone move equally independently. Clifford Portelli has never been one to let that get in his way. He is the first person in Malta to obtain a licence to drive a vehicle from a wheelchair, and this is his story.
Clifford is tetraplegic after a spinal injury. Tetraplegia, also known as quadriplegia, is paralysis that results in the partial or total loss of use of all four limbs and torso. Paraplegia is similar, but does not affect the arms.
Few able-bodied drivers can imagine what it is like when simple procedures like getting one’s car fixed are an uphill struggle.“The more independence you gain, the more issues come out,” Clifford Portelli told Lovin Malta, not allowing this to get in the way of his unbeatable optimism.
“There was a law to be passed, and it took eight months,” Portelli remembers what getting his car was like. “Afterwards there were people who got a car like mine, and they had the licence [immediately]. When these people came to buy a car, they found a law there for them.”
Portelli's life has always been a journey towards empowerment. When he returned to Malta after treatment in the UK for his condition, he had to live in a hospital and depend on a contractor to shuttle him to his office. In a few years, elected as an employee of the year 2016 as a helpdesk officer at the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability (CPRD), he generously shared the story of his activism and his marriage. The car was one of the key elements of his independence.
His struggle to move around the island independently, however, was far from over when he received his licence and purchased a car, produced in 2007. He soon found that too few businesses offer accessible options for repairs.
“If it’s not mainstream, when things get broken, they are hard to fix,” he told Lovin Malta. Every malfunction or any accidents he had experienced effectively meant that he was without his car again, dependent on others – and nobody could tell for how long.
“Imagine how many garages are out there – for rental cars or rental cars with drivers – who can rent cars for weeks,” Clifford Portelli said. His vehicle is built following universal design principles – it can be remade into a regular car in no time. Similarly, most products that make life easier for people with movement disabilities are also comfortable for parents with pushchairs, elderly people, or even people carrying heavy loads. And yet businesses are still reluctant to take this extra step.
In 2015/2016, CRPD registered 556 complaints against private entities. Even more complaints, 747, were lodged against government entities. Various obstacles make the basic acts of moving around a nearly impossible battle: finding and repairing a vehicle, parking it and reaching places across inaccessible pavement.
“People think that we are complaining about issues that in their own eyes are irrelevant, but if you start putting the puzzle with each other, it’s about independent living,” CRPD Commissioner Oliver Scicluna told Lovin Malta. “If a person is unable to enter premises where he can work, the person is discriminated, not given a chance to work. By that he is not given a chance to sustain himself, he may fall into poverty, will not be able to go outside to a leisure place."
Design for all is compulsory in infrastructure that is built with EU funds. Following UN recommendations, the European Commission published the so-called European Accessibility Act, which covers products and services like ATMs, smartphones and all modes of transport, and Malta, too, is committed to that.
Universal design means that people with disabilities should not beg for anyone’s help and charity when they move around or enter buildings. Accessibility should be there for them – inbuilt, automatic.
This, according to Scicluna, is easier to implement in large-scale public projects than in business operations. Businesses, by choosing to exclude people with disabilities, miss the chance to target this growing market. “The reason we see change is because [wheelchair] users have money and they can afford to go to places and tackle issues,” Portelli said.
After several months of waiting, he is back on his precious wheels. Yet the question of maintenance continues looming over wheelchair users striving for their independence in Malta.