When I arrived at Breda station last month to find out why this Dutch city was recently named the winner of the 2019 Access City award, I did something I have not done while travelling in a long time. Instead of taking a taxi, I independently pushed the two kilometres to the hotel, to see whether lack of access for wheelchair users like me is as big a problem here as it is in most other cities.
Usually, a journey like that would be a nightmare, particularly in older European towns like Breda, a city of just under 200,000 people that was an important centre during the Holy Roman Empire. Medieval city centres and cobble-stoned markets are a recipe for broken castor wheels and painful pressure sores for wheelchair users.
On average, the cost of living for disabled people is £583 a month higher than for their non-disabled peers – a substantial amount of which goes towards paying for taxi journeys to mitigate inaccessible public transport options. Travelling is even costlier: disabled people often have to stay in more expensive accessible hotels when hostels and independent bed and breakfasts are not a viable, barrier-free option. Add in the cost of damaged equipment and medical bills from injury, and the feelings of fear and isolation that lack of access creates, and you have a recipe for cities that feel difficult and anxiety-inducing.
But in Breda, I found that the issue had been turned on its head. The city authorities have pulled up all the cobblestones in the centre that surround the Grote Markt and Grote Kerk marketplace and church, turned them upside-down and sliced them widthways. The result: a flat surface for those with mobility impairments, while keeping Breda’s streets just as photogenic as they were before.
It was a literal breath of fresh air pushing myself through Valkenbergpark’s widened, flat pathways. I saw the portable threshold ramps that Breda’s shopkeepers lay out when they raise their shutters in the morning, encouraging business from customers of all abilities – something you rarely see in the UK. I learned that all buses and bus stops in the city are now fully accessible to wheelchair users, with drivers trained in disability awareness.
Once at the hotel, I found wellness and physiotherapy facilities for disabled guests; the accessible rooms had lowered wardrobes and mirrors, wheel-in showers and seated baths. You don’t even have to pull open the main door to enter the hotel: a camera detects your arrival and the door opens automatically. There are even plans to create a tactile navigation line along the route I took, to help visually impaired visitors move from the train station to the city centre through Valkenbergpark.
Over the past two years, more than 800 shops and bars have been checked for physical access. And in 2017, Breda’s main website was made fully accessible for all, including those with sensory impairments; accessibility improvements were made to another 25 websites that aid residents and tourists. Mastbosch, Breda’s forest, is fully wheelchair-accessible, and every two years the city hosts the ParaGames, a large European sporting event for disabled people.
Improvement hasn’t come overnight, says Marcel Van Den Muijsenberg, a fellow wheelchair user who volunteers his time to consult for improved access in the city. Breda has been working on the issue of inclusion for all since the 1990s, with the city’s local foundation Breda-Gelijk! (Equal Breda!) reviewing all new plans and initiatives.
“Most people think that the Access City award means that Breda is the most accessible city in Europe,” Van Den Muijsenberg says. “It isn’t, and the award isn’t about that. It’s about a commitment to improve and partners working together towards this commitment. We have done a lot, but there is more to do.”
Karel Dollekens, a civil servant working on accessibility in Breda, says he believes a willingness to collaborate is what won the award. “We have a wide network of university professionals, city staff and disabled people working together,” he says. “Sometimes we have heart-to-hearts, sometimes we get angry about the reality of projects and the limitations we face, but the conversation always continues. The network has now become a movement.”
After focusing almost exclusively on physical access, Breda’s accessibility groups are widening their focus to improving digital communication and resources to include those with sensory and learning impairments. Breda’s city council is slowly but surely introducing easy-read regulations for all documents and, if an organisation wishes to run an event in the city, it now receives an accessibility checklist that must be complied with.
Van Den Muijsenberg is delighted with Breda’s success, but realistic about the journey ahead and the need to spread better awareness. “Security staff at pubs and clubs need training,” he says by way of example. “Disabled people are being refused entry because staff think they are too drunk, rather than disabled.”
Indeed, perception affects inclusion just as much as a lack of physical access. Ramps and automatic doorways mean little unless paired with social confidence, a welcoming atmosphere and the desire to treat a disabled customer in the same manner as their non-disabled peers. But Breda is heading in the right direction.
“People aren’t disabled,” Dollekens says. “The environment they live in is.”