Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Access Denied

Edinburgh Castle
The last time I went on a trip in a wheelchair, after foot surgery, it was an overnight trip to New Orleans. I had bought my son and husband tickets to the BCS Championship Game, which their alma mater ultimately won, for Christmas gifts. I watched the game from the hotel room, which, while it was not designated handicapped accessible, was not hard to navigate with the chair and my crutches. The next day we went home, and three days later I was given a walking boot and no longer needed the wheelchair.

This trip was a little different. We had made arrangements to fly to London, stay with my son, who is working there, for a week, and then set off on a bus tour of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. We had paid for the tour, which cost even more than Stub Hub charged for the championship game tickets, in advance. Four days before we were due to leave, I discovered the growing pain in my left foot, which I thought due to arthritis, was from a broken bone. My doctor okayed the trip, as long as we rented a wheelchair for me to get around in.

That still left some walking to do, getting on and off the bus, for instance, but once again, I am wearing a walking boot and allowed a minimum of walking. I was even allowed a few stairs here and there, Dr. S being familiar with several London landmarks and aware of what I needed to do to navigate them. I also had a walking stick left over from my trip to Antarctica, to help with balance and getting on and off the bus. So off we went.

I had some pleasant surprises with regard to wheelchair access. All London taxis are equipped to take a wheelchair of the sort I had, and so were 1/3 of the Big Bus Tour "hop on, hop off" tour buses that we took one day to go sightseeing in London. The National Gallery and the British Museum had wheelchair accessible entrances, as well as platform lifts at the main entrances and in between levels on multi-level displays. Staff members were extremely helpful also. We got free admission to Westminster Abbey through the wheelchair accessible entrance.  At the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels exhibit was completely accessible, and even the White Tower had a lift going to the basement where the gift shop is (I passed on that). Hubby's comment was "When they want to get you somewhere, they can." I wasn't able to get to the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul's Cathedral, but I was able to tour the main floor and the crypt (no free admission, though).

The biggest pleasant surprise was that Edinburgh Castle, the least accessible looking place in the world, was the one where the administration and staff seemed to give the most thought to making the place accessible. A car was arranged for to drive my husband and me up the hill to the entrance, at the entrance, a van picked us up and drove us through a tunnel up to the courtyard, and from the courtyard, staff members directed us to the Great Hall, the Scottish Regalia Exhibit, and the accessible door to the restaurant. The van/car team was ready to take us back down again when it was time to go.

So the tourist sites, some of them at least, were as accessible as effort and thought could make them.  The hotel rooms were often another story.

Take our room in Cardiff as an example. It was near the elevator (a plus, because the halls in the hotels we were in have fire doors at intervals, and it was hard for hubby to open doors and push me through before they closed). It had a fold down ironing board at chair height. It had a wheelchair accessible shower with fold-down shower seat, which I couldn't use anyway because I have a soft cast on my foot and was confined to sponge baths, but for most people would be quite useful. It had a sink you could roll up to. And it had a marble threshold between the bedroom and bathroom that rose almost half an inch above the other floor surfaces. Besides which, the room was tiny, making it hard to navigate in a wheelchair for space reasons alone.

Then there were the other two designated handicapped accessible rooms, which had tubs, not showers, which did have grab bars, but didn't look too easy to get in or out of to me. They didn't have awkward thresholds and did have space, however, so they weren't too bad.  I doubt I could have navigated any of those rooms if I had been on my own, though.

Even my son's apartment, which I found easiest of all to navigate, because it had an under-counter refrigerator and electric kettle,  which meant I could get my own breakfast in the morning, had a problem once I got into the hall. I had to go through a fire door to get into the lift, and the lift was so small it barely held the three of us. We couldn't get the wheelchair and the luggage in it at the same time. Outside the apartment we had to travel down a wooden walkway and a stone courtyard to get to the street, which meant I couldn't roll my own chair outdoors.

It just seems odd to me that if ancient buildings like Edinburgh Castle can be made accessible, modern ones are still lacking. Maybe the architects and owners should be sent on a trip, alone, in a wheelchair to see exactly what they would need to make them comfortable and independent.

Maybe pigs will fly.

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