I last visited Paris in 1992 and did not find it the easiest city to get around in using a wheelchair. It was therefore with some trepidation that I decided to have a short break in Paris. Why did I choose Paris – well I was mightily impressed by the Eurostar when I used it to travel to Strasbourg via Paris last year. The 2 wheelchair spaces on each Eurostar train are located in First Class and Eurostar gives the wheelchair user and their companion a substantial discount on the train ticket. You are also treated to a 3 course meal with wine and champagne. Now that can’t be bad.
The Eurostar arrives at the Gare Du Nord which is about a mile from the centre of Paris, however there are some fairly regular accessible buses that pass the Gare Du Nord and take you into the City Centre.
We stayed at the Novotel Paris Les Halles which is very near the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral. and the Georges Pompidou Centre. It is not a cheap hotel however the rooms were spacious and the bathroom had plenty of room for a wheelchair user. The hotel bar was on a raised platform up 3-4 steps with no ramp, but with at least six bars / cafes and restaurants just outside the main entrance, it wasn’t an issue.
Most pavements had dropped kerbs and tactile paving, however most traffic crossings did not have an audible signal when the crossing light was green, so people with visual impairments may require more guiding than they would in the UK.
At least 50% of shops and restaurants had at least 1 step at their entrance, even some of the major stores like GAP and McDonalds. Most bars / cafes had outside seating areas so if you are a wheelchair user, I would not recommend Paris in the middle of winter.
It was also a little discouraging to note that virtually every ‘obviously’ Disabled Person I saw was either American or English. This accounts for why Disabled Access only seem to have been actively considered in the tourist areas.
The Louvre is an excellent case in point. It is completely accessible, they publish a comprehensive access guide in French and English. They also provide audio guides and have a tactile gallery for people with visual impairments. The variety of exhibits there was bewildering and if you are a fan of art, sculpture, history or the ‘Da Vinci Code’, it is a must-see.
Of course, the number one attraction in Paris has got to be the Eiffel Tower. Wheelchair users can only go to the second floor but the views are still spectacular.
Compared to 1992, access in Paris is a lot easier but it still lags behind other major cities in the UK, Europe and the USA. If you enjoy the pavement cafe culture, people watching, magnificient architecture then you’ll love Paris
If you are considering visiting Paris, I would recommend the Access in Paris website. It has lots of useful information and although the new edition of their guidebook is not out till 2007, if you contact them with specific information, they will be happy to oblige. I must declare an interest as I was involved with the Access Project for about 15 years and was one of their surveyors for the London, Paris and Israel guidebooks. The strength of the guidebooks was that we tried to simply describe the barriers at each location and let Disabled People themselves decide what they could or couldn’t manage.
Paris may not be the most accessible city in the world but if you’re not keen on flying but still want to sample some European culture then give Paris a try.