A friend sent me a very interesting article about wheelchair accessibility in Paris, France, as published in Atlantic Cities.
The folks at that magazine have discovered Paris isn't really wheelchair-accessible, and no one is in any real hurry to do anything about it even though access laws are in force.
No surprise there. Paris has been a city whose history spans 10,000 years. And, as the English fellow noted in the article, "to 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."
There are cities here in the USA like that. There's a little town south of here called Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It was a Victorian-era spa, where the swells from the cities around (St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Little Rock) would come to take the waters and enjoy the non-river-bottom air during the summer.
It's accessible, or at least as much as it can be considering the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates access but cannot mandate that terrain become wheelchair-friendly. I've been there a couple of times, mostly because I've been dragged by the family women folk who wanted to shop in all the boutiques. The last time I was there I told my wife the best way for the town to comply with the ADA would have been for them to buy every person in a wheelchair a house in, oh, Phoenix or some other city on the flat land.
I'd like to go to Paris again. I was there as a child. I'd also like to go to London, but as much as I favor disability access, I am reluctant to be strident when demanding access to certain old places. The French and the English have disability access laws, and they're rightfully struggling with them. I even believe that places like Paris and the like should be given longer periods to accommodate access.
But I am no fool. I know it is far easier to say "It can't be done" or "That would destroy an historic site" than it is to work for accommodation that meets the needs of the mobility-impaired while still preserving the historic beauty of these magnificent buildings.
That tension, of course, is part of the democratic process. We see it elsewhere—in the struggle over abortion, over religion in the public sector, and most currently over the place of government in the process of delivery healthcare.
In the bad old days—"when disabled people either died at birth or stayed at home"—there was no such "tension" leading to extending rights of access and equality to people with disabilities. And those "bad old days" are not so long in the past, comparatively speaking.
Old Paris may still be generally inaccessible, but at least we're having a discussion about changing that.