Accessible Travel Destinations
London's accessibility to people with disabilities has improved by leaps and bounds since the last time I was there five years ago. I can say that with absolute confidence. However, "leaps and bounds" is a relative term. Let's define it, shall we?
Five years ago, I couldn't find an accessible bathroom in London, much less train, bus, or hotel. Not only that, I couldn't find anyone who had any kind of training on disability awareness. People in general can be very nice and helpful when assisting a person with a disability, but they certainly weren't mandated any sort of structured training. This has changed...
Whether it is the Anti-discriminatory Legislation of 2010, the upcoming Paralympics, the advocacy and training efforts of organizations like Tourism for All UK, or a combination of all factors, things have improved for the better.
I spent the last week walking, riding, boating, and locating accessible accommodations, attractions, restaurants, tours, and shopping venues for the last eight days. What I saw was profound, yet there is still such a long way to go. This is a large city, with some very old bones. But, what I saw was promising. In many ways, it was more impressive than some of the larger U.S. cities that have been held to American's with Disabilities Standards for quite a bit longer.
Let's get to some specifics.
Make sure you read my story on public transit. It will give you some more detailed insight on how to navigate a system in transition. The good news is that there are far more Underground elevators (lifts), than ever before. The bad news is that they appear to be mostly in the east of London, with a scattering in the central, northern, southern, and western parts of the city. Planning is essential, and timing can be the difference between a frustrated attempt to board overcrowded vehicles, and a pleasant experience. The transit map will be your guide and lifeline. The good news is that there was plenty of assistance at every station (and I visited far more than I can count).
Busses are a better situation. They do have priority areas and ramps on the great majority of the fleet. I could not find one inaccessible bus, and believe me, I looked. Again, pick your time of travel carefully. Busses get filled during rush hour, and no one will be asked to get off to accommodate you.
The Black Taxi fleet can fit wheelchairs of standard size and many have been refurbished with:
- RampsSwivel seat
- Intermediate step
- Seat sight patches
- Large coloured grab handles
- Induction loop
If you require a ramp or other service, you should still call in advance to get one because the odds of flagging one down are small. Although, I was lucky and actually did! However, that is the equivalent to winning the lottery. British Rail
I was very impressed with regional transit trains. Stations were accessible, ramps, elevators, induction loops, and priority areas were clearly visible. Assistance for people with disabilities is available, and staff is very good and well trained. They will get you and your baggage on the train and be sure that there is someone at your destination to assist. There were priority seating areas, as well.
I was able to visit some of the attractions around town, as well as research quite a few prior to the trip on the Inclusive London website. The good news is that there is far more information on accessibility on individual attraction's websites these days. One of the oldest buildings in the city, the Tower of London, has a published accessibility guide, as well. While not all of the buildings are accessible in the Tower of London, the grounds, cafés, restrooms, and major attractions, like the Crown Jewels were very accessible. Other attractions, such as Shakespeare's Globe Theater offer a variety of accommodations for sight, hearing, and mobility impairments.
My Kingdom for An Accessible Bathroom
There was a time when you had to rely on McDonald's to be the accessible bathroom of choice. While this is still the case in some more remote areas of the city, the major tourist areas and attractions all had consistently good bathrooms that outshone many I have seen in the States! In the U.K., they have taken to creating individual bathrooms dedicated to those with disabilities. You will not just find a stall in the existing ladies' or men’s rooms. In most cases, there is ample room for turnaround and a companion. Bars were on either side of the toilet, and a sink was within the room. The great majority of these bathrooms also had emergency alarms attached to a cord, as well.
City Streets, Ramps, and Curb Cuts, oh my!
Major thoroughfares are wide, and curb cuts are excellent! The curbs in London are not that high, so the cuts are not steep. The pavement in most of the areas is level, and they have bumps to alert the sight impaired of the oncoming intersection. Streets off the commercial or main thoroughfares are narrow, and curb cuts are hit or miss. Areas like the famous Portobello Street Market in Notting Hill or SoHo are quite narrow. In the cases of ramps, with the exception of some of the boat ramps, the steepness is consistent with what would find in the States.
Intercontinental Hotels Group, who own the Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, Holiday Inn Express and Crowne Plaza brands, has taken the lead in providing accessibility for all. I visited several properties that had induction loops for the hearing impaired, Braille and raised lettering, hoists in the guest rooms, and excellent bathrooms! Other brands have done a commendable job and continue to make improvements to accessibility in light of increased awareness. I was privileged to be invited to see the brand new Aloft Hotel near the ExCel Center in East London while it was still under construction. It was apparent that inclusive design had been considered throughout the property. The guest rooms are huge and well appointed with accessible features. A few years ago, the legendary Copthorne Tara Hotel was one of the only hotels in London, and is still a leader, but many, many other properties are following the lead and making changes.
Fun and Accessible Things to Do
Rob Lott of the Calvert Trust Exmoor was kind enough to host me for a day at their wonderful Victorian Farmhouse turned adaptive recreation center with lodging. You can read more about the center here, but suffice it to say, that this is an idyllic setting to spend time with the family and enjoy adaptive recreation, including boating, confidence courses, horseback riding, cycling and many other exciting activities. Evenings are spent together enjoying each other's company while playing games, or participating in all sorts of fun.
I have always enjoyed visiting the United Kingdom, especially London. Its history, people, and the variety of things to enjoy make it a mecca for fun-loving travelers who seek an exciting city to enjoy. I'm especially excited at what I've seen in the past week, and look forward to visiting it again to keep up on its amazing process with regard to accessibility.
We will have much, much more information on London when we launch the destination accessibility guide in December! Stay tuned!