What’s It Like For The Disabled To Navigate a Smart City That Isn’t Really Smart or Accessible?

‘I feel like a second-class citizen’: readers on navigating cities with a disability

We asked readers with a disability to share their experiences – good and bad. Their responses show the many ways people can be shut out of their communities.

A person in a wheelchair prepares to board the London Underground
Only 50 out of 270 tube stations are fully accessible. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian


“Sandwich boards on pavements, a crowd of smokers blocking the disabled entrance, bins or vans parked over lowered pavement edges, disabled toilets being used as performers’ changing rooms or storage, ‘accessible ramps’ being far too steep or only available on request, scaffolding on both sides of the street, pushchairs filled with shopping in the wheelchair space on the bus, the housekeeping trolley left in the lift – you get the picture!”

One Guardian Cities reader painted a vivid picture of what it’s like to navigate a city in a wheelchair. Following our report on Chester, Europe’s most accessible city, we asked readers with a disability to share their experiences of accessing cities, good and bad.

We’ve shared a selection of responses from around the world below. They are testament to the ways in which people can be shut out of their communities, whether it be by infrastructure, poor or outdated planning, or simply thoughtlessness.

A selection of submissions are shared below.

“Able-bodied people genuinely can’t imagine what it’s like to use a wheelchair”

Dundee is no worse than many other cities: it makes a few gestures towards access in a few places, but there is no consistency. Some shops and restaurants pay lip service – one or two are good, but most are dreadful. Some busses and taxis are accessible, some aren’t. There is even a disabled toilet in town where the door opens on a heavy spring, making it impossible to manoeuvre around to get into what is otherwise a good loo.

A lot of access problems are caused because able-bodied people genuinely can’t imagine what it’s like to use a wheelchair. I don’t want to sound obsessed with toilets, but so many decent facilities are ruined because – for instance – the baby changing table takes up most of the space, or the disposal bin is in the middle of the floor, or the floor is made of ceramic tiles, which are like ice as soon as they get wet. Access needs to be planned in order to be effective, and that planning needs to apply in all circumstances. Jackie, Dundee

“Despite what government agencies may say, there is little help here. What there is is very difficult to access”

I do not feel that Toronto is a friendly city for the disabled, particularly for the non-visibly disabled. Asking for help in a busy city is often met by cold stares or even invective. For example, I cannot use stairs but can walk, albeit slowly – so when there is no elevator or escalator, I am generally stuck. Try asking a stranger to help you up stairs – even if you try to explain your situation, in Toronto my experience has been that very, very few are willing to help.

My muscles do not work well enough to allow me to carry anything, which makes getting food difficult and there are no service to help those like me. Despite what government agencies may say, there is little help here. And what there is is very difficult to access. John, Toronto


“What’s worse: hiding myself away, or having the confrontation?”

I have trouble standing for long periods and spend some time altering my journey on the Tube, purposely taking longer routes where I know I will get a seat. If I don’t, sometimes I end up getting to work only to go home sick because of the pain. I ordered one of the Sadiq Khan’s “Please Offer Me a Seat” badges just to push me to not stand and suffer.

As a man, I have found the badge only works on female passengers – something I still can’t work out how I feel about. To only have women seek my eye contact to offer me a seat makes me feel embarrassed for the rest of my sex. Men have two reactions: looking the other way or staring at their paper, or shooting daggers at me, looking from the badge to my face in disgust.

It’s experiences like these that really make me consider what’s worse at times – having to go home in pain and hide myself away, or having the confrontation just for using a designated seat. Curtis, London and Sheffield

Steps in Arnos Grove underground station.
Steps in Arnos Grove underground station. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian


“The barriers start before a trip begins”

Many disabled people have invisible disabilities and do not use a wheelchair or walking aids. The barriers start before a trip begins. Most autistic people I know won’t travel abroad because airports are so autistic-unfriendly – travel is a dream for them that will never happen. Don’t fall into the trap of labelling places as accessible when you really mean they only have step-free access. That still isn’t accessible for most of us. Stef


“My son and I are prisoners in our own home”

There is very little in Medway, Kent, that comes even close to being accessible. My 19-year-old son is profoundly disabled and totally reliant on his manual wheelchair, which I find very difficult to push up hills. My son is also doubly incontinent, and there are no accessible toilets in the area – I believe the nearest is almost an hour away.

We never go for days out as there is never anywhere I can change him. Holidays are also unheard of as there are no modes of transport with accessible facilities. I am a single parent and, with all the cuts in funding for people with disabilities, I find that my son and I are prisoners in our own home. Ruth, Medway


“I must always be thinking about accessibility in the back of my head

I’m an American who has been living abroad now for two years, mostly in Berlin. I also use a wheelchair full-time. For me, being engaged in a city means I can access shops, cafes, pubs, etc, and while I can normally find a few accessible places in a city, I am limited. The social pressure to be a ‘go with the flow’ individual is not extended to me – I must always be thinking about accessibility in the back of my head. You can imagine how this anxiety may deter individuals with disabilities from engaging in public spaces that are unfamiliar.

Inclusive cities must include accessible housing as a priority. It’s great if I can move on the train, but if I can’t live in a social, central location of the city then the city is ultimately pushing me out. I recognise that many older buildings do not include lifts or spacious housing, but how do we revitalise properties to become more inclusive? What regulations must be put on landlords during remodels? Inclusive urban planning is feasible. It takes a holistic approach and a team of individuals with disabilities to actively consult and provide feedback. Grace, Darmstadt


“I often end up feeling like a second-class citizen”

Like so many others, I came to NYC to follow my dreams. What I wasn’t expecting was to be diagnosed with a rare form of motor neurone disease that means I need a wheelchair to get around. Suddenly the city was not quite so magical as when I first arrived. Damaged or nonexistent curb cuts, potholes when trying to cross the road, the eternally out-of-order subway elevators, pre-war buildings with steep steps, shops with narrow entrances, restaurants with closely packed tables, and completely impossible revolving doors – I know this city is better than others, but it’s certainly not the best.

The city doesn’t seem to take into account the realities of being a wheelchair user or having any other mobility-related disability. I often end up feeling like a second-class citizen who doesn’t even appear in the thoughts of city planners. I was trying to get a passport photo last week and visited five different places trying to find one that I could actually get into. I make many complaints regarding damaged sidewalks and curb cuts in particular, but it seems like a full-time job to follow up on these things because the systems are so slow. I’ve only had success when posting on Twitter and getting a lot of retweets! Lucy, New York

This New York subway station at 2nd Ave at 96th St has an elevator, but if it is out of service then wheelchair users are stuck.
This New York subway station at 2nd Ave at 96th St has an elevator, but if it is out of service then wheelchair users are stuck. Photograph: Simon Leigh for the Guardian


“My accident opened my eyes to how most cities are not fit for purpose”

Just before I left Europe to move back home to New Zealand, I had an accident that left me with reduced mobility, sometimes using a wheelchair and sometimes using crutches for a month. The experience has made me so grateful that I am not permanently disabled, and opened my eyes to how most cities are not fit for purpose for those with limited mobility. Paris, in particular, provides virtually no access to the metro, and while there was free entry for many of the cultural institutions, often on arrival I’d discover there was no lift, only stairs, meaning the free ticket was useless.

I realise I’m fortunate to only have to do this temporarily, and it makes me so mad that permanently disabled people have to put up with this. I have taken for granted how much access we have in New Zealand, it being a younger country, and I can only hope progress is quickly made in Europe. With travel, this means not only improving the journey – my experience of flying with limited mobility on budget airlines was really difficult; I have no idea how a paraplegic person would ever get onboard one of RyanAir’s plane – but the destination as well. And it’s worth mentioning that with aging populations across much of the world, accessibility needs to be sorted even more urgently. Rachel, New Zealand


“Even a couple of steps is a deal breaker”

Caracas, Venezuela, isn’t a city you can really call “accessible” – buildings, public transportation and sidewalks don’t take it into consideration, even though the legislation exists. From my experience, Europe is far more advanced than here, with even old cities such as Prague taking accessibility into account – it’s the same with the US.

The least accessible, I would say, is Venice: a lot of bridges with steps. It’s not the city’s fault, since that’s exactly what you are expecting to see when you get there. But my main problem are steps and stairs – even a couple is a deal breaker. In one hotel in Copenhagen, the room’s accessible restroom had all the commodities, like a bench and rods – but you had to surpass a step to get inside the room. Gabriel, Caracas

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