The death of a blind man in Iran has reignited a debate over whether the Islamic Republic is doing enough for the estimated 120,000 sightless Iranians. Our Observer says current measures aren't enough.
According to Iranian media, Abbas Nobaghi died on January 30 when he fell from a pedestrian bridge in his home town of Varamin, a suburb of Tehran. He reportedly used the bridge every day. But when workers removed the horizontal section of the bridge for maintenance, they left the stairs unblocked. Nobaghi took his normal route up the stairs as usual — but when he reached the top he fell five metres to the ground, sustaining head injuries. He later died in hospital.
There was a similar incident in 2010 when a blind journalist fell on to the tracks in the Tehran metro, where she was run over by a train. The event was a wake-up call for the authorities, who started to put place better public facilities for visually impaired people. They started installing traffic cones and temporary barriers in some parts of the metro, later replacing them with tactile paving tiles. (Tactile paving tiles have surfaces that feature bumps or other textures that sightless people can feel with their canes. They serve as a warning sign on the edge of a metro platform or sidewalk.)
The Iranian Association for the Blind estimates there are 120,000 Iranians who are totally blind, and another 600,000-700,000 with serious visual impairment.
Ali Saberi is a member of Tehran's city council, and is visually impaired. He told FRANCE 24's Observers that the installation of tactile paving stones began ten years ago in the capital city, and around 30 per cent of of Tehran's pavements are equipped with the tiles. "But the problem in Tehran is that all these initiatives are just random ideas by different municipalities of Tehran. [There are 22 municipalities in Tehran]. All of these municipalities choose their own consultant so nothing is homogeneous or even standard. And because of that we don’t have any clear idea how much money is spent on this overall."
"The other problem is contractors," he explained. "They win tenders to install these facilities in Tehran, but because of lack of checks on their work, they do what they want, and of course they do it as cheap as possible. More than that, there is no training about the special needs of sightless people, so the workers who install the tiles have no idea what are they doing."
Despite this, Saberi did stress that there had been improvements in recent years in the city. "Installing Braille signs in the buses, sound signals, tactile tiles in the metro, special taxis for sightless people — these are some of the projects that have been done or are being improved. We have a global plan for a 'smart city'."
"We have to depend on other people's kindness to get anywhere"
Blind people in Iran have to prepare themselves as if they’re going to discover another world, just for a simple walk outside. The problems begin the first step we take out of the house. The most dangerous obstacles are uncovered drainage ditches. They’re everywhere in Iran – often between streets and pavements, meaning that if we want to cross the street we have to find a footbridge. We have to depend on the kindness of strangers to tell us where to go. And if that doesn’t work, we often find ourselves standing there, with no idea whether we’re on the sidewalk or in the middle of a street. It’s happened many times to me.
“Safe” passages that lead right into trees and bollards
They’ve started installing tactile paving on some streets in Tehran and other cities. Bumpy surfaces mean “danger”, like the edge of a sidewalk. Parallel lines indicate a safe route to follow. But we don’t follow them because in many cases they lead us right into obstacles - like trees, ditches and bollards. The reason is the workers who install the special paving tiles sometimes have no idea what they’re meant for. A couple of years ago, I was following one of these “safe” passages on a sidewalk in Haft-e-Tir Square in the heart of Tehran. It had just been built. It led me right into a tree. The workers were still in the area. I asked them, “Do you know what these paving tiles are for?” They had no idea. I explained to them that the tiles were supposed to help blind people avoid obstacles, and I asked them to modify the route. But they answered: “We can’t do that because we have a plan and we have to follow it from A to Z.”
“Why don’t blind people just stay home?”I didn’t give up. I went to the State Welfare Organisation and asked them to do something. They called someone at City Hall. I listened in, and I heard the official get angry and say: “What we have done is enough. We can’t do anything more. Why don’t blind people just stay home?” It was painful. It’s not just officials; there are many ordinary people who don’t think either. People park bicycles, motorbikes and even cars on the specially paved routes. Stores put merchandise on them. It’s not because people don’t care, but because they’re like those workers – they don’t have the smallest idea what these tiles are for. Now if I feel the special paving with my cane, I run away!
The result is that blind people have accidents every day in cities across Iran. A few weeks ago one of my friends fell into a pit that had been dug by construction workers. His jaw was shattered. And a year ago, I was on my way to class with another blind friend. It was rainy, and suddenly she wasn’t beside me! She had fallen into a deep ditch. She was covered in mud and was in pain - but the most painful thing for her was the humiliation. Every time we go out, it’s stressful. We come back with a bruise somewhere on our body, or our dresses are torn because we have fallen or we walked into a bollard.
Public transport isn’t easy either. Taking a taxi for example. We don’t know whether the car we’re getting into is a taxi or not. And Iranian banknotes have no indications on them for visually impaired people, so we have no idea how much we have paid and how much we get in exchange.
"Staff aren't trained in how to help us"
After the 2010 death in the Tehran metro, they started installing paving tiles on the platforms to warn us that we’re close to the edge. But most of the platforms still don’t have them. And the metro staff aren’t trained in how to help us. Three years ago, metros and buses became free for us. But many bus lines still don’t have a loudspeaker system for announcing the stops.
The most basic problem is knowledge. There isn’t enough information and education about the special needs of blind people. Things have been getting better in recent years. There was a lot of talk on Twitter and Telegram after the death of the young man on the footbridge last month. But honestly, I am not very optimistic, because things are moving too slowly. Here in Iran we’re well behind developed countries in any aspect of life for blind people.