LONDON, England — As the London 2012 Paralympic Games come to a close, the emphasis of the last 12 days of top notch sports has been on what people "can do" not what they "can’t do."
Which was really the focus when Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, who had established the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital (near London), witnessed the rehabilitative power of sport in the treatment of World War II veterans with spinal injuries. To coincide with the opening ceremony of the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Guttmann initiated a sporting competition at Stoke Mandeville, which become known as the birth of the Paralympic Games. By 1960, Olympic-style games for athletes with disabilities were organized for the first time in Rome — and for the first time these were called "Paralympics."
In recent years, many access improvements and service enhancements have been made to make public transport networks, attractions and tours, and travelling in London and throughout Britain much easier for people with disabilities.
Many of London’s must-see attractions are barrier free. You can’t beat the views from the London Eye, where the capsules are wheelchair accessible, and Buckingham Palace, where this year’s special exhibition Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration running until Oct. 7, was designed with wheelchair-users in mind with exhibits placed at lower levels so they can be seen, and audio guides are compatible with T-coil induction loops.
Other fabulous and accessible attractions include:
— St. Paul’s Cathedral, which has Touch and Feel tours for visually impaired visitors, and orders of service in Braille.
— Tate Modern, which discounts paid exhibits for visitors with disabilities, provides free admission for care-givers, and not only welcomes guide and hearing dogs but even provides drinking bowls. Touch tours are available at the gallery and some events have visual descriptions.
— The Science Museum, with its 18th-century steam engine and the Apollo 10 command module. Most of the building is accessible by ramp or elevator, there is tactile signage and touch tours for some exhibitions.
London has a wide range of accessible transport options to ensure people with disabilities or reduced mobility can get around. Key tube stations on the London Underground are accessible and connect with other services such as National Rail and the Docklands Light Rail (DLR). There are 66 step-free Tube stations from platform to street (about a quarter of all London Underground stations). Passengers who need to avoid stairs should consult the online Avoiding Stairs Tube Guide.
Thames river cruises are a popular way to see the landmarks of London. All piers and most boats in London are accessible.
Ninety per cent of National Express coaches are fitted with wheelchair lifts and the entire fleet will be fully wheelchair accessible in 2013. All 8,500 buses in London are low-floor and wheelchair-accessible (except a small number of "heritage" Routemasters). All buses have audio and visual information to inform passengers of the route, destination and next stop, and around 2,000 key stops have Countdown signs.
All of London’s 22,000 "black cabs" are accessible for wheelchairs. Many of the newer "black cabs" are also fitted with an induction loop and an intercom for people using hearing aids and have colour contrasting grab bars and seat edging.
A $6.3-million program to improve accessibility along the South Bank’s 3.9-km promenade — from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge — providing access to Southbank Centre, Tate Modern, Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral, includes new pavement layouts, better lighting and signage, more seating, more access ramps and handrails.
Many theatres in London aim to make the theatre-going experience as inclusive as possible. For example, the Southbank Centre offers 140 assisted performances a year across its three theatres by offering captioning (on two signposts above the stage), as well audio-described performances and sound amplification. And the National Theatre also offers audio-described and captioned performances as well.