As Americans, we’re all pretty used to seeing people in electric wheelchairs buzzing around the supermarket getting groceries or zipping down the sidewalk. We often wonder what happened and stare a bit, but most of us try to help them out if they’re struggling with something or make room for them as they go about their daily business. There are laws dictating that buildings need to have handicapped parking spaces near the entrances, ramps to doors, and elevators to every floor. American society generally makes an effort to accommodate the disabled, and we’re encouraged to integrate any disabled person into society as much as possible.
Since arriving in London, I’ve seen one disabled person. An older man in an electric wheelchair was crossing the street near our hostel. There are a lot of crosswalks that have platforms in the middle you can dash to since people here make jaywalking a second job. They’re not normally very wide—just small, two-feet-wide strips of concrete. This man had to go around the middle platform because his wheelchair wouldn’t have been able to drive up the ramp, turn, and drive down the other ramp (they weren’t directly across from each other).
All the sidewalks here are made of small slabs of concrete, about a square foot. Trees are planted along the edges of many of the sidewalks, and their roots grow out, causing the slabs to buckle and break. Able-bodied people have trouble with the sidewalks, let alone someone with a walker or wheelchair. The sidewalks are also very narrow at times and always crowded. Brits are also quite impatient and always get annoyed when others block their way on the sidewalk.
There are signs next to escalators in the Underground that say to “Stand on the right.” Anyone in a rush will walk or run up and down the left side. There isn’t even this semblance of order on the sidewalks—everyone darts about, weaving in and out of the crowds, stopping short when a slow person blocks the way. Everyone breathes down this person’s neck until they move aside or a space opens up. Then they quickly dart around and give a disgruntled snort. I’m not sure someone using a wheelchair or walker would be given much more courtesy than this while traveling down the sidewalk. There are just so many people.
The Underground is just as crowded as the sidewalks. While most stations have elevators that take people down to the platform, a disable person would have trouble getting on the train without help from someone else. There’s a three inch gap between the platform and the train and most of the time, it’s a step up.
If disabled people don’t normally use the Underground or walk on the sidewalks, how do they get around? There can’t be no disabled people in London. It makes me wonder if they stay in small communities that are more convenient for them, with aids to help them complete daily tasks if needed. Maybe they only take trips out of their neighborhood if absolutely necessary.
This just seems so foreign to me (as well it should be—this is London). We have a different mindset in America. Our cities are also newer than almost anything in London, too. We were able to plan the layout of roads, and the lack of historic buildings in most places makes for easy demolition of outdated structures. In places that weren’t previously handicap accessible, we can make accommodations, like smooth sidewalks and buildings with ramps and elevators. London was never planned like any American city—it’s just grown haphazardly around and over the square mile of the original Roman city. There could be protected historic buildings on every city block, from many different time periods. As a newer nation, we Americans have the ability to meet more transportation needs of the physically handicapped.