Team Doors4Disabilities ‘Czechs’ out the accessibility of Prague – how easy is it to enjoy the city whilst in a wheelchair?
With its historic architecture, picturesque views, unique culture and cobbled walkways, Prague is a tourist hotspot in Central Europe, attracting over 7 million tourists per year, according to data from the Czech Statistical Office.
But the beautiful and infamous capital of the Czech Republic
is not without its issues. Whilst most people love strolling the cobbled streets with a trdelnik and a beer, there are also those who struggle to navigate the same streets.
Everyday living with a physical disability is a challenge in itself, but in environments with unsuitable infrastructure – like Prague – it can be twice as daunting.
Jan Povysil, 35, is a lifelong Prague resident, photographer and wheelchair user. He was an avid field hockey and water polo player before an accident during a school trip to Italy when he was 15; when he was wounded on a waterpark slide that paralyzed his legs. Jan received treatment in Italy that continued at home in the Czech Republic, and for a while he was unsure if he would ever be able to sit down or eat by himself. After his brother taught him to swim, he became a successful Paralympian representing the Czech Republic, competing in 5 Paralympic Games from 2000 to 2016 and has won 5 medals in the Freestyle category. He is currently preparing for the World Championships in Mexico, training 7-8 times per week.
We spoke to Jan about the realities of being disabled in a bustling, but inaccessible city:
Doors4Disabilities: You’ve lived in Prague for 35 years, and been in a wheelchair for 20 of them. How do you find it living here and navigating the city?
Jan Povysil: Prague is a nice city, so living here is pretty easy – but not for those in a wheelchair. The facilities have changed over time. Prague is a really old city; I don’t live in the city centre, so for me it is much easier. But even the Old Town is getting more accessible. But obviously, you can see for yourself, there are stairs everywhere and no ramps.
D4D: Tell us about the public transport in Prague. Do you use the facilities, for example the trams and the buses?
JP: 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 subways and sometimes the tram and bus, but not every tram or bus is wheelchair-friendly.
D4D: So how do you tend to travel around the city?
JP: 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.
D4D: What about wheelchair users that don’t have cars?
JP: It’s quite difficult, yes. You can get some assistance from friends and family, but if you’re alone you will have more problems, especially in the centre of the city. Of course, in the old metro stations you will find it very difficult as there are no elevators and only stairs. Only a few stations are wheelchair-accessible in the city centre, so this is a big problem.
D4D: Would you say there is a community for disabled people here, for example others with whom you interact, support groups, events, workshops etc.?
JP: There is a lot of groups, and some cool workshops, namely for sportspeople. But just in Prague, I think there’s about 100 clubs or communities for people with disabilities. I think it’s great.
“Living here is pretty easy – but not for those in a wheelchair”
D4D: You mentioned sports. So, you’re a professional swimmer, how did you get involved in sport?
JP: Actually, it was very easy for me. Before my injury, I was playing water polo and field hockey and spent maybe twice a week in the swimming pool. It wasn’t difficult for me as I just switched from one sport to another. I started swimming again about five months after the injury.
D4D: Tell us about the sports facilities for the disabled community. Are there a lot of options available, is it easy to join sports clubs?
JP: No. It is quite hard to find a wheelchair-accessible pool, and in Prague there are only three Olympic-sized swimming pools – only two of them are accessible for me so it isn’t easy to find somewhere to practise. You know, we had 50 years of communism here, so it’s a bit different.
D4D: Have you ever faced any discrimination here because of your disability?
JP: Honestly, no. I think in Prague the atmosphere is quite warm for wheelchair users. Everybody tries to help you in some way.
D4D: Have you ever been to any other countries with better disabled facilities? Is there any place in particular that stands out to you, or something you wish you had here?
JP: London, England, comes to mind. It’s awesome. It’s also quite accessible in Paris, even for wheelchairs, and I would say Berlin too. Cool cities, and easy to navigate. In terms of facilities that I wish I had here, I would say maybe the underground metro could be impro
ved here in Prague. And the public transport accessibility like trams, buses etc.
D4D: Lastly, what do you wish people understood about having a disability – what would you tell them if you could?
JP: You can do almost everything you want. You might not be able to play beach volleyball, but you can travel all over the world and live comfortably. I think in today’s world, there is almost no problems.