A Lot Has Changed In 30 Years

Between Christmas and New Year I went to Amsterdam with my dear friend David Constantine. We met 30 years ago at the Royal College of Art and have been firm friends ever since.

Back in 1998 David was one of the first students to attend the RCA in a wheelchair. David has been a quadriplegic since a diving accident when he was 21 years old.

When we were students together, the buildings on Kensington Gore were not very accessible and it was a daily struggle for David to get to lectures on time and navigate his way round the facilities. It led to some incredibly frustrating but equally hilarious moments while we were students. London itself wasn’t at all wheelchair friendly but Dave never allowed barriers to stand in his way and he still doesn’t today. He made the most of all the RCA had to offer and, as part of the Industrial Design department, helped our peer group of designers start to shape better solutions for a more inclusive world.

David is one of the founders of the charity Motivation. He’s a global expert in wheelchair provision in the developing world and passionate advocate for a world where disabled people are fully included in all aspects of life. No one has done more than he has to make this vision a reality.

As we enjoyed our rather luxurious Eurostar journey to Amsterdam (courtesy of the brilliantly designed wheelchair facilities on board), we reflected upon how much has changed in 30 years.

Better product design for disabled users

From the design of the Apple iphone, to the new Eurostar train interiors, there are brilliant designs solutions that are making life so much easier for David and millions of others with reduced mobility. It’s startling how far we’ve come. The new trams in Amsterdam made it possible for us to hop on and off public transport with relative ease and we rarely felt like second class citizens which was definitely the experience back in London 30 years ago.

On board the Thalys train in Holland the space for the wheelchair was partly in front of the door and gangway so poor David was banged and jostled by passengers and their luggage. It was such an obvious design fault and showed a total lack of understanding of what the experience is like for someone in a wheelchair.
In contrast, at the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum it was clear that wheelchair users had been considered throughout. There were thoughtful bits of design that made such a difference, such as the lift that had the perfect turning circle for a wheelchair and buttons located at chair height on a flat bar that were easy for Dave to use himself. It might not seem a big thing to be able to press the lift button yourself, but watch any 2 year old get in a lift and you’ll know that controlling your own environment is more than child’s play. Pressing the buttons matters!

Amsterdam Central railway station was a challenge as the lift was at the very far end of the platform so we had to walk a significant extra distance every day. But the fact that there was a lift and it was working was enough for us. We’ve travelled together in Sri Lanka and Morocco so we know when to be thankful for small mercies!

Better services for disabled users

The lovely team at Saint Pancras station met us as pre-arranged and helped us get settled on board the train. It was smooth, professional and wonderfully helpful from start to finish. Across the rail network this worked really well. People were there on time as arranged. Top marks for the rail companies for getting this part right.

We had a bit of a glitch on Booking.com as our request for an accessible room got missed, but apparently that’s not uncommon. With help from the reception staff at the hotel, all was sorted.

Then there was the restaurant manager at a prime tourist cafe in Amsterdam Central who insisted upon charging David €3 for a cup of hot water, even after we had had coffee and a pricey breakfast. When you’re a wheelchair user you need to be super careful about staying hydrated so David asks for extra cups of hot water wherever we go. It felt like a petty and wholly unnecessary charge but this guy was insistent. No doubt he would charge for heating up a baby’s bottle too!

Better attitudes towards disabled people

As we travelled from London to Amsterdam people were almost universally helpful. In fact they went out of their way to help us, using their discretion to make things a bit easier where they could. The lovely train manager on board the Thalys train in Holland made a number of calls to check that our assistance was in place upon arrival in Brussels. The restaurant manager at the Rijksmuseum made us feel like special VIP guests and not like troublesome tourists with demanding requirements. It was such a positive experience.

Having both worked with the Paralympics, both David and I know that sport has done so much to change society’s attitudes towards people with some sort of physical impairment. It’s very different to 30 years ago.

One thing I did notice was that people generally spoke to me and not to David. It’s as if the person in the chair is somehow not there, can’t hear or can’t speak. Which if you know David is definitely not the case! But in general we were treated with great courtesy and respect. Eurostar, Thalys, the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum should be incredibly proud of the attitude their staff have. I regularly explain to clients that your people ARE your brand and we really found this to be true. Bravo!

There was however the grumpy station employee whose job it was to assist us as we boarded the Eurostar in Brussels. He was rude and impatient and a poor reflection upon his company. But we both acknowledged that he would have been like that with anyone and it wasn’t just because Dave was in a chair.

So, while there is still some way to go to make our chaotic and complex cites more accessible for all, we’ve definitely come a long way. I look forward to travelling with David any day, especially if we get to go in the posh bit of the Eurostar!

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