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Mind the gap: Getting around Brussels can be a nightmare for people with limited mobility
Loredana Dicsi has just returned home from Brussels’ EU quarter, and she’s not happy. While walking down the street, the Romanian tripped over barbed-wire barriers that were obstructing the tactile pavement markers designed to help people with very low vision – like her – to navigate the city. “I was so angry,” says Dicsi. “It happens all the time and it’s so dangerous. The people who put these barriers up don’t think about people who cannot see them.”
Unexpected obstacles and a lack of consideration from businesses are just some of the challenges facing people with visual, physical and other impairments as they make their way around the capital. Dicsi, who lives in Leuven, works as a communications officer for the European Disability Forum (EDF); improving accessibility for everyone is a cause close to her heart. Brussels is making progress, she says, but there is still work to be done – not least in making people aware that not every disability is visible.
“I usually take the metro within Brussels, because I can count the stops until I have to get off,” she says. “On the buses they now announce the stops as they approach, but sometimes the drivers forget to switch the audio on and I have to ask them to do it.”
Audio cues at bus stops, not just on the buses, would be a big help, she adds: “In metro stations in Paris, they announce that the next train in a certain direction will arrive in so many minutes. I dream of having this at all the bus stops in Brussels.” And in an ideal world, she says, all metro stations would be accessible to all citizens. “I went to Brussels today with my baby and that’s another difficulty,” she says. “Sometimes there isn’t a lift and getting up all those stairs with a pram is impossible.”
Someone who understands all too well the frustration of inaccessible metro stations is engineer Nadia Hadad, who uses a motorised wheelchair following a car accident 15 years ago. Though she lives in the centre of Brussels, in a street served by numerous buses, metros and trams, her mobility options are severely restricted because those services weren’t designed to take into account the needs of people who use wheelchairs.
“There are four bus lines around my neighbourhood and none of them are adapted, so I can’t use them,” she explains. “Some of the buses have a ramp but not all the platforms are close enough to the door that the ramps can be used. There are two trams not far from my place and they are also inaccessible.
"The gap between the tram and the platform is too big and the pavement is too low. And I have two metro stations really close by but they have no elevator, so I have no access to those either.”
Making a medieval city like Brussels accessible presents a challenge to the authorities, but public transport operator Stib has implemented various measures. A collective taxibus provides door-to-door transport for people with a statement of disability from the federal government’s social services department, for example. However, the service has to be booked a day in advance, paid for in blocks of 10 journeys – effectively excluding people without access to a credit card or online banking, as well as tourists and people visiting on business – and it doesn’t operate on Sundays or public holidays.
Stib also offers personal assistance for people who find it difficult to navigate the gap between the platform and metro trains – for those who can get into the metro station in the first place. Last year the company extended the operating hours of the service until 22.00, and it aims to eventually be able to give assistance to passengers who need it for as long as the metro is running.
As a board member of ENIL, the European Network on Independent Living, Hadad is part of a movement pushing for clear directives on accessibility. “We are asking for universal design, for equal and simple accessibility,” she says. “I don’t think the city takes our issues seriously. I understand that it’s difficult for them, but it works in other countries.”
There are many potential solutions for making getting around the city easier, according to Alejandro Moledo from Spain, a policy officer at EDF covering new technology. “When I need to catch a bus in the street, I stop them all and ask the driver which number it is, because I have no other way of knowing,” says Moledo, who has around 5% vision. “I don’t think it would be technologically difficult to implement a system whereby I’m at a bus stop and I know which bus I want to take, I click on something via an app and the driver gets a notification that at this stop there will be a visually impaired person waiting to get on.”
'I love Brussels, but in terms of accessibility it’s a nightmare'
Another possibility is linking the overhead display boards in metro stations with passengers’ phones via Bluetooth or an app, allowing those with low vision to zoom in to an image on their screen and see the displayed information in detail. There are already apps providing this detail, but often the real-time information is more reliably presented on the boards in the stations, Moledo explains.
“I love Brussels, but in terms of accessibility it’s a nightmare,” he says. “For visually impaired people it’s a nightmare, and for people with reduced mobility it’s even worse. Though one advantage here is the recognition that visually impaired people are totally dependent on public transport, so we can travel for free with a companion throughout the country. That’s pretty amazing and I really appreciate it.”
What Moledo and Hadad agree on is that they don’t feel their needs are a priority for the city. Stib accessibility expert Christian De Strycker admits there are a lot of challenges in making Brussels truly accessible, and while some have been met, many remain.
“We’ve done a lot of work on accessibility on the bus network, and now we’re working on placing lifts in the metro stations,” he says. “Today, 47 stations out of 69 are accessible. And on the tram network we are busy with the new line 9, which will be more accessible than the others.” Stib has just ordered 60 new trams and from 2020 it will gradually replace all the old-style vehicles – with their narrow doorways and steep steps – with these new models. However, a technical issue means they are not completely accessible to wheelchairs, so the company is investigating how to install ramps in the vehicles.
Another challenge is to get information about accessibility to the people who need it. The Stib website lists the ways in which people can get assistance in three languages, and De Strycker works with the company’s customer service team to provide tailored advice for individual passengers when they request it. For him, the key to improving is to learn from good practice around the world.
And Dicsi is relatively upbeat, particularly about her fellow citizens. “Often in Brussels, people will come up to me and ask if I need help,” she says. “There are challenges, yes, but there are also positive responses.”
Transport for all
The discrimination created by inaccessibility can affect the mental health of people with physical disabilities, while for those with psychosocial disabilities or mental ill health, the uncertainties of an unreliable system that often lacks a human face can be a barrier to fully partaking in society. Maria Nyman, director of the Brussels-based NGO Mental Health Europe, explains why transport operators must also be mindful of passengers’ mental health.
“The transport system in Brussels is not always reliable; there can be roadworks and diversions, escalators might be broken, clear information might not be available,” she says. “This is particularly stressful for people experiencing anxiety, for example. Stib needs to make it more clear what works and isn’t working on a given day, so that there aren’t so many surprises. Many people with mental ill health are discouraged from using the system because they don’t know what to expect.”
For Nyman, the most important thing in creating a truly inclusive transport system is the human factor. “What we ask is that all employees who have direct contact with users should have disability awareness training that includes awareness of invisible conditions like psychosocial disabilities or mental ill health. If there’s a person who can explain to you what’s happening, to give you a bit of support, with an understanding and respectful attitude if you’re lost, stressed or nervous, that helps a lot. It’s not enough to make physical adaptations; behind that you need the human understanding that people have different needs and fears. And it’s the most cost-effective investment you can make to help with customer satisfaction.”
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Summer 2018