Accessible London

When we lived in London we did not plan to get a pram or a stroller when Sebastian was born; they were inconvenient for the public transport system. Very few tube stations had elevators or even escalators to get down below. Buses often got too crowded so it was also an inconvenience. They also had to get close enough to the curb to allow you to push on. Instead we searched for the perfect carrier. We found one we liked, but when Sebastian was born, he didn’t like it. Must’ve had something to do with his traumatic birth and all. Ali’s parents ordered us a very nice convertible pram but the only way he’d use it was if he was already asleep. And it was HUGE, so we rarely took it on the bus and it was impossible for the tube. But great for walks in the park and around our neighborhood.

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Fast forward to 4.5 years later. We were going to London with a wheelchair. When I think back to London I do not recall seeing anyone out and about in a wheelchair. Maybe once or twice, in the two plus years living there. London is old. Old isn’t accessible without modifications. In Toronto, I see folks of all ages, all around town in wheelchairs. A lot of electric chairs for adults and kids being pushed by parents or care givers. It makes me feel like we live in a fairly accessible, integrated society. At least on the streets (don’t get me started on the subject of schools). There are several train stations with elevator access here. Getting back to London. Ali always said I noticed it more here because we had a son in a wheelchair and when we lived in London, we didn’t. Yet. I disagreed.

I think we all know how awesome the trip went with the airline and even airport staff and security. The next test would be London itself. A major metropolis that had just hosted the Olympics and the Paralympics.

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The buses: they had new ramps. With the push of a button, the back double doors opened and out it came. Before, the driver would have to get out of the bus to pull down a ramp; I saw this once or twice. Major convenience upgrade. The problem? Uneducated bus drivers. Even though one of us would get on in front to tell the driver we had a chair, they would lower the bus but not the ramp. It would end with me arguing with them because ramps are only for wheelchairs, not strollers. I told one to try lifting our chair onto a bus with a curb and a gap. I was livid. Really?! Apparently our wheelchair didn’t look disabled enough. The only difference with Seb’s chair and others is the big vs small wheels. I would hate to have an adapted stroller! So after arguing that yes, in fact, it is a wheelchair, the driver would have to close and reopen the door for the ramp to come out. Now, wouldn’t it have been easier to just press the ramp button in the first place? It’s about feeling welcome and even independent rather than an inconvenience. Once on the bus, there is a space for your chair next to a button that notifies the driver you need the ramp at your stop. Yet still, one of us had to request it verbally and the driver had to move closer to the curb to let the ramp out. This could have been avoided had he paid attention to our initial request. I’m writing Transport for London and suggesting some education classes for those drivers.

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The tube/London Underground: on the Transport for London website there is great detail in regards to accessible and not so accessible stations. Right down to the gap measurement between the trains and the platforms, whether there are stairs, escalators or elevators. This is great. An improvement. But there are still many stations that are not wheelchair accessible. And when you have a wheelchair, that is how you plan your trip. We took very long bus rides. Which wasn’t bad because we got to see so many things out the window. But it took a long time and coming home was especially hard on Sebastian. We had to take him out of his chair and rest. He sat on his papa-daddy’s lap and enjoyed people watching. It also meant we could really only do one major outing for the day (and we did a lot of walking). But I think that is pretty much to be expected travelling with kiddos, especially an infant. We did need to take the train a couple of times and decided to take the small MacLaren stroller instead of the Red Racer. For one trip, had we taken the train it would have added an hour to our journey as we would have had to have taken a different route entirely; the other trip was a rainy day and we were headed to Covent Garden and we knew getting into shops, etc. would have also been a challenge with the wheelchair. It was nice to have that option, although Sebastian prefers eating out in his chair rather than the stroller, so that was the downside for those two trips.

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Sebastian doesn’t like really loud noises so we took some noise cancelling ear muffs for him. He wore them on the tube so was able to tolerate the screeching of the breaks on the tracks. It was nice and efficient taking the tube. London has a great underground system. We didn’t travel during rush hour, so never had to fight the crowds. One difference I did notice at Liverpool Street station were bright pink signs pointing in the direction of elevators and ramp areas. I used to take the bus to this station when I was heavily pregnant and could no longer squeeze into the Central line from Bethnal Green, so I’m very familiar with it. There haven’t been modifications but there has been an effort to point out the accessibility that is already there. I do assume that was brought in for the Olympics and am happy it stayed. Even though we had the stroller, it was so much more convenient.

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How did Tallula do on public transit? She travelled in the Boba carrier and either slept or smiled at the folks sitting next to us. Sebastian liked riding the bus, but even with the ear muffs he wasn’t a fan of the underground. It was fun to take a train from Paddington station, just like Paddington Bear. As for me? It was difficult. Not impossible, but having a car is so much easier. In Toronto. I was thankful we were doing it as a family and I didn’t have to navigate the system on my own with two kids. Which is what we’d do if we lived there. Which is why we won’t.

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4 thoughts on “Accessible London

  1. This was interesting. Even sometimes in Toronto when I’m with a client, Seb’s size or lower to the ground, the bus will lower the ramp, and I have to wait for the ramp or let them know it’s a wheelchair. Sometimes, just stand there and stare at them, sometimes they figure it out.

    I find no matter where I travel or how, add a wheelchair, stroller or anything that needs extra room and more than one child, it can be a bit of a gong show. Always enjoyed by those partaking, but I would love to be on the other end sometimes.

  2. Pingback: Five. | Free As Trees

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