Sometimes, because I am British so my default position is to be cynical and miserable about everything, I forget how awesome our Capital is. However, driving across Waterloo Bridge, on the rare occasion the sky doesn’t resemble a pair of 10 year old white knickers and I get a chance to look at the view without having to dodge someone on a bicycle, I’m reminded of just how incredible London is. With one quick turn of your head you can see the (oh so beautiful) Southbank, The London Eye, St Pauls, Big Ben, the Gherkin and several other famous landmarks – It’s a view to rival any other counties’.
But how accessible is London? As we’re currently basking in the glory of the Paralympics and the realisation that disabled people are people too you would think it would have outstanding accessibility right? Well actually… it’s pretty good! There are major flaws, although I am undoubtedly more aware and frustrated by them because I try to get around London regularly and not just to the obvious tourist places. For the most part however, great thought and effort has been put into providing for the needs of disabled people. I personally also feel that there has been a change in attitude towards disabled people, and an interest in disabled rights since the Paralympics. I feared the Paralympics would be an embarrassment, with athletes stuck at the airport unable to even get in to London and although it pains my frosty British heart to say it – I was extremely proud of the whole thing!
Personally, one of my biggest gripes with London has always been getting around. It’s the only place in Europe that my disabled blue badge doesn’t allow me to park on double or single yellow lines – which is intensely frustrating and has on a number of occasions meant I’ve had to ditch my plans (always in Soho!) due to being unable to park anywhere near where I need to. However, several of the bigger tourist attractions have a small number of bookable disabled bays so if you’re visiting London as a tourist you probably could drive around if your mobility needs made it a requirement. Living there would be another story and that’s why I haven’t quite plucked up the courage to move out of the (insanely boring) countryside!
The London Underground system is an absolute nightmare if you can’t do stairs and escalators (I’m close to cracking one of those two!) Most of the stations are not accessible, and don’t pretend to be. However, something that most people don’t realise and is truly the most ridiculous thing is that an ‘accessible station’ here means just that; the station is accessible, you can get to the platform. To get on the train however could still involve a large step and/or a gap big enough to lose a pony down!
Tip: The ‘step free tube guide’ helps you avoid the stations with a large gap or step to the train if it’ll be a problem and the ‘avoiding steps guide’ tells you which stations are completely step free (to platform), have a lift, escalator or a small number of steps:
Tip: In some stations listed as accessible you won’t be able to get on (and more importantly off) the train without an assistant bringing a portable ramp up to the train. You need to ask at the ticket office or information button BEFORE you get on the train if you’re going to one of these stations (see map above) and they’ll arrange for someone to meet you with this ramp (and help you up it if you need it) at the other end. Personally I find this system extremely stressful as it relies on a lot of people effectively communicating for the system to work. Saying that though I haven’t personally had a problem.
Tip: It’s probably fair to say that London commuters can have a bit of a reputation for being unhelpful or rude. In reality I believe that it’s political correctness on steroids. Generally (although I do think this is one of the major things that has changed since the Paralympics) people are reluctant to offer help for fear of patronising and/or offending you. You’ll never see so many people with their face buried in a book, earphones in, looking in the wrong direction, asleep or on the phone as when you look like you’re struggling! (The same thing applies to giving up a seat to a pregnant woman though) I’ve found that if you ask for help people are always happy to give it and they’ll skip off for the day delighted with their act of selfless chivalry. If you get stuck at a tube station with a step or gap you can’t manage, although it’s embarrassing, ask for help and you’ll be on your way in no time!
The Overground, DLR and National Rail:
If you fancy seeing the East of London you might be able to use the Overground or DLR. They’re above ground lines and more modern so are generally more accessible – although often use the transportable ramp system mentioned above. If you want to go a bit further out of the centre sometimes the National Rail trains can be a good option and are much faster than the buses.
A better option:
In all honesty the best way to get around London is the buses. They all have wheelchair ramps fitted and these days they seem to be kept in good working order. It’s best if you can signal to the bus driver before he pulls up so they can pull up in the best spot. The ramps are electronic and can be quite temperamental, if they sense anything in their way, including a person running past, they’ll go back in again and have to be redeployed. If the driver hasn’t seen you or you want to get off the bus there are blue wheelchair buttons to press. The driver will not get off the bus to help you and often the ramps can be quite steep, unfortunately the buses are often full of old people and mothers so it can be harder to find someone to help you. If you’re off a main route the buses can also be quite infrequent.
Tip: The TFL journey planner is invaluable for figuring out what buses you need to take and can take mobility requirements into consideration
You can also use the ‘Live Bus Departures’ page to decide whether to have another coffee or go a sit outside and freeze your fingertips off! http://countdown.tfl.gov.uk/#/
Supposedly all London black cabs (not minicabs) are wheelchair accessible. In reality the ramps are used so infrequently they are rusted shut or the driver doesn’t know how to fold it out. If you do get the ramp working it will be extremely steep, although the driver should help you. There also isn’t really that much room in the cab for a wheelchair (even a small manual one) and you might feel a bit like a Newfoundland in a Mini.
Other important considerations:
In Central London drop kerbs are abundant and generally good, except for Soho where they are non existent. Outside of the very centre they’re still fairly abundant but can be a bit hit and miss on how dropped or smooth they are. You shouldn’t have a problem getting on and off them but just watch out you don’t get a caster wheel stuck in a gap and faceplant the pavement!
In all tourist attractions and bigger or chain restaurants you’ll find a disabled toilet. In older buildings and smaller cafes etc toilets might be downstairs or down a narrow corridor. Restaurants and hotels usually let you use their toilets even if you’re not a customer so it shouldn’t be too much of a concern.
Often places with a step up into the building have a temporary ramp so if you have someone with you send him or her in to ask. Doorways are often quite narrow so this is an important consideration if you have a large chair.
I’ll cover some places to visit in another post but I all the main tourist attractions are accessible.
Accessibility rating: 7/10 – A lot of effort has been put into making London accessible, and considering it’s a very old city a pretty good job has been done. The underground is woefully inadequate and an ‘accessible’ sign only means you can get to the platform, not the train. The buses all have wheelchair ramps but they can be very steep. People are generally helpful but are shy to offer the help so you’ll have to ask.