Tom Shakespeare

Berlin is great, Zurich not so bad, but Lausanne impossible. New York and Amsterdam are fine, but don’t even mention Venice.  Cities, and indeed countries, look very different from a wheelchair.  No longer is the language, culture or cuisine your main concern.  Now, it is the gradient which determines your enjoyment of a location.

Flat countries liberate, while mountainous terrains condemn the wheelchair user to a life inside. I returned a few year back for a reunion at the University of Cambridge, my alma mater. Now a “wheelie”, I was delighted to discover that I could travel right across that great British city without working up a sweat.   My daughter’s graduation at Edinburgh last year was a different matter: the streets were all at an angle of 60 degrees.  Travel guides take note: include advice about contours and cobbles, not just castles!

The problem, of course, is that flat countries tend to lack the cultural or natural atttributes which most tourists seek: a couple of days suffice to exhaust the attractions of Belgium.  The sad truth is that it is generally pointy countries – Nepal, Norway, Peru, Switzerland – which are the most enticing destinations.

Not everything can be blamed on geology and climate. In New York, every bus is accessible to me: sadly not the case in Geneva.  In London, every pavement has a kerb cut at the intersection to let me cross: in Cairo last month there were none.  And that’s not just because Britain is rich while Egypt is poor.  When I got to Alexandria, I was delighted to find that every corner had its kerb ramp.  Even the flattest of cities, such as Brussels, can be filled with inaccessible buildings and trams.  Social arrangements create barriers for disabled people.  Pram-pushers, wheelies and old people unite: you have a world to win!