I spent this morning getting around Playa Blanca in a wheelchair.
I did it because, thanks to Dee from Island Mobility SL, we decided earlier this year that we wanted Lanzarote Information to become a useful resource for people with accessibility problems, and I felt the only way to write effectively about the issue was to experience it first hand.
Let’s start with some positives – Playa Blanca in particular, and the island in general has come on leaps and bounds in this regard over the last ten years. You can see the effect of both the current building regulations, and the awareness of businesses and individuals. Most are trying to make things easier for people in wheelchairs, and many are doing a great job.
Unfortunately, there remain some (and I have to admit I was until recently in this category) who have obviously never given a thought to disabled people. And most annoyingly of all, there are too many places where consideration has been given, but where the lack of attention to detail has spoiled what could have been a perfect solution.
We met with Dee in the disabled parking spot right at the entrance to Playa Blanca. Sadly, it wasn’t wide enough to allow me to safely get out of the car and into the wheelchair, and this applied to every blue parking space we saw – it seems the assumption is that entry and exit will always be from the back of the car, rather than from a passenger door.
We’d chosen a manual chair to give me the broadest possible experience. It would have been much easier to go for an electric chair or scooter, and in many ways they are safer, with a lower centre of gravity and in the latter case a longer wheel base. I can tell you that after just two hours, my hands were blistered, I was bathed in sweat and my shoulders and biceps were screaming. I have huge admiration for people who can get around all day in one of these.
Having got into the chair, we then set off down the hill into town. There are ramps on the pavement, which run alongside the steps, so I wasn’t expecting a problem. But, they were simply too steep! Even with Jules at my back and the brakes applied, I nearly toppled out of the chair, and on one slope I had to simply get out rather than risk an injury.
Think about what you just read.
I got out of the chair.
But what would we have done if that wasn’t an option? And remember, we’re talking here about the slopes from the disabled parking space into town.
I also quickly learned that in a manual chair, the slightest lip can stop you dead and threaten to toppled you forward. In several cases there were kerbs, with slopes, but with a small, 2 CM lip on them. The only way over those is to “Wheelie" the chair to lift the front wheels up. Good fun, but also quite scary!
Our first port of call was the tourist information kiosk, where I rolled up and asked for information for people in wheelchairs. The lady was reasonably helpful, but her information was inaccurate about beach access – it obviously wasn’t something she’d been given details about, nor had she been trained to understand what my needs might be.
Shops are interesting. Every single perfume shop in Playa Blanca is beautifully accessible for some reason, with gentle slopes and wide aisles. Many other shops do have ramps, but I would say that at least half of them are simply too steep to get up, and I suspect they are more about people delivering stock to the shops on trolleys, rather than for wheelchairs.
Too few of the bars and cafés have good access – we had to travel some way to find somewhere for a coffee, and even then we had to sit outside. It was the only time I felt “strange" being in a chair, where there was a pregnant pause while the waitress waited for Jules to order my drink. To be fair, she did cotton on and eventually she did ask me what I wanted.
One delicious irony was that we spotted a restaurant that had two wide, gentle slopes for wheelchair access, with an ice cream fridge planted right across the front, making it impossible to get in!
After coffee, we headed for the beach. I’m told that there are bathing chairs available, but didn’t see any sign of them. There is wooden slatting on the beach, but the slope down was too steep for me, and the slatting ended well short of the sea, so even if I could have made it down the slope, I would have ended up marooned on the end of the wooden section, with no hope of getting into the water and a struggle to be able to turn around and head back.
So we headed for the toilet block, where there are two splendid new disabled toilets. Spacious, with enough width to turn a chair around in, and with strong “arms" which I could use to lever myself into position. The only trouble is the doors are on a pretty strong automatic closer, which makes it almost impossible to open them from either inside or outside whilst in a chair, and at the same time move your chair.
I don’t want to labour the point, but can you see the pattern? Everybody is doing the right thing, from finding a way to help people get onto the beach, to providing great toilets for them to use.
But it’s the attention to detail that lets these things down.
A problem that could be solved in a moment by simply involving either an expert, or even an amateur like me, in a wheelchair! A classic example was the pedestrian crossing with a dropped kerb on one side and not the other. That issue could be solved in an hour by a guy with a bag of cement!
We tried several cash machines at different banks, and all were easy for me to use, but public telephones are a problem. I could just about reach the slot to put my money in, but anyone shorter than me would struggle. And I then found I couldn’t read the screen to follow the instructions.
My overall impression is that things are moving in the right direction – you can get around Playa Blanca town reasonably well, and do most things you want to in a manual wheelchair. But it does take some planning and forethought, and some aspects are really frustrating. I couldn’t have done it without some help at times, and that impacts my independence in a way I don’t like.
My summary would be that we are getting there, but we need to do a lot more. And I urge businesses and Ayuntamientos alike to just pause for a moment, and think things through to get the detail right. Or better still get someone into a wheelchair and get them to test how everything works.
I’m on a mission now, so I’ll be doing everything I can to help and cajole everyone along in the right direction.
My thanks to Dee for the loan of the chair, her excellent “driving" lessons, and her patience in showing us around Playa Blanca.