Destination London: A Disability-Friendly Guide
London, with its population of 8.6 million people, is bulging with destinations to keep tourists happy. From historic buildings to strikingly modern attractions and beautiful parks, the city boasts something for everybody, and the variety of offerings makes London an ideal destination for young and old, backpackers or luxury hotel-dwellers, and seekers of everything from modern art to old-fashioned ghost hunts.
The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games heralded a new era in the city’s accessibility for disabled residents and visitors, with preparations that involved making part of the underground railway accessible. But what can disabled tourists expect when they visit London?
London measures, in total, over 600 square miles, so navigating its complex transport system is essential.
Getting around London
DisabledGo is a really useful website to find out access information for places to go in London, including hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. The access guides give a great deal of detail so that you can decide whether the venue is fully accessible before you visit.
Transport for London offers public transport information in a variety of formats, including maps of the tube in large print, audio formats, and black and white. There are also guides to which tube stations have toilets and which stations and routes offer step-free access.
Passengers can travel with assistance dogs throughout the London transport network and a growing number of underground vehicles now cater for disabled passengers, with priority seats for people who have trouble standing and dedicated spaces for wheelchair users.
Unfortunately, only a quarter of London’s tube stations are step-free and even fewer have access to the carriages that doesn’t involve minding that famous gap between the platform and the train. Most stations are staffed, so disabled travellers can request assistance.
The trouble with so few stations and trains being accessible, however, is that even if the station closest to your destination is step-free, the one closest to your hotel may not be, and vice versa. Good journey planning, taking into account each person’s individual needs, is crucial for day trips to be stress free and manageable.
Gerry Bucke from Chartwell – a specialist insurance provider and advocate for the disabled community – is encouraged by the plans to continue improving access to London’s underground system, stating, “These are old structures, so installing lifts and ramps is not always straight forward. However, progress is being made that will enable disabled visitors to the capital to explore more and travel further, which is very positive.”
The tube is not the only way to travel around London. London buses are all wheelchair accessible and they have visual and audio announcements that clarify the route, the destination and the next stop. This makes them easy to use for people with a variety of impairments, though mobility-scooter users are advised to check with Transport for London before travelling, as some scooters are not allowed on the buses.
The overground trains and Docklands Light Railways vehicles are all fully wheelchair accessible, and London taxis can also cater for disabled visitors.
What to do in the capital
Once visitors have mastered their travel planning, there are plenty of accessible attractions to keep them occupied during their time in London.
For art lovers, the Tate Modern hosts exhibitions by modern artists around the globe. In the fifteen years since it was opened, it has become one of the top three tourist attractions in the UK.
Disabled visitors to the Tate Modern enjoy reduced price access to paid exhibitions and carers can enter for free. Assistance dogs are welcome and large-print captions and guides are available for visually impaired art lovers. Audio guides and touch tours are also available, as well as hearing loops, multimedia guides and BSL talks.
Because the museum is spacious and modern, accessibility feels like an integral part of the experience rather than an afterthought, and helpful staff are on hand to assist when needed. There is also a Changing Places toilet on floor 0.
The nearest bus routes to the Tate Modern are the RV1 and the 381. The nearest Tube station with wheelchair access is Pimlico station, which though has ramp access on Lupus street, you still have a few steps to walk down to enter the ticket hall.
However, if you do arrive at a Tube or Overground station and the lift is unavailable, staff can always help you plan an alternative journey. If there isn’t an alternative route, staff will book you a free taxi to take you either to your final destination or to another step-free station.
For a visual overview of the capital, the famousLondon Eye is an experience not to be missed. Assistance from staff is available and carers can attend free of charge.
The capsules of the London Eye are wheelchair accessible and deaf visitors are advised to purchase a guidebook to identify the attractions they see. Some wheelchairs are available to hire and assistance dogs are allowed.
The nearest step-free tube station to the London Eye is Waterloo, though the RV1 bus stops closer to the attraction.
For a taste of the outdoors, the world-famous Kew Gardens are an accessible option for disabled visitors to London. Although four areas of the park are not wheelchair accessible (Sackler crossing, Upper levels of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, the Marine display and Upper galleries in the Palm and Temperate house), the vast majority of the grounds – including the greenhouses – are, and wheelchairs and scooters are available for hire.
One of the most interesting aspects of Kew Gardens’ commitment to disabled visitors is its Discovery Programme Tours, which are specifically designed for people with limited mobility, visual impairment, learning disabilities or deafness. Discovery Programme tours must be booked in advance.
The eastbound platform of the Kew Gardens station has a level exit. Passengers travelling in the opposite direction are advised to go one stop further to Richmond and return to Kew Gardens from there which is about 400 meters from the Victoria Gate entrance to Kew.
London is an amazing destination for visitors from the UK and abroad. Disabled tourists navigating the public transport system may need some extra support or planning time, but the accessible buses and overground trains make up for some of the difficulties on the tube.
Philippa Willitts is a Sheffield-based freelance writer and proofreader who specialises in writing about health and disability, SEO and social media and women’s issues. Her writing has been published in the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, xoJane and The Daily Dot websites as well as numerous other websites and publications. She enjoys tech, trips to the seaside and changing the world. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.
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