This summer, I visited Europe with six friends. I'm typically reliant upon a wheelchair, but this trip was different. The places I wanted to see, the things I wanted to do, weren't necessarily going to be handicap accessible. So, we left my wheelchair in Atlanta and flew across the pond with a modified backpack.
My friends carried me around as we explored Paris, as well as some smaller towns along the Seine River. We did the same in England, visiting London, Oxted, and Westerham, then in Ireland, and Skellig Michael, in particular. All of the places we stayed in were up several flights of stairs, and I knew that I wouldn't have use of my wheelchair on the green, rolling hills of the English countryside. But it was the cities and the transit systems, even our time in the Irish coast, that gave me a new perspective on what it means to be handicap accessible.
In the early 90s, the United States came up with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which required businesses and public places to be handicap accessible. To this day, it is enforced in some parts of the country and not so much in others. It's interesting, though, because, like most laws, it can only do so much to affect the change it's hoping for. For example, even if a business complies to have a ramp at the entrance, they might only have barstool seating once you're inside. You can pour a sidewalk with laws, but it's a lot harder to change a mindset.
So, on that note, I went to Europe. And here's what I found - it would have the ADA weeping and gnashing its teeth. Steps everywhere, wonky roads, narrow doorways, cluttered rooms. Whether it was historic, makeshift, or just a fancy design, Paris to Skellig Michael is a wheelchair's nightmare from start to finish. And yet... it was actually accessible for me.
The accessibility came not from pavement, proper measurements, or hydraulics. It came from people working together to accommodate in otherwise difficult circumstances.
We went out to dinner one night with our host in Oxted. Up to this point on the trip, I would sit in the backpack for meals, just on the floor by the table and the guys would feed me from there. As we sat down to eat, our host, Mike, expressed his desire for me to be "up with everyone else." With his help, our ingenuity, and the happy cooperation of the restaurant's staff, we found a way to put chairs together and set my backpack up to the table height.
Later, when I asked Mike about the trains and the London Underground, he explained how they are accessible. I had seen elevators and wide ticket gates for wheelchair access, but the cars themselves had a gap or step into them. He explained that ramps can be provided and spots in the cars can be cleared for wheelchairs, if handicapped individuals express the need. While I didn't ask, I assume by observation that the same goes for Paris. As a side note, we were met with similar hospitality at the cafés of Paris, accepting and accommodating our obvious needs without batting an eye.
Finally, we came to Skellig Michael, a brooding island seven miles off the west coast of Ireland. This was the pinnacle of our journey, and certainly the greatest challenge. My friends had trained for this, to carry me 600 ancient steps to the top, around the sacred grounds of the great monastery, and then back down. It was a feat, to say the least, and we had some concerns whether or not the authorities would permit us to even go. But we were pleased to find our boatmen generous and helpful, and the guides on the island were thrilled at our ambition.
As we climbed, they checked on us and gave us direction for some of the more difficult parts. Skellig Michael, with all its vertical climbs and winding paths, was suddenly accessible because my friends carried me and the guides pitched in with knowledge and moral support.
This is the key to handicap accessibility. Elevators and handrails are nice, but at the end of the day limitations are overcome by people understanding, working together, and getting creative.
Wheelchairs simply can't go everywhere. But what will always make an impossible situation possible is when the disabled is optimistic, the friends are innovative, and the outsider is cooperative. Like so many issues today, it's really a matter of the heart and the mindset of the community. When we truly want to be inclusive and are willing to put forth the effort to see that happen, the world opens up to ourselves and those around us, regardless of disabilities. And that is true accessibility.