Disabled visitors face high hurdles to London Olympics

Courtesy of Laura Hamilton

Laura Hamilton exits a double-decker bus in London.

The Olympic and Paralympic Games which London has promised will be the most accessible and inclusive ever are just weeks away. All sports venues are fully equipped for disabled visitors, but many city-goers with physical impairments say they still feel like second-class citizens on public transport.

“I am shocked at how disabled I am here; I have never felt so handicapped,” said Laura Hamilton, a 28-year-old American with muscular dystrophy living in London.

“I’m scared to go out on my own,” said the Californian, who quit her job in San Francisco and moved to Britain in March “to see the world” before her condition deteriorates.

Courtesy of Laura Hamilton

Laura Hamilton in the handicapped section of a double-decker bus in London.

The London Underground is by far the fastest way to get around the city, but with just a handful of stations in the historic heart of the capital offering step-free access, Hamilton said “it’s more of a novelty for wheelchair users.”

All black cabs are accessible, but using taxis or a car as a primary form of transportation is prohibitively expensive for most residents, so wheelchair users rely heavily on buses.

But Hamilton, who uses a small electric scooter, said that “most times the drivers don’t want to pull into the curb so I’m told I can’t get on at all.”

Paralympian crawls off train
Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, who won 11 gold medals for Great Britain in five Paralympic Games and is a board member of Transport for London (TFL), the city's group responsible for the transportation system, described how she recently had to crawl off a train. 

“My train was late into Kings Cross Station and the station had pretty much closed and there was no one who came to get me,” said the parliamentarian and TV presenter, who was born with spina bifida.

“So I got out of my chair, pushed my chair off, and crawled out of the train and got back into it,” she said.

Despite that incident and other cases of being “forgotten” on long-distance trains, the athlete said the situation within London has improved greatly in recent years.

Andrew Yates / AFP-Getty Images file

Tanni Grey-Thompson waves to the crowd after her last-ever race in the T53 200 meters in 2007.

“But people coming from countries like the U.S. and Canada will find it a bit more tricky,” she said.

Dating back to 1863, the London Underground is the oldest metropolitan railway in the world. Disabled access renovations only began after a wheelchair ban was lifted less than 20 years ago.

TFL, which is run by the mayor, scrapped its promise to make a quarter of stations step free by 2010 and a third by 2013.

Now, 65 of the 270 stations have step free access from street to platform, but most of those still have a gap between the platform and train.

Wheelchair access will be available at locations key to the Games Stratford for the Olympic Park, Southfields for tennis at Wimbledon, and Green Park for equestrian events but, not at the vast majority of tourist hot spots, including Piccadilly Circus, Notting Hill, and Covent Garden.

Grey-Thompson said upgrades had to be chosen carefully as “it costs more than 100 million pounds to make a central London station wheelchair-accessible.”

‘Left to the side of the road’
Meanwhile, the bus system was completely overhauled in 2007.

“Our bus fleet is the most accessible fleet in the world with every one of our 8,500 buses low-floor wheelchair-accessible and fitted with ramps,” said Wayne Trevor, Accessibility Manager for TFL. However, only 60 percent of bus stops are fully accessible.

“We get a lot of complaints from wheelchair users left to the side of the road,” said Lianna Etkind, Campaigns and Outreach Coordinator for disabled rights group Transport for All.

Californian Hamilton said she often feels like a “third-class citizen” as her husband begs drivers to let her on and one in four drive away without her.

“Drivers are definitely required to pick up disabled passengers,” TFL said in an email response, adding that passengers are encouraged to lodge complaints which can result in driver retraining or dismissal.

The installation of tactile paving and audio-visual displays has assisted blind and deaf passengers, but recession-induced staff cuts have made it harder to receive personal assistance.

Carole Cherrington, a blind 43-year-old who has lived in London her entire life, took the Underground on her own for the first time in March. She said she had to rely on a stranger to get to her destination and found the journey “extremely distressing.”

TFL has since provided her with a “travel buddy” free of charge, but she said: “I feel excluded by society in being able to get around independently; I hope having the Paralympics here will bring more awareness.”

Michael Theobold, who is profoundly deaf, said that he had encountered dangerous situations when he couldn’t hear last-minute audio announcements.

The 64-year-old former teacher recalled in an email interview that he was unable to hear a warning to move along the track at Marble Arch station.

“There was a sudden surge of people and I was very nearly knocked off balance on to the electrified track,” he said.

‘An army of volunteers’
Transport for London is eager to ensure that the Olympics run without a hitch.

“An army of volunteers will be drafted in to assist our operations during Games time,” TFL said in an email.

Scores of extra buses, manual track-to train ramps, and fast-response elevator engineers will also be brought in.

Transport for All’s Etkind said she was hopeful that the extra resources would help disabled visitors get around the city successfully. 

“It’s great that TFL is improving access to the Underground during the Olympics and Paralympics. But access and inclusion isn’t just for Games time, it’s for life,” she said.

More: Londoners express hopes, frustrations as Olympics come to town 
Now towering over London's Olympic Park: 'The Godzilla of public art'  

Jennifer Carlile was a senior writer and editor for msnbc.com’s news team, enjoying nearly a decade of reporting from Great Britain, continental Europe, and her hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii. She is now a freelance writer living in London.


Discuss this post

Good luck and best wishes to those brave enough to dare the problems of London during the Olympics, especially those with physical handicaps. It is going to be tough.

  • 10 votes
Reply#1 - Wed May 30, 2012 3:11 PM EDT

Having been to London with a stroller, I can understand the frustration with the Underground. I think I had been spoiled with living in Germany which has done a very good job making subways, buses and trains accessible. The Paris Metro is also profoundly unfriendly to those using wheeled conveyance. Again, it's an old system in an old city and retrofitting tough, but as illustrated in Germany, it is doable. Cities there are old and while the systems aren't as old, they were started before accessibility became an issue. The US and Canada are both newer countries with fewer historic sites to be preserved making constructing and improving transportation systems easier.

  • 4 votes
Reply#2 - Wed May 30, 2012 4:32 PM EDT

"I think I had been spoiled with living in Germany which has done a very good job making subways, buses and trains accessible."

You must thank the allied bombers that leveled German cities, so they had to rebuild from the ground (and sometimes below) up relatively recently. Having lots of disabled war vets around at that time surely affected the thinking of the planners, architects, and engineers.

  • 9 votes
#2.1 - Wed May 30, 2012 6:11 PM EDT
Comment author avatarHailley Woodwardvia Facebook

Canada does have good access with their buses. All the buses that I know of in the city where I live and where I went to school are definately accessible. But the streetcars in Toronto are surely not, but there are also buses there too. Drivers here will also drive away from people in wheelchairs tho leaving them on the curb. and only 2 can fit in a bus at a time, and if people have strollers I could end up only being one. I was definately surprised to read this, but I guess I understand it being an old system, around for a long time and the amount of money needed to revamp the stations. I thing that the bus drivers definately need to realize that for wheelchair users buses in London are critical for being independant and they should stop.

  • 2 votes
#2.2 - Wed May 30, 2012 6:38 PM EDT

Even in areas where the bombing didn't level everything, there are pretty good attempts made to make as much as possible accessible. And I really have to give kudos to the Germans for making areas stroller friendly. They have added narrow 'ramps' the width of stroller wheels to a lot of stairs in tourist and shopping areas so that you can get your stroller up and down by yourself. Doesn't aid those in wheelchairs, but it gives the stroller brigade a choice to use the stairs rather than waiting for the elevator or going around the long way for a shallower ramp. Of course you still run into rude folks who are perfectly able taking the elevator instead of the stairs - which drove me up the wall on the DC Metro when I would have to wait 2-3 elevators to get down because there were self-important idiots who didn't want to walk across the street to the escalator - not even stairs, but an escalator. Sad thing is the elevators are so slow, they would have got there sooner by going across the street. And these are the same folks who will run you over if you forget to stand right on the escalator.

  • 2 votes
#2.3 - Wed May 30, 2012 7:30 PM EDT

You can never do enough for the disabled. They will always bitch and moan no matter what you do. Go to a store and see that the first 47 parking spots are for the disabled but only two are ever used.
Enough already.

  • 4 votes
#2.4 - Tue Jun 12, 2012 11:39 AM EDT

@Mark Taft. I don't know where you live, but our Wal-Mart Supercenter has about 30 handicapped parking spots (it's the only Supercenter for 35 miles in two directions, 50 in two others). I often find that people are dropping somone one off and then parking in the back of the lot for their disabled loved-one to call them to come pick them up. Or, the disabled person winds up in a regular spot. This is true even around midnight during certain times of the month when people who receive disability insurance benefits shop. The apartment building I have has 99 apartments, and only 8 disabled resident spots - the list for those spots includes a wait of about 1 year right now, depending on who dies or moves out. There is only 2 handicapped spots at our Senior Center/Cafeteria for handicapped. We have people parking as much as a 1/4 mile away, on a steep hill, using a wheelchair or walker to eat one low-cost ($6, one serving only) lunch. And this is rural Missouri. We have no public transport, one non-profit based transport service. People have to meet w/a counselor once a month, tell them which days and what times they will use the service, and pay up front. If they can't go then, they lose their money (it's $5 for those with incomes up to 110% of poverty level as long as they are disabled or over 65). Cabs are $6 each way, and none are handicapped accessible (no local laws governing private transport for money). Things are different in a city with 25,000 residents and a public university with another 6500. I don't know how many times I've given free rides to people, borrowed a wheelchair, and drove them someplace and then pushed them to buy groceries or help them get food pantry help (probably 2 or 3 times a week actually). Trying spending a week in a wheelchair in a rural community, using only public transport (or your own). Our Supercenter, which is pretty large - it was 30 checkouts, has 10 - ten - motorized carts. They take two hours to charge. Yeah, we are doing "so much" for the disabled. I rarely hear "bitching," tho I do hear of humiliation and being stigmatized. I hope you never have a mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife, or child who has a disability (especially a hidden one). Because you would be their worst enemy.

    #2.5 - Sat Jul 14, 2012 1:14 AM EDT

    People whine and moan about all sorts of problems in the USA, from individual freedoms to perceived discrimination to all sorts of ridiculous complaints, but they don't realize how good we have it in this country if they have never traveled to other nations, including other industrialized nations that we think would be like us. A friend of mine and I visited Paris a couple of years ago. Even though she is fairly young, she uses a walker as a result of spinal problems. Paris is definitely not handicapped-friendly. For example, most of the restaurants that we visited had restrooms at basement level that were accessible by narrow, steep stairs. My friend was able to slowly navigate the stairs, but there is no way that someone using a wheelchair could have gone down the stairs even with the assistance of someone else because they were too narrow for most wheelchairs.

    People should be thankful for what the good old USA offers and stop complaining.

    • 4 votes
    Reply#4 - Wed May 30, 2012 5:28 PM EDT

    scales67, you make no sense. To the extent that things are good in the United States, it's **BECAUSE** people complain about injustice.

    Did I REALLY just have to explain that?

    • 7 votes
    #4.1 - Wed May 30, 2012 9:16 PM EDT

    How about being grateful for what we do have while actively trying to improve what still needs to be done? After all, we wouldn't have what we do unless someone had "whine and moan(ed)".

    • 7 votes
    Reply#5 - Wed May 30, 2012 6:00 PM EDT
    Comment author avataratelierExpand Comment Comment collapsed by the community

    You're disabled; get over it. The world does not revolve around you. You can not do what normal people can do. Make the adjustments rather than whine about your rights and entitlements. The rest of the world does not bow before you as we do in America.

    • 6 votes
    Reply#6 - Wed May 30, 2012 6:39 PM EDT

    What a pathetic a-hole.

    • 13 votes
    #6.1 - Wed May 30, 2012 7:08 PM EDT

    So if you became disabled and had to use a wheelchair you would be perfectly happy being a shut in and not going out and experiencing the rest of the world? I somehow doubt it. Most don't want the world to revolve around them, but all they ask for is a reasonable accommodation so they can participate in the world. I don't know of a single person out there who wanted to be disabled. I don't think it's asking too much that they should have the same access to public transportation as everyone else.

    • 9 votes
    #6.2 - Wed May 30, 2012 7:24 PM EDT

    He's being honest. Those are the facts.

    • 3 votes
    #6.3 - Wed May 30, 2012 9:47 PM EDT

    Be careful not to jinx yourself. Karma can be a sadistic bitch!

    • 3 votes
    #6.4 - Thu May 31, 2012 4:46 AM EDT
      Reply#7 - Wed May 30, 2012 7:05 PM EDT

      Not every country caters to every citizen...

      • 4 votes
      Reply#8 - Wed May 30, 2012 9:46 PM EDT

      We only have the disabled access that we do have in the U.S. because laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act force businesses and public amenities to be accessable. Do you think new buildings would all be built accessable if it wasn't required by codes? I do agree that it's harder for the Brits because most buildings are older and have to be retrofitted.

      • 2 votes
      Reply#9 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 11:58 AM EDT

      They get their own Olympics and they still bitch. lol

      • 3 votes
      Reply#10 - Mon Jun 4, 2012 4:11 PM EDT
      Comment author avatarKatie Jaspervia Facebook

      wow, i would like to see you heartless jerks with the insensitive comments say that to soldier who got that disability fighting for your freedom. A person with an unwanted disability has a hard enough time living daily life and to also face non-access to public transportation and facilities is that much more formidable. People with disabilities contribute to society as much as anyone else, they should have the same rights as anyone else. They are reminded every day that they are unable to "do what normal people do." Access and just being outside in the community should not be included in that. In regards to parking spaces, you must frequent wal-mart or other big chains often because there is rarely enough spots especially for vehicles that need ramp space. Pray one day you or your loved ones are never faced with a disability or AGE for that matter, to really understand what people go through.

        Reply#11 - Fri Jun 29, 2012 1:57 PM EDT

        Grey-Thompson said upgrades had to be chosen carefully as “it costs more than 100 million pounds to make a central London station wheelchair-accessible.”

        Either he is smoking crack or cant do basic math!!! For that much you could make every station in ENGLAND wheelchair accessible. That is NO WAY NEAR what it costs to make ONE station handicap accessible! All they really need is at least ONE elevator from the street to the platform. That's it!! Voila handicap accessible! And frankly as a non-disabled person, London could use a few more elevators at Tube stations for the TOURISTS who try to ride the Tube while lugging suitcases or just for parents with strollers. Try dragging those up and down stairs sometime.

          Reply#12 - Wed Jul 11, 2012 2:10 PM EDT

          People need to remember that the London Underground is over 100 years old... A system as extensive as the Underground would most likely not have been made in modern times due to cost. It is a fantastic transportation opportunity for many people despite its flaws. It would cost an insane amount of money to make all those stops wheelchair accessible and then the price of riding would go through the roof and it is already not cheap for a ticket.

          I think London handled the situation well by replacing the buses to be wheelchair accessible, much more economical choice. It IS wrong that many bus drivers will not stop to let a wheelchair user on and, they should call and notify the transit operator so they can discipline those drivers. From my personal experience with the London buses they barely stop long enough to let people that are able to walk get off, I have jumped off of several moving buses in London because the drivers basically make "California" stops.

          • 1 vote
          Reply#13 - Wed Jul 11, 2012 9:38 PM EDT

          You visit a country and you want them to change...Come on,if your not comfortable,don't spend your money there.They have there priorities in which they spend their money,I am sure they have spent a bunch,but you are not their problem.

          • 2 votes
          Reply#14 - Wed Jul 11, 2012 11:19 PM EDT
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