Access Denied

10 minute read

Florence Michel and her boyfriend were looking forward to a night out at the movies, and perhaps hoping that the film they were going to see would spark a debate. Michel, a 45-year-old Parisian teacher and avid film buff, takes in up to three movies a week and prefers the kind of challenging art-house fare that can be enjoyed as much during the discussion afterward as in the theater. She had chosen Polissons et Galipettes, a compilation of vintage French blue movies. Art or pornography? That’s a question neither Michel nor her boyfriend had the opportunity to discuss that August evening in 2002 because Michel, who suffers from brittle-bone disease and gets around in a wheelchair, was barred by a cinema employee from entering the MK2 Beaubourg theater next to the Pompidou Center.

The discussion that did ensue was about access rights for people with disabilities. And Michel is taking her case all the way to the French courts by suing the MK2 movie theater chain for discrimination. According to MK2 general director Philippe Aigle, a commission set up under the auspices of the French Interior Ministry instructed the firm in 2002 not to admit wheelchair users for safety reasons. The staffer refused Michel entry, Aigle says, for her and other patrons’ safety in the event of an emergency, where a wheelchair could impede a quick exit: “Safety is an essential concern, and if there is a fire in a 404 Not Found

nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) theater or other sudden hazard, speed of exiting is our first responsibility.” But Michel alleges that she’s been discriminated against because of her disability. “What if someone was refused access to a nightclub just because of the color of his skin?” she asks. “How is this different?”

Michel is far from alone in demanding better treatment for Europe’s estimated 50 million disabled people. The Continent lags behind much of the developed world in accommodating people with impaired mobility. They find themselves blocked from entering airports, buildings, buses, restaurants, subways, toilets and trains. And in the future, ever more people will experience these frustrations as Europe’s elderly, many of whom suffer age-related limits on mobility, increase from 16% of the population today to 21% in 2025. By contrast, disabled access in the U.S. has advanced significantly since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 to prohibit discrimination against disabled people and guarantee access to public buildings. “It’s obvious we have to do something now because we are very much behind other countries, notably the Nordic countries and the U.S.,” says Jean-François Chossy, a deputy in France’s National Assembly, who sponsored a bill in February that prevented the deadline for disabled access from being extended beyond 10 years. “We are very late.”

How could Europe, a Continent that’s usually out in front of the rest of the world on progressive social issues, be so far behind on equal access for all? Governments have been slow to identify the barriers facing disabled people and devise ways around them. Much of Europe’s infrastructure is old, some of it has historical status, and not all can be easily adapted. And legislation is confused and piecemeal.

For Michel, in common with all wheelchair users, physical barriers are a part of daily life. Some 70% of Parisian cinemas are not wheelchair-accessible. Normally, Michel gains access with some help from staff or her able-bodied boyfriend. Indeed, Aigle acknowledges that MK2 sometimes admits disabled people at less crowded times. But the MK2 404 Not Found

nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) Beaubourg cinema felt it couldn’t accommodate Michel on the evening in question. She says she felt stunned and humiliated; her lawsuit, which MK2 is fighting, seeks €5,000 in compensation and could take several years. “We are told it’s because of safety, but it seems just an excuse,” Michel says. “The disabled seem to be the last group left where it is acceptable to limit their rights.” Last month, another French cinema chain, CGR, was found guilty of discrimination against disabled patrons and, though ordered to pay restitution, it was not directed to make the cinema accessible.

That verdict illustrates the contradictions in European law, where moves to ban discrimination against disabled people are still evolving. A European Union directive drawn up in 2000 required all member states to adopt laws prohibiting such discrimination in work and training settings by 2003, but only three states — Italy, Spain, Sweden — had complied by then, so the deadline was extended by three years. Where laws are already in place, enforcement is often lax.

Meanwhile, disabled people are left to fend for themselves. Buses, trains, underground systems and other forms of public transport frequently exclude or disadvantage wheelchair users. Julie Fernandez, 30, an actress who’s appeared on the BBC‘s hit television comedy The Office, has, like Michel, brittle-bone disease, and also uses a wheelchair. She drives a specially adapted vehicle that she purchased with British government disability benefits. “That [Renault] is my only mode of transport,” she says. “Most public transport is just out for me.” Only 43 of London’s 253 Underground stations — just 15% — are disabled-accessible. The station nearest Fernandez’s home on London’s eastern edge has a turnstile wide enough for her wheelchair — but just beyond it are three steps and a flight of stairs that prevent her from reaching the platform.

Mayor Ken Livingstone blames the age of the system. “Most of our stations were built during Victorian or Edwardian times, when disabled people either died at birth or stayed in the home,” he told TIME. “There was no expectation that disabled people would be wheeling around the city.”

Britain’s Disability Discrimination Act, passed in 1995, stipulates that businesses — including transport firms — must take “reasonable steps” to remove physical barriers. However, expense is often a powerful deterrent to rectifying outdated or thoughtless planning. According to Stuart Ross, spokesman for Transport for London (TfL), the capital’s public transport agency, converting an Underground station can cost between $6 million and $185 million. TfL officials estimate it will take five years to make 25% of stations accessible, and 15 years to make 50% of them accessible. But unlike the Underground, London’s buses will all be accessible by next year. And under London’s Dial-A-Ride program, disabled people are entitled to an unlimited number of trips in licensed black taxis, subject to availability.

Traveling beyond city limits can prove even more difficult than navigating urban areas, as Louis Pion finds when he takes the train from the Belgian university town of Louvain-la-Neuve near Brussels to his parents’ home in Leuze-en-Hainaut, near the French border. The 23-year-old theology student, who has cerebral palsy, telephones the station a day ahead and arrives early to ensure staff set up a ramp so he can board the train in his wheelchair. But rail employees aren’t there to work the ramp after 9 p.m. or at weekends. “If I travel, I can’t return in the evening,” Pion says.

Less than half of Belgium’s 245 rail stations are fully accessible to disabled passengers. According to Jochem Goovaerts, a spokesman for the Belgian National Rail Company, many stations are too small or poorly staffed to accommodate wheelchair users — and this is unlikely to improve soon. “We are modernizing a few stations and it is taken into account if possible,” he says. Even onboard, says Cleon Angelo, 47, a wheelchair user who heads the disabled-rights group Autonomia in Brussels, the disabled can expect “medieval” treatment. 404 Not Found

nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) “When we arrive, we often have to use the delivery entrance,” he says. “On most trains there isn’t space for wheelchairs, and we are put in the common area where other passengers put their luggage.”

Political will and injections of funding could smooth out most problems with public transport. Europe’s rich heritage of old buildings throws up knottier problems. A survey last year by the office of Rome city councillor Ileana Argentin, 40, a lawyer with the genetic disease spinal amyotrophy, found that only 20% of public buildings in the city were fully accessible; wheelchair users could enter some areas in a further 60%, and 20% were completely blocked to them. Argentin understands the arguments for conservation — “Imagine if I tried to make the Spanish steps accessible! I’d destroy them” — but she despairs that architects frequently ignore a 1989 law requiring disabled access in all new structures, despite fines of up to €25,000 and possible license suspension.

The scarcity of accessible toilets also deters many wheelchair users from socializing. In Britain, the cerebral palsy charity Scope found that only 66% of 1,300 clubs, restaurants and other facilities had accessible toilets. When Miguel Angel Fernández goes out in Madrid, he sticks to familiar haunts. “You get used to going to the same cafés, bars and shops,” says Fernández, 31, paralyzed from the waist down by a motorcycle accident 11 years ago. “Dozens of others are just impossible. Either the doors are too narrow, there are steps to get in and, in most of them, the toilets are up or down a flight of stairs. And even when they are on the same floor, they are too small to take a chair in.”

In some countries, including Britain, Germany and Italy, no agency directly polices access, leaving disabled people to enforce what laws there are by suing violators. Briton Bob Ross, who prevailed over discount airline Ryanair in court after he was charged $26 to use a wheelchair at London’s Stansted Airport three years ago, says this is unfair. “Even though the legislation is there, the onus is on [disabled] people to take the action, and for many reasons a lot of them can’t do that,” says Ross, 56, who has cerebral palsy and arthritis. Ryanair appealed the court’s decision.

There are a few places trying to make life easier, like the city of Arhus in Denmark. City authorities offer newly disabled Arhus residents wheelchair-accessible housing; if that’s not possible, they get help in adapting their homes. Local trains are equipped with same-level access, space for wheelchairs and disabled-friendly toilets. A 2003 policy requires all new and renovated buildings to be accessible, and retailers are instructed by city building authorities on how to improve shop layouts for the disabled. “We are unrelenting when owners — both private and public — apply for building permission for buildings with public access,” 404 Not Found

nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) says the city’s chief building inspector, Thorkild Kjaer. “They don’t get it unless they meet the requirements for accessibility. Our aim is to make Arhus a city for all.”

In Berlin, one new structure looks set to remain difficult for the disabled. The Holocaust memorial — a 19,000-sq-m installation of 2,700 concrete blocks — officially opens on May 10, but wheelchair users will find their visits tricky. Many of the blocks are spaced just 95 cm apart along paths with gradients of up to 25%; many wheelchair users can’t navigate the corners, and they and other disabled people find the slopes too steep. “I want to be able to remember — without barriers — my Jewish ancestors who were murdered in a concentration camp,” says wheelchair user Sigrid Arnade, 48. “I don’t want to be annoyed by barriers that are again being put up for disadvantaged groups in the 21st century, barriers that bar access to me.” A disabled-rights group sued Berlin’s Department for City Development to demand revisions, on the basis that the design breached the state’s law on equal opportunities — and that disabled people had been persecuted during the Holocaust. A German court rejected the suit, arguing that the changes would injure “the nature of the artistic conception.”

Europe’s disabled people complain that their concerns about access have been dismissed for too long. “We simply cannot be refused access to places because of disabilities,” Michel says. Many like her are no longer willing to accept what they see as second-class treatment.

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