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  • Scintilla Benevolo

Able Amsterdam: how wheelchair friendly is the Dutch capital?

By Scintilla Benevolo

Published Mon Dec 07 2020

“Able Amsterdam is a website where I share information about wheelchair-friendly places in Amsterdam. I started Able Amsterdam in 2018 after realising there was a need for more centralised and reliable accessibility information. About a year earlier, I survived a severe traffic accident that left me with a completely shattered right leg. From one day to the next, I became a wheelchair user. I had to navigate the world in a different way. It’s a strange feeling when you’re in a familiar place, but all of a sudden can’t get around because there isn’t a wide enough entrance, or a ramp, or a lift, or other accessibility features.

Experiencing these accessibility challenges opened my eyes to how important it is to highlight places that are accessible. To focus on what you can do as a wheelchair user rather than what you can’t. That’s part of why I started Able Amsterdam -- I wanted to make something that would help other wheelchair users enjoy the city and take away the stress of searching for wheelchair-friendly locations.” Josephine explains to me at the start of our Zoom call.

In 2018, Josephine moved to Amsterdam. Excited to explore a new city, she quickly roamed the internet for wheelchair-friendly places to visit. On numerous occasions, places would list themselves as being accessible, but when Josephine would arrive she’d discover that was simply not the case. Some restaurants, for example, claim to be accessible because they are located on the ground floor -- but forget to consider their entrance has steps. “You can imagine how frustrating it can be when you’ve booked a ‘wheelchair-friendly’ restaurant, get all dressed up, ready for a fun evening -- and suddenly find you can’t even enter. Of course, people would offer to help, pick me up in my wheelchair and carry me across. Even with the best intentions, something as small as entering a restaurant turned into a huge spectacle, when all I wanted to do was go inside independently and have a nice meal with friends.”

Josephine’s motivation to start Able Amsterdam came after her experience with an automatically-generated TripAdvisor list of supposedly ‘wheelchair-friendly’ places in Amsterdam, “It was a list of about 300 places that claimed to be accessible. I called all of them and found out only 24% of these ‘accessible’ restaurants had an accessible toilet. Some even had totally inaccessible entrances. It’s great to have a list of wheelchair-friendly places, but it has to be reliable.” Based on this, Josephine decided to take on the challenge and create something herself.

“The Able Amsterdam website is a centralized source of information based on personal experience: I visit and assess every location myself”. The website lists places suitable for all age groups and both for Amsterdam residents and tourists. It features different categories: restaurants, bars, cafes, canal cruises, hotels, children attractions. Within each category is a whole list of places, and for each place you will find a brief description of the locations and an overview of the accessibility features, like “whether the entrance has an automatic door, whether the seats in a restaurant are low or high, whether there is enough space to maneuver”. Josephine explains how “a place can be accessible as can be, but if it does not have an accessible toilet then it won’t get listed on the website. If you go to a restaurant you need to have the opportunity to go to the toilet. Within the toilet are then a whole other set of criteria: whether the mirror is low enough, whether there are grab rails, whether there is an alarm cord. Since regulations in the Netherlands are not strict enough, there is so much variety in accessibility not just per location, but also from one accessible toilet to the next.”

Josephine’s idea is to list as many features as possible, and then let people decide for themselves whether a location suits their accessibility needs: “There is so much variety within the disability community. Some wheelchair users may need certain accessibility features that others may not… so accessibility needs can really vary from person to person”. For example, while a tap with a knob that you need to grip and turn may be fine for one user, this design can be difficult to use if you have a disability that affects your ability to grip objects with their hands. “Even the smallest thing, like the tap design, can make all the difference. From what I’ve seen, the most accessible tap design is one you simply need to knock with your hand, rather than gripping and turning.”

For Josephine, one of the main takeaways from Able Amsterdam is that many accessibility shortcomings are the result of failing to include individuals with reduced mobility in the design process. “There’s one particular cinema in Amsterdam, for example, with lots of fun decorations in the accessible toilet. They’ve clearly made a big effort to make it a welcoming space, but in the process have sacrificed its accessibility. Next to the toilet, there’s a table with pamphlets and photos. It’s screwed into the wall, meaning any transfer space needed to get from a wheelchair onto the toilet is taken up. The alarm cord has also been cut short, making it useless to someone in an emergency situation... If you include people in the design process from the beginning, you have a much better chance at getting it right.”

Josephine, who is often also invited to consult places on how they can improve their accessibility, has stumbled upon small but significant mistakes like this one on countless occasions. Things like: the height at which the mirror is hung up, whether soap dispensers in hotel showers are at reach for an individual who cannot stand up and reach all corners of the shower while washing him/her-self, whether the bin is foot or hand operated.

Sometimes, these small details can have a tremendous impact. Josephine remembers visiting a hotel in Amsterdam which included an alarm cord in its bathroom. Upon testing it, she discovered that the alarm system was not connected to the reception desk. “When I pulled the alarm cord, a little lamp outside the hotel room started flashing and there was a faint beeping noise in the hallway. That was it. The only way for the hotel staff to know that I was in trouble was if somebody would coincidentally walk down that corridor. At the time I was just testing it out, but what if I had been in a serious emergency situation? It should have been connected to the reception staff, who could have come up immediately to see if I was okay,” explains Josephine.

The Rijksmuseum - one of the most famous museums in Amsterdam - is a real role model in accessibility. Part of this is because they have an accessibility and inclusion manager, whose job is to make this museum as accessible as possible. Not only for wheelchair users, but also for individuals with other disabilities, like blindness and deafness, who experience the museum in a different way. “In the past, the Rijksmuseum has invited wheelchair users to come and give feedback on their facilities. And it shows. They have gone above and beyond to create an accessible experience, with wheelchair route maps, signposting, lifts, accessible toilets, and much more. To me, the Rijksmuseum is the best example of a place that is constantly adapting and improving their accessibility.”

This is in sharp contrast with the Anne Frank house. Despite having been renovated in the past few years, it still fails to meet some basic accessibility criteria. “I understand that the historic part of the museum cannot be made accessible. It’s a protected building and would involve breaking down original walls. To make up for this, they have created a fantastic virtual reality tour of the old part of the museum which gets you as close as possible without being in the space itself,” explains Josephine, “But even the new part of the museum, renovated just a few years ago, fails wheelchair users in many ways. The new main entrance is totally inaccessible, with steps going down on all sides. As a wheelchair user you need to get the attention of a staff member, who takes you through a side entrance through a series of corridors and a lift. Even Anne Frank’s original diary is located down three steps. There is no ramp, so if you can’t walk down the steps, you can’t see the diary. Why can’t there be a ramp down to the diary? Why can’t the main entrance be accessible? And of all places, the Anne Frank Museum, which undoubtedly attracts a lot of the elderly population with reduced mobility. It shocks and frustrates me that this is still happening in the Netherlands in 2020.”

What this anecdote shows is that even today, in 2020, in a country that champions its inclusivity and open-mindedness like the Netherlands does, not enough checks are being done to ensure that new or renovated public buildings meet accessibility criteria. A museum which fails to meet fire emergency requirements would never be allowed to open, but the aesthetic value that comes from having three tiny steps at an entrance seems to trump the needs of residents and visitors who make use of mobility aids.

“I’m sure some people may think accessibility isn’t their concern, that it doesn’t matter for them. But at any point in time, literally any one of us can suddenly acquire a disability or injury that impacts our mobility. Maybe it’s a football injury that leaves you on crutches for two weeks. Maybe it’s an accident or illness that leaves you with permanent mobility challenges. For this reason and many more, it’s in everyone’s interest to create a more accessible environment.” says Josephine.

That being said, Amsterdam is a historic city, where not everything can be renovated to increase accessibility. In the words of Josephine, a big challenge is: “How do you make a historic European city accessible, while adhering to regulations for protected buildings?”. Here, part of the solution lies in other people taking accessibility challenges into account. “One time, I was waking in the city centre with my rollator, when suddenly my mobility aid was too wide for the narrow pavement. The only place I could walk was on the road where the cars drove. One time a huge rubbish truck drove up from behind, saw me walking on the road with no other place to walk, but didn’t slow down. Unable to fit on the pavement, there was nothing I could do but keep walking. It was terrifying. Even though the environment wasn’t accessible in that situation, I’d have hoped the driver would have seen me struggling and taken it into account.”

Accessible infrastructure is absolutely vital for being included in social interactions: “Inaccessibility is directly linked to social exclusion. As a wheelchair user, for example, I had to turn down several invitations to parties and events because the inaccessibility of the location meant I couldn’t attend. I just couldn’t see myself managing an hour on an inaccessible, seat-less canal boat, or finding a way to enjoy a restaurant with massive stairs and no accessible toilet. If you make a place inaccessible, you are automatically excluding people with reduced mobility. And not just them -- their family members, friends, or whoever they were going out and about with. Accessibility, therefore, means inclusion. By making a place accessible it allows people with reduced mobility to have more opportunities and experiences to socialize, to experience places, to develop talents and hobbies, that many other people take for granted.”

How wheelchair friendly is Amsterdam?

For a city to be truly accessible, it must have infrastructure that allows people with reduced mobility the opportunity to still be spontaneous and independent. In Josephine’s experience, the metro system in Amsterdam is equipped with a good accessibility infrastructure. All stations have an elevator, the carriage floor is level with the platform allowing for independent entry and exit, and in the new metro carriages the area for wheelchair users is incorporated into the standard seating area. “This is much more inclusive, because you can sit with other passengers,” explains Josephine. A challenge in the metro, however, is the customer support offered. If a lift breaks down, the customer support number is only available at certain times of day and unavailable on Sundays. This means that if you find yourself at a smaller station with only one lift, broken down on a Sunday, you have no choice but to travel to another station to exit the metro system. Which would, of course, bring you even further away from your destination.

“For Dutch trains, as a wheelchair user you need to book their ticket at least one hour in advance. A member of staff needs to accompany you and put up a ramp to get into the carriage, help you get up the ramp, and then help you get out at your destination,” Josephine explains. This has some drawbacks in terms of spontaneity and independence. “I understand that with the current trains this is the best service they can provide. It would take a whole new train system, with a new design of trains which would have a lower entrance, to be able to create this independence for people in a wheelchair. But I hope that this is something for the future”. Another drawback with the trains is that wheelchair users sit separately from other passengers, as only certain carriages are equipped with accessible seating areas.

The municipality of Amsterdam has a department responsible for disability affairs, the WMO (Wet Maatschappelijk Ondersteuning). They provide a series of support services. For example, if you have long-term reduced mobility, they help you make certain adjustments to your house to make your living space accessible. Above a certain threshold of expenses, however, you are asked to move houses. The WMO can also provide home help assistance, mobility aids and a taxi service called AOV (Aanvullend Openbaar Vervoer). As a resident of Amsterdam who meets certain criteria indicating you cannot make use of public transport, you can apply for an AOV card which allows you to use a special taxi service. The taxi service can be used for rides in Amsterdam and costs the same door to door as it would by public transport.

On a governmental level, disability affairs in the Netherlands fall under the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. “Unlike in some other countries, the Dutch government representative in charge of disability affairs also undertakes a number of other responsibilities. Given that the ‘disabled community’ is so big and varied, I think the Netherlands needs one position in government solely dedicated to disability affairs in order to get the best possible level of attention and outcome,” explains Josephine. This rings especially true today, given that the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport has been particularly busy with the Covid-19 pandemic over the course of the last year.

“One promising thing in the past year is the appointment of Rick Brink as unofficial Minister of Disability Affairs. A wheelchair user himself, Rick has helped create some very good changes for a more inclusive society. For example, there is now an in-person sign language interpreter at the Covid-19 press conferences, not just featured in the corner of the screen, but at the press conferences themselves. What I think needs to happen now is for this ministerial position to become official.”

Misconceptions around disability

“From personal experience, two of the biggest misconceptions about disability are that 1. People who have mobility issues are always elderly, and 2. People who use a wheelchair always need help and cannot be independent. If those two things would be addressed, people would have a much more realistic image of the wheelchair using community,” explains Josephine.

In Josephine’s opinion, the media plays a big role in addressing the first misconception. Things like TV shows and advertisements need to feature more, and younger, wheelchair users, “so that people can change their perception and realize that it affects young people as well. Maybe if people would have a better idea of the variety of ages affected by disabilities we’d see more accessible playgrounds, bars, nightclubs, and other places typically for younger generations.”

In regards to the second misconception, better education is needed. Josephine tells me that while using a wheelchair, people would often treat her differently. Some would just ignore her and talk about her to someone standing behind her. Others would talk to her, but address Josephine as if she were a child, even patting her on the head. Based on stories from other wheelchair users, Josephine assures me this is a common experience. “Educating people is so important. Teaching people to first address the person in the wheelchair just like you would if they would be standing. If someone accompanying a wheelchair user then jumps in to answer a question, that’s okay. But don’t immediately assume someone cannot communicate with you just because they can’t walk. There are lots of other things, like teaching people not to touch or move someone’s wheelchair without their permission -- you’d be surprised how often that happens. Part of educating people is also just understanding that as a wheelchair user you deserve to be treated with the same respect as everyone else,” Josephine explains.

Although Josephine now no longer uses mobility aids herself, she continues to keep Able Amsterdam going. “Having personally experienced the profound impact accessibility can have on quality of life, I really want to keep my platform going to help others. I’m excited to continue using Able Amsterdam to advocate for accessibility and make Amsterdam more inclusive”. Josephine is the proof that even a single person can make a significant change. Our one and a half hour conversation over Zoom was incredibly stimulating and brought me to reflect about my own misconceptions and short-sightedness in regards to the wheelchair community and the disabled community more generally. I sincerely hope this article will also spark a reflection in you.

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