Paris on Wheels

Time 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 inaccessible.

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 York.

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 Elysee.

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.

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