As London prepares to host the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics their accessibility for travelers increases with each renovation. Still, traveling through a city with cobble stones and buildings that date back hundreds of years present many challenges and obstacles to those of us with mobility issues. I will give them major credit for improving conditions and everyone we encountered in the tourism and hospitality industry was friendly, compassionate, and very helpful.
London is probably my favorite city, and I could easily live there again. I was a little concerned that it would be very difficult to navigate around this historic city and that it would never be the same for me because of my mobility challenges. But I was able to do and see some of my favorite things – with a little help from my friends, Lonnie and Traci. Thanks girls!
Transportation: If you use a wheelchair or have trouble with climbing stairs, then take the bus. The London underground is very old, and while some of their stations claim to have step-free access from the platform to the street we discovered that was not entirely true. If you look at the London underground map and use any of the stations marked as accessible you will find lifts to take you to and from the platform, however there will almost always be a step (and often a gap to mind) from the platform to the subway car. What they need is a system like I found in Copenhagen where they simply put down a lightweight ramp for a wheelchair to roll on and off. Luckily I was traveling with Lonnie and Traci who would carry my chair on, and usually I would drive it off – to the shock of our fellow passengers. Again, take the bus as all London public busses are accessible. If you choose to take one of the hop on/off tours (which I highly recommend to anyone visiting a place for the first time) note that only a portion of those buses are accessible so you may end up waiting for the next bus, which isn’t bad – except if it is cold, raining, and windy.
The busses make the journey a little longer than taking the tube, but you do get to see more of the city that way.
A word to the wise about using the buses – make SURE your bus driver knows where you want to get off. London busses don’t have a special call button that requests the ramp like most US buses have. You have to make sure the driver knows where you want to end your journey. If you are traveling with friends it wouldn’t hurt to send one of them up to the driver to remind them about lowering the ramp. My friends and I were on the bus and told the driver we were getting off at Regent Street. When the we got to that stop, Lonnie jumped off with the other passengers while Traci waited with me for the ramp – that was never deployed! Off we were down Regent Street with Lonnie running after the bus. Traci went up to the bus driver and told him we meant to get off and needed the ramp, he seemed to forget and could care less. She stayed there until the next stop so he wouldn’t forget again. Luckily it was only a few blocks from where Lonnie got off and we headed back to her. Funny story, when this all went down the other passengers on the bus started yelling at the bus driver too because they thought Lonnie was our mom! “You lost your mum? What are you going to do?,” was what this one lady kept saying to us over and over again. No worries, we met up with our panicked “mum” shortly and were on our way.
Accommodation: Again in preparation for the Olympics many hotels are making their properties more and more accessible. For wheelchair users you will want to ensure your hotel has “an accessible path of travel” at the very least. Expedia is great for researching the accessibility of hotels. Finding an actual accessible room in London will be a challenge as each hotel only has a few. The real problem we ran into was that we were a party of three and the limit on most accessible rooms is 2 people.
Shops and Restaurants:
Like most European cities these are going to be hit or miss with steps and ramps. And even if you can roll into a shop or restaurant, the space inside can be very cramped. I took an 8 foot long bike lock with me just for this reason. I could lock my scooter up outside and then walk into the restaurant or shop.
Museums and Attractions: Most London museums are accessible as are most of their attractions to a certain level. The Tower of London has limited access because of the amount of old, spiral, and uneven staircases. However there is still plenty to see and do at the Tower including seeing the Crown Jewels and if you can manage 5 steps with a handrail you can go into the chapel.
Concessions: This is a word you want to learn. Tons of London attractions and even theatres offer “concession” tickets which are discounted tickets for disabled and elderly visitors. Additionally, they also often offer a free caregiver ticket. This saved us a lot of money. If you don’t “look” disabled you will want to bring some sort of documented proof with you. Call the location and ask what they will accept for proof.
Theaters: No trip to London is complete without an evening in the West End. Some of these theaters are small and very old, yet they will make every effort to accommodate you. The larger venues that usually host the big budget musicals often have the latest and greatest gadgets to get you and your wheels into the seating area.
We saw two shows this past trip, one large and one small. We saw In a Forest Dark and Deep (the best written play I have ever seen, and I have seen A LOT!) at the Vaudeville Theatre which is one of the smaller ones. We had do some creative planning in order to see this show. Because the theatre is so small, I had to transfer to a standard wheelchair but fire laws prevented us from being able to store my scooter anywhere. I had the bike lock, but didn’t fancy locking it up for 2 hours when I couldn’t peek out the window and watch it like I could in a shop or restaurant. We ended up storing at the left luggage site at Charing Cross station. This only works if you have a scooter that breaks apart like mine into pieces that are small enough to fit through a standard luggage x-ray machine. My friends dropped me off at the theater where the staff rigged up a wheelchair into this tank-like stair climbing contraption. Because I had to wait for the entire theatre to clear and for my friends to collect and bring back my scooter I got to meet and chat with the writer and director Neil LaBute! Being last out of the theater can have its advantages.
We also saw Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. This theater was much larger and had stair lifts installed to get me from the street into the lobby and from the lobby to our seating. I did have to transfer to a standard wheelchair, but they did have room to store my scooter.
Always call ahead to verify the availability of wheelchair space and the extent of their “accessibility” because as we learned there are many levels of accessibility and only you will know what works for you.
With some attractions, like Madame Tussaud’s you really should book in advance because they can only have a certain amount of wheelchairs in the building at one time – fire laws again. That being said, the staff at Madame Tussaud’s couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating. We did book a time in advance and that helped, but everyone we came into contact with was extraordinary. Please note that it is their policy that anyone arriving with any sort of mobility device will not be allowed to ride the Sprit of London attraction (slow moving amusement park type of ride)- evacuation stuff again. There is a café attached to Madame Tussaud’s gift shop with access to the street via stairs, but they do have a stair lift. You just need to ask one of the workers for assistance and they will be more than happy to help you out.
All in all, London is surprisingly accessible for disabled travelers, you just have to do your research and you can’t do it all online. You have to make phone calls.
I still love London and can’t wait to go back!