A week ago, I flew from Newark to Paris to commence a five-week study abroad program with a number of classmates. I arrived a week early and am living with old family friends, exploring the entire city and trying to do some reporting for DK and a campus publication.
Life is different here--that much is certain. Some things are better: the Metro is cheap, quiet, and even gets cell phone reception. Despite being vegetarian, I've still managed to eat well, loving the wide variety of cheeses and frequent open-air markets, plus the occasional falafel-and-shawarma stand. The city is very walkable, and I've explored nearly every neighborhood (or arrondissement) over the past four days.
But that's not to say this place doesn't have it's problems. Besides being here to study, I'm on assignment for a campus magazine, writing about the ZUS (sensitive urban zones) of France and trying to smash a bunch of right-wing propaganda about them in the process. But that's for a later diary. Today, I'm writing about the sad predicament faced by disabled people in Paris.
On July 26, 1990, President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. This law is responsible for many things we don't even think about today: elevators in schools, priority parking for the handicapped, sidewalk cutaways, and accessibility ramps in public offices and accommodations. In addition, it gave the handicapped a needed leg-up in ways most of us will never witness, by barring employment discrimination and requiring telecoms to extend their services to the deaf. This law was expanded upon by a bipartisan package of amendments signed by George W. Bush in 2008.
France has no equivalent.
Granted, their are some protections extended to the handicapped, as is to be expected in an industrialized liberal democracy. Employment discrimination is barred, and in fact, quotas and financial incentives are in place to encourage the employment of the handicapped. By and large, though, the country is physically off-limits for those with mobility-limiting disabilities.
I began to ponder these struggles as soon as I arrived at Charles du Gaulle airport. I was pulling two wheeled bags on my way to the train platform to take an RER (regional railway) train into the city. Fortunately, a specialty turnstile was available; unfortunately, however, the escalator to the the platform was shut off. The platform at this terminal did not have an elevator, and so I had to lift 90 pounds of luggage down the 50+ stairs to the platform, where I hopped on a waiting train to Paris. I would not have been able to take my train if I had been mobility-limited.
Upon arrival at the Gare du Nord, a railway station some two metro stops and five blocks from where I would be spending my first night in Paris, I was greeted by a confusing array of turnstiles and levels. After climbing roughly twenty steps with my luggage, I was relieved to see an elevator that could take me between the other levels of the station.
Imagine my disgust upon seeing it. Though the elevator was glass, the floor was made of wooden planks that were wearing away, looked to have never been cleaned, and smelled of urine. The elevator moved at around fifty feet per minute, less than one-fourth the speed of many in the US. I was thankful that at least both sets of doors opened.
Once I disembarked, bought tickets, and went to the Metro, I found that there was no turnstile gateway for the disabled. I was forced to validate my ticket at one turnstile and rush through another that was broken and stuck open. Once again, on the other side, there was no elevator. I rode an escalator to the platform and took the Metro to my destination, where I had to climb more than fifty stairs to the street. If I had been in a wheelchair, I would have been forced to take a taxi.
Upon arrival, I was forced to negotiate the extremely narrow sidewalks on the way to my lodging. Though the images of Paris you see often show wide sidewalks, that is only a reality on the main thoroughfares of the city. More often than not, the sidewalks are asphalt, lack cutaways, and have black poles sticking out of them (see image at right)--which, though intended to prevent cars from parking on the sidewalk, have the effect of making some of them too narrow, like this one I walked upon, for a wheelchair to squeeze by, or even from two people to walk abreast. Multiple times, I was forced to abandon the sidewalk for the street, which fortunately was paved at all points along my path. At other points, narrow scaffolding was set up along the sidewalks to fulfill the French legal requirement that all buildings be tuckpointed every ten years, forcing me again into the street.
When I finally reached where I would be staying, I climbed over a five- to six-inch sill that would have been hard if not impossible to surmount in a wheelchair. Thank god there was an elevator to my floor! Never mind that I had to climb seven stairs to get to it and the fact that it was less that two feet wide. Here's a video of a typical French elevator in an apartment building. Good thing I'm French-normal!
So, you may wonder, the Metro, trains, elevators, and even sidewalks can be foreboding. What's a mobility-limited Parisian to do? Answer: Have crutches and friends, or suffer. I've seen a small number of people on crutches, and most of them have been accompanied by a friend to help them navigate the narrow sidewalks and frequent stairways that dot hilly Paris. Even with friends, though, good luck getting to the famous, stair-attained and cobblestone-decked heights of the neighborhood of Montmartre (though a lift exists, it is intended for use by tourists).
Other times, I've seen people limping along by themselves; some of these people have appeared homeless, and others afflicted by a mental disability. To wit, according to the French Embassy, in 2005, 17% of the handicapped of France were homeless.
But there is still some reluctance to accommodate handicapped and mobility-limited Parisians. One of my hosts works at a private school in Paris, and tells me that "by 2015, we're going to have to put elevators in all of our buildings." In her view, however, this is unfortunate. The buildings, she explained, are extremely old, and in some of them, as many as ten classrooms would have to be ripped out for elevators to be installed. "We may end up just not using some buildings," she tells me. And is there any waiver process, or means of accommodation such as scheduling classes with mobility-limited persons in buildings with elevators, I ask? She doesn't know.
In spite of her sentiments towards such mandates, however, my host tells me that she does wish the city were more accessible. "We had a friend with MS who we desperately wanted to visit," she tells me as we climb two gratuitous stairs in the sidewalk. "But we just couldn't figure out how to do it. There's no shuttle or anything. We'd have to rent a car." Sadly, she passed away before my host family could make such arrangements.
Progress is being made. In some places, I have seen handicapped parking spots; in others, cutaways are under construction. I've heard that the majority of French busses are now "kneeling," have lifts, and are accessible to those with mobility-limiting handicaps. Though the lift was out of order when I visited the Arche de Triomphe, there is a lift. In perhaps a fitting metaphor for the struggles of the handicapped in France, the first and second levels of the Eiffel Tower are now attainable for those in wheelchairs--but the summit is still out of reach.