Paris on Wheels
and again people have said that Parisians are not friendly toward
Americans. When I visited the City of Lights two years ago I did not
find this to be the case. In fact, what I learned about the people of
Paris was the complete opposite. As a wheelchair user I was nervous
about my trip to Paris, but I was determined. Before the trip I had
tried to collect information about accessibility in the city. I scoured
through guidebooks, only to learn that travelers with disabilities are
virtually ignored. I signed onto several Internet newsgroups, looking
for anecdotal information from people with disabilities that had been
there. I came away with more questions. Finally I interviewed travel
agents. Only one or two dealt with the specific needs of people with
disabilities. I entered into negotiations with one of these agencies. I
thought that at the very least they'd be able to find me an accessible
hotel in a part of the city that was near some of the major
attractions. As for learning about accessibility in Paris, I'd have to
see for myself once I arrived. I’d have to depend on the good will of
the people I found there. I was not disappointed.
I do not speak French. I know one or two words, but certainly not
enough to hold an intelligent conversation. One of the most important
pieces of equipment I brought on my trip was a dictionary. To be
honest, I was hoping to find people who knew enough English to be able
to speak with me when I needed help. What I discovered was that there
is an advantage to being on wheels when you do not understand most of
the things people say to you. When you're on wheels many people will go
out of their way to help. I also discovered two things about myself.
First, I was embarrassed at only being able to speak one language.
Second, I had fun trying to figure out how to communicate with people,
and I had plenty of opportunity to do so.
My first experience of Parisian friendliness came when I wanted to take
the bus to Notre Dame. After taking a cab from the airport to my hotel
the previous day I determined that using a taxi as my main mode of
transportation in the city would too quickly exhaust my funds. Besides,
I wanted to take public transportation as much as possible so that I
would be exposed to more Parisians. I’d heard that the metro was
inaccessible to wheelchairs. So, I had to take the bus. Fortunately
there was a terminal connected to my hotel at Gare de Lyon. The
concierge had no idea which buses were handicapped accessible. I had to
ask people at the terminal. After trying, without luck, to get
information from the ticket agent, I came across a man who seemed eager
to engage me in conversation. He spoke no English. Somehow we managed
to get our ideas across to each other, and, I learned the French word
for elevator in the process. I boarded the 96 bus.
The bus stopped right in front of Notre Dame, and I found a curbcut on
the street corner. At first I was concerned because the square outside
the building had small cobblestones, but found them not to be a problem
to negotiate. There were three entryways. A female guard, who spoke
little English, ushered me away from the crowd and into the leftmost
door. There was a slight, three-inch step, but it wasn’t difficult to
get over. Once inside I kept my camera busy photographing frescos,
paintings, and statuary. I would have liked to go to both the
Ambulatory and the tower. They are up a series of steps and therefore
After rolling through Notre Dame my next stop was the Louvre, so I
caught bus number 21. The Louvre is huge and some disabled visitors
might be turned off by the cobblestoned courtyard, but not me.
Undauntedly I rolled through the courtyard toward the glass pyramid and
rode the piston-driven lift that brings patrons down into the visitor’s
center. Once there I was handed a Guide d'Orientation Visiteurs
à Mobilité Réduite (Orientation Guide for Mobility
Impaired Visitors), which clearly shows the most important exhibits and
all accessible routes to those exhibits. Along with many paintings I
was told by friends to see I didn’t want to miss some of the major
works: the Venus, the Winged Victory, and the Mona Lisa, and those were
clearly marked. Still, with map in hand, it did not take long to get
lost. I was trying to find the Mona Lisa, but as it turned out I was on
the wrong floor and in the wrong wing. A guard, witnessing my distress,
not only gave me directions but also walked with me to my destination
and ushered me through the crowd lined up in front of the magnificent
painting. I was impressed! I don’t even get that kind of service in New
That evening I arranged to take a tour of the city, to learn the lay of
the land. The tour I selected would include both a bus ride through the
city and a boat ride through the Seine. The van that came to collect me
was tall and ill-equipped to handle the needs of a wheelchair user.
There was no lift or ramp, and the handholds were poorly positioned.
However the driver, a very nice Austrian man named Herbert, was
undaunted by the challenge of accommodating me. After watching my
struggles for a few minutes he lifted me bodily and placed me in the
seat. My momentary embarrassment at being ‘manhandled’ was worth the
effort. Herbert was an excellent guide, describing little-known aspects
of the city as we passed the Eiffel Tower and drove down the Champs
When we finally arrived at the dock for the watery portion of the tour
there were problems. First, the gangway down to the boat was very steep
and someone had to hold onto the back of my chair or I would have ended
up swimming. Secondly, inside the cabin were two rows of seats. My
wheelchair could not easily pass down the aisle. Finally, the headsets
were attached to the seats so if I wanted to hear the tourguide I had
to take a headset from the back row of seats, which meant I could not
easily see the sites that were being described. I decided to skip most
of the audio and just watch the sites as the boat went by them. The
beauty of this City of Lights is really best seen by boat.
I had heard a great deal about the opulence of Versailles and wanted to
see it for myself, but I was told by several tour operators that the
castle was not accessible. I resigned myself to a tour of the gardens,
which I’d heard were impressive in themselves, though I was not ready
to totally dismiss my plan to see the inside until we arrived there.
Upon arrival at the castle my driver, Sabine, inquired about wheelchair
access and was directed to drive up to entryway H, which would allow me
to avoid having to traverse the expansive cobblestone courtyard. Entry
through this door circumvented steps but also put me at the exit point
for the tours. Throughout the next hour I was constantly rolling
against traffic, but I was also given the opportunity to practice my
French (excuse’ moi) and appreciate the exhibits in a way others would
not. Since I was at the tail end of most of the tours I was able to
have relatively unobstructed views. Sitting in a wheelchair this
doesn’t usually happen and I was appreciative of the opportunity.
Paris is both modern and accessible. I faced challenges, but I never
faced them alone. Parisians are very friendly, helpful, and courteous.
They directed me to public transportation and helped me find accessible
entry points to many tourist attractions. When I couldn’t find my way
on a street or in a building they offered to help. When, due to
language difficulties, someone was unable to explain how to get
somewhere they took me by the hand and led me to where I wanted to go.
My trip was short. I didn’t get to see all that Paris has to offer, and
I am eager to return.