London Wheelchair Access – Snapshot of a Family Trip

By Kathy Wedell,

A day or so after Channel 4’s No Go Britain campaign on April 4th, we set out on a family trip to see the sights of London – my mum and I on legs, my eight year old initiating his wheelchair.  We did a survey of wheelchair access, scoring on two counts:  accessibility, and attitudes of personnel, with later a bonus category of ‘stupidest obstacle’.  On a scale of 1 – 5 where 1 is low and 5 is top score, these were our findings:

  Personnel Access Comments
Oxford station departure 5 5 Timely and proactive support
Paddington arrival 4 2 Significant wait to get off
Paddington mainline station 5 2 Steps and not enough information
Sheldon Square n/a 1 Steps to shops
Hotel 5 4 Helpful staff, slightly disabling building
Paddington Underground station 5 1 Helpful staff, some platforms inaccessible, train inaccessible from platform
Public toilets, Westminster 5 2 Have to get a key and poor access for this
Boat trip on the Thames 5 4 Boat access level but no ramp for boarding
Bus 4 2 Hard to speak to driver, back door access
Pavements n/a 4 Almost always dropped kerbs
Restaurant 4 1 Quite helpful staff, inaccessible toilets
Westminster bridge n/a 2 No direct access to river bank
London Eye 5 5 Inclusive access as standard – a joy!
Paddington departure 5 3 Delay in getting ramp
Oxford station arrival 5 2 Significant wait to get off

Let’s fill in some of the detail: 

After arriving from Oxford by train at Paddington Station, we tried to take the direct route out of the station to our hotel off Sheldon Square.  We followed the signs and did fine – up in the lift and across the upper level – until we got to the current station building works, where you can’t avoid fourteen steps.  We also tried to get out of the station on the advertised new step free access to the new taxi ramp, but then discovered that that route is only to the taxi ramp and is not a general exit.  The only step free way to our hotel from Paddington Station is out of the front exit and right around the whole station complex.

Inexperienced fools that we were, we then attempted to use the London Underground.  Top-scoring lifts and wide access at Paddington brought us to:  steps to the westbound Circle Line platform.  A helpful and sympathetic station official explained that there had been plans a few years ago to provide step-free access, but ‘the money dried up’.  He advised us to go east to Baker Street and change to the Jubilee Line.  But we soon saw that even if you get to the platform, you can’t get on the train – a gap and a step up block your way.

Switching to the bus, we found that access for us was through the back door – a ramp emerged emitting a bruuup-bruuup like something out of Dr Who.  You have to let the driver know your destination before you get on, because once in situ at the back of the bus that is almost impossible.

For access, top score goes to the London Eye, for inclusive access as standard.  Lowest score goes to Sheldon Square, where impressive, or rather, unimpressive, steps lead down to the shops.

Time and again, the people we encountered couldn’t have been more concerned to be inclusive – and top marks here go to the hotel staff at the Novotel Paddington who asked if we needed a hoist to enable my son to access the swimming pool.  But time and again, the designers of public space simply hadn’t adequately considered users of wheelchairs (and often users of other kinds of wheels as well e.g. prams or heavy luggage).  The hotel pool would be inaccessible to users of electric wheelchairs because the access corridor is too narrow.

Some facilities need updating – almost all of the London Underground for a start.  Sometimes ‘access’ is demeaning or inconvenient – arrivingat Paddington on the train, and again arriving back at Oxford, we were the last to get off the train after a lengthy and anxious wait while platform staff organised themselves to get a ramp.

To get around London in a wheelchair you have to know where you are going and plan ahead in detail, very often impossible due to inadequate information.  Forget being in a hurry and good luck to you if you don’t have ambulant people with you.

‘Stupidest obstacle’ top award goes to Westminster Pier:  completely level access is blocked by a set of apparently useless steps going up and then down, the sign to wheelchair access round the side so small and obscured by people that we didn’t see it.  Runner-up award goes to the bollards by the bus stop along Grosvenor Place (the key stop for Buckingham Palace).  Unless the bus is perfectly aligned, the ramp hits the bollards as it comes out.

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