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Photo by Helena Todorovic
Disabled access home
A wheelchair user waits to get on a bus via the vehicle's ramp system
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Photo by Helena Todorovic
Disabled access at beach
Amphibious vessels allow access to the sea for disabled people
This year marks a series of milestones for Europe’s disabled community. It is, for example, 10 years since the Amsterdam Treaty was signed, a Europe-wide initiative that, amongst other things, guarantees the protection of people with disabilities against all forms of discrimination. It is also a decade since the European Disability Forum (EDF) was born, a proactive organisation that aims to be “the collective voice of the [50 million] disabled people across Europe”, and which has been working hard to put disability issues on the Brussels agenda. This year is also the European Year of Equal Opportunities.
So it seems a fitting moment to see just how ‘equal’ people with disabilities—10 percent of Europeans—really feel. Barcelona, with just under 100,000 registered disabled people, is held up as a flagship city for disability issues. This summer, for instance, all its buses were declared fully accessible after a drive to fit ramps and special seatbelts for wheelchair users was completed. More than 60 percent of the streets now meet the Ajuntament’s accessibility criteria, which includes dropped kerbs, audible traffic lights and easily negotiable crossings, and it is on the way to having one specially adapted park in every district.
This is a huge improvement from 1992, when wheelchair athletes here for the Special Olympics complained bitterly and publicly about the city’s lack of access. “For the last 10 years, the Ajuntament’s main focus has been transport and public areas,” according to city councillor Ricard Gomà. He presides over the Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities (IMD), which he calls a “radically democratic” organisation that has representatives from all sections of the disabled community. “Today, every one of our 450 public buildings is completely adapted to help people with disabilities, whether they are a wheelchair user, deaf or blind. Our buses all have ramps and seat belts, and we provide a subsidised taxi service, Taxi Amic, which has a specially adapted fleet to carry people whose disabilities prevent them from using public transport.”
However, he conceded that there is still a lot to do. “With the metros, for example, we had an intensive investment programme in 2003-2004 to incorporate lifts, announcements at each stop and screens, but adapting the trains for wheelchair users will take longer as it is more technical and expensive.”
Lelica Drass is a 30-year-old resident foreigner from France, who teaches French and asked that her real name not be used. She has been in a wheelchair since she broke her back 18 months ago. “Barcelona is a relatively modern city and most of its growth has been since the Olympics, so it has been much easier to think about access issues,” she said. “Compared to Paris, for example, it is very advanced. The streets are easy to negotiate, and three of its beaches are equipped with amphibious vessels, with Red Cross volunteers on hand to help users into the water, which is great.”
However, she disputed the councillor’s claim that the buses are fully accessible. “I still have to be accompanied up the bus ramp at some stops if the incline is too high, and even if I could make it on my own, I am always worried I will roll back. It can be very humiliating. The metros are a definite no-go. Although the lifts make access easier, there are steps on many of the trains, or big gaps between the doors and the platforms. If I want to use the Taxi Amic service, the average wait is 45 minutes because of demand.”
When the Ajuntament finished adapting its buses, Drass lost her right to the free taxi service. “Because I am not severely disabled, the Ajuntament has said that I should now take the bus,” she said. “I can get to work on the bus without help, it is true, but to come back it is really difficult because one of the stops is on a heavy incline.”
Because parts of the taxi service were withdrawn just before summer—“under the cover of darkness and with treachery”, according to the Assembly of Users of Door-to-Door Transport—the Ajuntament received some bad press. In response, Gomà told Metropolitan: “The door-to-door service was not stopped, just modified. Now that the city buses are fully adapted, the door-to-door service should only be used by those persons who have a grade of disability that means they cannot use the buses unassisted, or where the bus stops are not sufficiently close to the house, or when getting to them is difficult.”
However, this turned out not to be his final word on the subject. In late September, Gomà conceded to the local press that some mistakes had been made, and said that adjustments would shortly be undertaken to the programme, designed to correct these errors.
Architect Frederic Crespo, 46, broke his spinal cord three years ago in a car accident. Although he uses a wheelchair, he is able to drive a car, so for him the mobility issue is not such a problem. However, he agreed with Drass about bus access. “The best solution would be to let people who can get in and out of a wheelchair, like myself, use the regular Barcelona taxis, and pay subsidised rates, or make the fares tax-deductible, leaving the Taxi Amic service for those with more severe disabilities.”
For Crespo, the main problems in his day-to-day life are the steps outside private buildings. “There are so many restaurants, cafés and shops that are out of bounds for me. Barcelona is, however, way ahead of most other cities and most of the time I am fine. I started at my firm just before I had the accident, for example, and they have done everything possible to accommodate me.”
Lelica Drass has also found that work is not a problem. It seems she and Crespo are the lucky ones. Although employment laws are changing slowly, many disabled people still feel discriminated against in the workplace, particularly in the private sector.
Francesca Llorens, 62, went completely deaf at the age of 23, and today represents the city’s deaf community at IMD meetings. “It is very difficult for deaf people to find work, and we are very often marginalised,” she said.
She also finds that her disability too often puts limits on her daily life. “If I go to watch a film in Catalan or Spanish, it doesn’t usually have subtitles. It is the same at the theatre, conferences, talks…a thousand things that I am interested in,” she said. “But communication is the biggest problem. I often have to turn to family, friends or a neighbour for help. It is difficult to be independent.”
While improvements have been made, there is, undoubtedly, still a long way to go. The EDF will, therefore, be using the next 10 years to step up its campaign and bring more far-reaching equality legislation to the table. In the meantime, the Ajuntament will press ahead with inclusive community projects.
“We are aiming for normalisation and for people to live as in dependently as possible,” said Gomà. “The disabled people of Barcelona have been protesting outside City Hall for 30 years. It is only thanks to them that changes are being made, and we will continue to listen.”
First published in November 2007.
August 2010 Update:
In 2008, the Ajuntament released a programme of action outlining goals for 2008-2011. A section focused specifically on the needs of disabled residents, aiming to improve conditions of mobility, communication, housing, and independent living.
In an annual report released by the IMD in 2009, several specific improvements have already been made to accessibility in Barcelona:
- By the end of 2008, 91% of city streets were classified as accessible by the Ajuntament’s guidelines, improving on the 60% in 2007.
- 100% of city buses had been classified as accessible and 100% of metro stops had either installed lifts or were in the process of doing so.
- Several events and attractions were improved in 2008, including Montjuïc Castle, Rua de Carnaval, several beaches, libraries, and museums.
- An action programme was put in place to outline goals for improvements between 2008 and 2011. These goals include
For a complete look at recent improvements, read the annual report here, or look over the IMD’s website. The goals outlined until 2011 are part of the Municipal Programme of Action, readable in Catalan here.