Paralympic Athlete's Vacation Highlight Ruined By Wheelchair Inaccessibility At Fort St. Angelo

Malta's wheelchair accessibility leaves a lot to be desired

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An Italian woman who has visited Malta every year since she was 11 had this year's trip tarnished by a negative experience that's hard to shake. Lilly Tolu, 58, is originally from Italy but considers the island to be her home. With annual visits every summer, Lilly spends her cherished time on the island reminiscing on beautiful moments spent here, particularly the times she spent dancing in the open air discos held at Birgu's stunning Fort St. Angelo. 

Four years ago, Lilly became wheelchair-bound. While this hasn't deterred her from making the journey with her niece Mina Tolu, her options for touring the island became significantly limited due to the level of wheelchair inaccessibility across Malta.

This summer one particular sporting event at Fort St. Angelo caught her eye, and promised to be the highlight of her trip - a historical fencing exhibition. Since her avascular necrosis of the talus advanced to the point of needing a wheelchair for mobility, Tolu became a Paralympic athlete of wheelchair fencing, and proudly owns her title as the oldest wheelchair fencer of World Cup ranking today. 

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Lilly Tolu, Martin Bonnici and Karl Agius discuss the differences between classical and contemporary fencing

"When I was young, in the early 80s, Fort St.Angelo used to be the location for open-air discos. I still remember it that way, an open-air location, a spectacular view of the Grand Harbour, and a party which would end by midnight. Last week I read that Fort St. Angelo had just been restored and was open again. Their special open day for Victory Day on the 8th September sounded like the perfect opportunity to revisit the Fort in all its splendour, and end my most recent stay in Malta on a positive note, with renewed energy." 

In attempt to prevent the disappointment she's grown accustomed to experiencing, Lilly called Fort St. Angelo multiple times ahead of the event to check if they had full wheelchair accessibility. She was ensured by members of staff that there would be appropriate wheelchair accessibility for her to attend the fencing exhibition, even with the pending forecast for rain. 

When Lilly and her niece Mina arrived to Fort St. Angelo, they realised just how far from the truth the Fort's staff strayed.

According to Lilly, the security guard who greeted her at the entrance informed her that she would not be able to attend the event, as the ramp was too steep and wet from the previous evening's rain. Their electric car wouldn't make it up the slick slope either, and on top of that - one of their wheelchair lifts was broken.

While Lilly is used to the restrictions she faces at every turn in Malta, her familiarity with such a situation didn't make the morning's disappointment sting any less.

"Hearing this was like a cold shower! I obviously told them about the phone call I made the previous afternoon, where I had specifically asked what would happen in case of rain," Lilly said. "I do not think it is right that I should be the one who has to carefully plan everything and inquire about access in order to visit a place, when these people who should be providing updated information about access, like the curator of the site, the manager of the Fort and other employees."

After an hour of persistence and determination to attend her much anticipated event - a car was sent down to collect Lilly. However, she would only be able to visit the first terrace of the fort, and all the action was taking place on the second level.

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The impossible wheelchair access ramp at Fort St. Angelo

"I tried to enjoy the panoramic view, to remember the memories of almost 40 years ago, and not let the day be ruined by what had happened in the morning and my disappointment," Lilly said. "And that's when I received a beautiful surprise from my niece Mina."

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Lilly's view from the first terrace of Fort St. Angelo

Mina, who understands Lilly's hardships and intense passion for fencing better than anybody, decided to face the issue head-on, and see Lilly have her wish come through.

Mina approached the historical fencers on the second terrace and asked them if they could do Lilly a solid, and take a few minutes to show off their replica sword of La Vallette, and chat a bit with the fellow fencer. The gentlemen from the Malta Historical Fencing Association did one-better. They relocated Fort St. Angelo's first terrace where Lilly was stranded, and put on a private show, just for her.

"I had tears in my eyes," Lilly said, reflecting on the incredibly kind gesture. "Mina and those three athletes from the Malta Historical Fencing Association really made my trip to Fort St. Angelo worth it."

Mina added that while the day turned out well for Lilly in the end, there are serious issues that need to be addressed regarding accessibility in Malta. Saturday's situation at Fort St. Angelo exemplified those problems perfectly.

"This is a conversation that both Lilly and I can have for hours I think. It is so clear in cases like these that there was no proper consultation, no proper understanding of accessibility, and no full research into all the necessities, and the possibilities of what could happen, and what needs to be done to prevent situations like these," Mina said. "Accessibility goes beyond having an accessible toilet, a lift, and a car. It needs to be holistic."

Three Fencers and Lilly

Fabien Naudi, Martin Bonnici and Karl Agius from the Malta Historical Fencing Association, with Lilly Tolu  

How can Malta improve wheelchair accessibility? Let us know in the comments

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