France has been late to the game when it comes to wheelchair user access. As the city of Paris prepares for the implementation of a sweeping law similar to the Americans with Disability Act (it will go into effect in just over a year), it's easy to see why.
Cobblestone streets. Cozy bistros. Steep stairs, tiny bathrooms, elevators that can barely hold three standing people, let alone anybody in a wheelchair. This just isn't a place that can be easily retrofitted.
The law, itself a reinforcement of broad 1975 legislation guaranteeing rights for the disabled, passed in 2005. The requirements for better public transportation access, including buses, kicked in soon thereafter. But the bulk of public establishments, from restaurants to workplaces, got a full ten years to comply. It seemed like a long time to prepare. But now, the 2015 deadline is right around the corner.
Like students putting off a term paper, France is in a state of denial, seemingly hoping the new requirements will somehow just go away. A report issued earlier this month by the office of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault flatly states that there is virtually no way the 2015 deadline will be met. "The lack of political leadership has failed to mobilize the actors on the ground," the report reads.
New housing construction is in good shape, the report says. But places of employment, transportation, and especially the lifeblood of the urban economy – restaurants – show few signs of taking "reasonable steps" to remove physical barriers.
Jammed into a middle row of lunch tables recently on the marvelously crowded second floor of Café Constant in the 7th arrondissement, I was sympathetic to the response by small businesses, which might be boiled down to, c’est une blague, non? – are you kidding me? A ramp over the steps from rue Saint-Dominique? An elevator? Where to find the space for a giant bathroom?
Some bistro owners have talked of banding together and finding a spot for a common handicap accessible bathroom, in proximity to a cluster of restaurants. For others, they may take their chances. If there are fines levied for noncompliance, the options would either be to challenge them or just pay them, as an added cost of doing business.
France is no stranger to regulation. There are strictly enforced rules for just about everything. But like the rest of the European Union, the nation never really got serious about disabled access. That might say something about the realities of European cities, and how much effort is realistic.
Former London mayor Ken Livingstone put it bluntly, telling Time magazine in the aftermath of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act that train stations then required to be retrofitted were "built during Victorian or Edwardian times, when disabled people either died at birth or stayed in the home. There was no expectation that disabled people would be wheeling around the city."
In the U.S., the ADA is both a blessing and a curse. My architect friends can't stand it, bristling at the uniform application of standards regardless of context and cost. Access ramps slapped onto the streetscape can be viewed as a kind of blight. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has spent millions rebuilding T stations for handicap access. At issue are both practical costs and historic preservation.
Yet a friend of mine who's used a wheelchair ever since being injured in a bicycle accident comes to visit, and I see thresholds and steps in a whole new way. When is it unreasonable to retrofit the built environment so he can get around just like anyone else? Is it possible to make the city totally accessible?
I've spent three weeks in Paris this fall as a visiting fellow at The American Library in Paris, working on my forthcoming narrative biography of Le Corbusier. I walked so much – across the Champs de Mars, up the stairs of the Trocadero, to the No. 42 bus and the Line 6 Metro, up and down flights of stairs and down sidewalks and over bridges – I managed to give myself tendonitis. It was a reminder of how much the city is made for walking. Which is something to celebrate – except for those who can’t.