Accessibility in Europe
According to figures released by the UN, there are 650 million people living in this world with some sort of disability, with around eight million of those from Europe, which also has a population that is aging. That’s a huge section of the population and one that until recently was not well served when traveling overseas. However, times they are a-changing and guidelines for accessible travel laid down in the European Parliament are now largely being adhered to or at the very least worked towards.
Accessible tourism is loosely defined as ‘ensuring tourist destinations, products, and services are accessible to everybody, regardless of their physical limitations or age’. It encompasses publicly and privately owned tourist locations throughout Europe and focuses on treating all visitors with dignity and compassion.
How Does Europe Compare?
So how are we faring in Europe in our quest for all modes of travel, hotels, restaurants, and attractions to be freely accessible to all? Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, and most northern European countries are increasingly geared up to receiving tourists in wheelchairs at their major museums, galleries, and theme parks, as well as providing equipment for visually and aurally impaired travelers plus wheelchair-accessible transport. Facilities could include low-level shower stalls at campsites, boardwalk ramps to enable access to viewing points and beaches, braille keyboards on computers, specially adapted wheelchairs with wide wheels at ski resorts, and well-adapted hotel rooms with accessible shower stalls.
Most airports, train stations, and ferry ports in Europe have a raft of accessibility services, from disabled restrooms to low-level computer tables, ramps, moving walkways, and elevators. Indeed European airlines all now cater fully for mobility-impaired passengers and pan-European train services such as Eurostar have dedicated seating areas at reduced fares.
Germany, The Best European Country for Accessibility
But some European countries are way ahead of others in their campaign for full parity. On December 3, 2012, Berlin, capital city of Germany, was awarded the title of Access City of the Year by the European Commission. And that is no mean feat considering that this is a city whose politicians have had to marry together two very disparate halves since re-unification in 1990. Working with the public and private sector since 2000 to create an accessible public-transport system, broad sidewalks, and a tactile guidance system at road crossings, the government has made great strides towards 100 per cent accessibility, which is scheduled for 2020. As we speak, not all hotels have the requisite facilities, although the more expensive chains do. Nearly all of Berlin’s museums and galleries are happily accessible to all.
Sweden, The Runner-Up
Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, was runner up to Access City of the Year, having expressed a desire to the world’s most accessible destination by 2010. They largely succeeded; the city fathers instigated a program in the city of rebuilding pedestrian crossings with access ramps and contrast markings, redesigning playgrounds to make them accessible to children and parents with disabilities, and developing navigational apps for people with impaired vision. This goes hand-in-hand with total accessibility to all major buildings and attractions, elevators at all subway stations and full access to buses as well as every hotel (but not hostels), which must cater for mobility, visually, and aurally impaired guests.
Old Architecture can be a Hindrance
All these projects work towards facilitating visits to the cities, but how far can European tourist destinations compete with, say, the contemporary, purpose-built construction of North American or Australian cities in terms of accessibility? Many European cities have origins older that stretch back more than a thousand years and their centers comprise an impenetrable labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and cramped, narrow buildings several stories high. Ancient Roman builders and Renaissance patriarchs did not have handrails and wheelchair-friendly ramps in their architectural lexicon. So what of Europe’s major tourist destinations?
Nowadays the ancient city of Rome has wheelchair ramps on the pavements and full access to most hotels, plenty of space in restaurants for wheelchairs, and at the very least a ramp up into churches, galleries, and museums. The two great challenges here are the cobbles in the piazzas and the sheer size of the crowds around the major attractions such as the Colosseum and Vatican. All methods of public transport are wheelchair friendly and specially equipped mobility scooters can be hired.
Some great attractions in Paris, including the spacious Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, are fully accessible; Notre Dame is not easily navigated, Sainte-Chapelle is. Hotels older than 100 years old are largely not wheelchair-friendly, so look for newer accommodations. The steep cobbled hills of Montmartre around the Sacre Coeur are not easily navigable but all public transport is. Mobility scooters and lightweight wheelchairs are available by pre-booking.
The streets of central London have wheelchair ramps and all hotels have at least five per cent of their rooms given over to mobility-impaired guests. All public transport is fully accessible, although the buses and underground can be horrifically over-crowded between 7.30am-9.30am and again from 4pm-6.30pm. Plan your travel accordingly; at least easy access is guaranteed at all the city’s attractions.
Facilities for physically impaired visitors are not yet that great in Barcelona; adapted buses have the international disabled sign on them but only the metro’s Purple Line (Line 2) currently has lifts at each stop. Most modern four- and five-star hotels have specially adapted rooms but many smaller ones are hampered with tiny, old-fashioned elevators and flights of stairs. Museum access is hit-and-miss but there is a good guide on Barcelona Tourisme.
Amsterdam poses its own set of problems for disabled travelers, what with the canals, mad cyclists, cobbled streets, and tram tracks, but now has several canal boats with wheelchair lifts and Star Bikes rent out specially adapted cycles. Most major museums, from the Tropenmuseum to the Rijksmuseum, are fully accessible, but disappointingly the Anne Frank Huis is not. The trams (except those marked with an ‘A’ after the number) and buses usually are and so are all larger hotels.
Prague is another major European tourist destination that struggles with accessibility issues. The city center, although largely pedestrianized, is almost uniformly cobbled, the streets of Malá Strana leading up to the castle are steep, and the place is always rammed with tourists. The National Museum and parts of Prague Castle are wheelchair friendly but few of the metro stations, buses, or trams have facilities. And once again it is the pricier, more modern hotels that can handle guests with special needs.
Tips for Mobility Impaired Travelers
- Check before you travel that your airline is aware of any mobility issues. They will provide help with passage through the airport, checking in, and boarding. Call on the day of travel to reconfirm that you will be met at your airline desk.
- Plan ahead; most barriers can be overcome so research your destination and work out how you will navigate your way around. Don’t be put off by apparently insurmountable hurdles; for example there are elevators in Santorini to help mobility-impaired tourists up the cliffs.
- Check that ‘wheelchair friendly’ means exactly that in hotels. Ensure that there are shower stalls in the bathroom, that elevators are wide enough for wheelchairs, and that there are no flights of stairs in between you and your room. When you’ve found somewhere suitable, book the room in advance.
- Take your doctor’s emergency contact number and a letter explaining your condition, special needs, and other pertinent information, including a spare prescription in case of medication being lost.
- Familiarize yourself with the public-transport system in relation to your hotel; you don’t want to have to order a cab to get to the metro station. In small cities such as Florence, stay in the compact, largely pedestrianized center. In Venice, book a hotel near an accessible boat stop.
- Have a back-up plan in case things to go wrong; know what you will do if your hotel loses your booking.
- Contact local disability groups before travel for up-to-date and pertinent information on your destination.
- Book an accessible tour guide to show you the very soul of your destination. Contact Accessible Journeys (www.accessiblejourneys.com)) or Accessible Europe (www.accessibleurope.com).
- Take a bus tour around your city to get your bearings.
- Find out about mobility scooter hire to get around on vacation. Alternatively many car-rental agencies in Europe hire out modified vehicles.