The Wheel Deal: Exploring Prague’s In-accessibilities

All around the world, people revel in the beauty and mastery of medieval cities in the modern day. Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is just such a city. Every year, tourists flock from all over the world to admire Prague’s dramatic spires, winding cobblestone streets, and gothic architecture. But whilst the beauty of these ancient cities is undeniable, it is also true that they have not always adapted well to fit the needs of modern people, specifically wheelchair users.

According to the United Nations, disabled people belong to the largest and fastest-growing minority group worldwide. In the Czech Republic specifically, the Czech Statistical Office (ČSÚ) reported in 2013 that there are approximately 1,078,000 disabled Czechs, which is 10.2% of the population.

Prague is commended often by Czechs and tourists alike for its convenient and navigable public transportation system. The system consists of trams, buses, and an underground metro, but none are completely accessible or wheelchair friendly. The older stations were built with staircases, and many of the original trams and buses require passengers to climb stairs on board.

Jan Povysil, a 35 year old Czech native, and five-time Paralympic medallist, says, “Prague’s public transport is quite good. It’s better than in some other cities in Western Europe. But, again, it’s not accessible for those in wheelchairs. You can use some subway stations and sometimes the tram and bus, but not every tram or bus is wheelchair-friendly.”

Czech Paralympian Jan Povysil, in Prague’s Old Town Square

Karel Novák, who uses a wheelchair to get around, says, “it is historically pretty bad, and if I go to Germany they have it much better, because they now have everything on ground level. But here you can find many options. You can generally use buses, and many trams are already wheelchair-enabled – so we just need to search for them”

Some handicapped Prague natives prefer to just travel by car when they can. Novák explains, “I use the car a lot, it is the easiest option for me. It is quite easy to get around by car.” Povysil agrees, adding, “I use my car or sometimes the subway, but that’s rare. I probably use it once a year if that. It’s just much easier to use my car.”

The Czech government is aware of these problems and has put forth a plan known as the National Plan for the Promotion of Equal Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, as presented by the Government Board for People with Disabilities. The Board wrote that in the years since the fall of communism, “…the Czech Republic has earned a place among the countries that are aware and accept their increased responsibility for removing barriers impeding disabled persons’ full participation and integration into society.” They continue that they have “methodically attempted to gradually solve the individual areas that directly affect the disabled and their families.” The focus now is on improving and resolving issues surrounding “employment, barriers to public buildings and the transport system, inclusive education, and transparent, fair, and effective financing system for social services.” There are specific goals for each year, which are adopted by the government and updated if necessary.

“[Prague’s transport] is not accessible for those in wheelchairs. You can use some subways and sometimes the tram and bus, but not every tram or bus is wheelchair-friendly.”

In the interim, NGOs and private organizations are picking up the slack to aid Prague’s disabled community. One such organization, Asistence o.p.s. seeks to help people living with disabilities overcome the obstacles that prevent them from going about their day-to-day lives. They offer a variety of programs focusing on providing personal assistance and social rehabilitation. On the current situation for handicapped people living in the Czech Republic, Asistence director Mgr. Erik Čipera says, “We have the general election next month in the Czech Republic, so the old government is now finished. We had very good contact with some people in this last government who could change things, and there was a lot of hope that it would get better for the people who need more assistance than they can afford – but it didn’t change. We hope this will change with the next government, but the chances of that happening are around 50%.”

While handicapped natives struggle to navigate their own city, the burden of inaccessibility that tourists face is even greater, given the lack of knowledge of the language, area, and options available to them. Tourism in Prague is fast rising as well, as the Czech Statistical Office (ČSÚ) reported that in 2016 alone, some 7.07 million people visited Prague, which is a seven percent increase from 2015.

Jorge Zúñiga, Chilean tourist

Some private organizations have stepped up in the meantime to fill the accessibility gap for tourists. One such group is Accessible Prague, which curates travel experiences in Prague for disabled tourists. Lea Skanderová, founder of Accessible Prague, writes on their website, “I founded Accessible Prague with the aim of making this attractive city more accessible to everyone and providing [tourists] with an unforgettable, trouble-free experience.” They offer private tours created specifically to allow wheelchair users to enjoy the beauty of Prague, and see all the major sites. They also offer wheelchair-accessible hotel accommodations, equipment rentals, transfers to and from hotels, and personal assistance.

Jorge Zúñiga has spent 20 years in a wheelchair, and recently traveled to Prague from his native Chile. On getting around Prague, he says, “It is difficult to navigate Prague, because the streets are not flat. The biggest problems here are in the historical areas, because they remain in the original form. However, there are occasionally historical places which they have made accessible for wheelchairs.”

“By starting to build more accessible ways for wheelchair users in touristic places, we can make them better places for all.”

Zúñiga has also traveled extensively in Europe, which he notes that the wheelchair accessibility of European cities, “is anyhow a lot better than in Chile,” and also feels, “by starting to build more accessible ways for wheelchair users in touristic places, we can make them better places for all.”

On the differences between handicapped and fully abled people, Novák aptly summed it up, “All I would like people to know is that we all think the same, we all have the same feelings. We have the same problems as anybody else, and that is essentially the problem: there is not much difference. The only difference is we use wheelchairs.”

Karel Novák, Prague native and wheelchair user

Leave a Reply