Istanbul: a trap for the disabled?

Anyone who has ever visited Istanbul will agree that it’s an enormous city, with lots of options for public transport. But how accessible is the city for its disabled citizens and visitors? And how much effort does the city put into these kinds of services?

Text and photos By Astrid Vlaeminck and Iris Geerardyn

In Bilgi University there is a unit especially for disabled students, who work hard to make university life for disabled students as enjoyable as possible. This department is led by officer Gözde Kiliç and professional Nelin Okay, who is visually and auditory impaired herself. In Bilgi University, lots of facilities have been installed for its 35 students that have a disability. An example of these facilities is the bus service. “Every university has its own bus service. Other than the regular buses, the school needs to provide at least one or two buses for disabled students and employees. They are easily accessible by people in a wheelchair, and they are funded by the university,” Gözde Kiliç says.

Most metro stations are disabled-friendly, as they have elevators and voice systems to guide them to the correct platform. Nelin Okay adds that the yellow lines on the sidewalks provided by the government have helped her a lot. Seen as they’re so useful, Bilgi has added them to the campus pathways as well. Unfortunately, there is a big misunderstanding surrounding these lines: they are also there to make them aware of dangerous places such as stairs, gaps and obstacles in general. While the city of Istanbul has provided these yellow lines in most popular neighbourhoods, some other citizens are careless and have blocked these yellow lines from sight by placing their terraces etc. on top of them.

To make people aware of what it’s like to be a disabled person in Istanbul, the Turkcell dialogue Museum opened its doors in 2016 in the Gayrettepe metro station. It’s a social laboratory which tries to eliminate the prejudices some have about people with a handicap. You can learn how to use sign language, you can participate in a tour in the dark or just have a drink at the bar manned by disabled employees. There are several other initiatives just like the ones above, but most of them are funded by private institutions. That is why the municipalities have been demanding more efforts from the Turkish government regarding their disabled citizens.

According to the 2019 Turkey report performed by the European Commission, Turkey has no independent body that monitors the situation in which their disabled inhabitants live. They therefore lack reliable, up-to-date figures and numbers which could help them build towards a more inclusive society.

Whereas some tourist reviews online express their disappointment in Istanbul’s accessibility, Nelin Okay says that she is quite satisfied with how she goes about her day-to-day life. But of course, there is always room for improvement. “There are simple things that I can’t do without help from someone else. For instance, when I need to withdraw some cash from an ATM, there is no braille on the buttons or a voice system that guides me through the process. Something else that might even sound very natural to most people, is buying clothes. I always have to ask people what colour the fabric is, what size it is … If they could just put that information on the tag in braille, that would help me a lot.”

However, both Nelin Okay and Gözde Kiliç agree that everyone who dares to ask for help will most likely get it. It all depends on your own mindset and how you approach your own disability, Nelin Okay says. “Let’s say you need medicine from the pharmacy: if you ask the cashier to get the information on the package in braille, you will get it. Same goes for the hospital benefits. There will always be help for those who ask.”