Prague

Disabled Praguers bemoan access

Transport options still poor, claim people with disabilities

Every day since moving to Prague from Denmark five years ago, Michael Schroder has dealt with obstacles most people never think about. His 13-year-old stepdaughter, Simona, is wheelchair-bound because of spinal muscular atrophy. Schroder says that when his family lived in Copenhagen and the United States, getting around with Simona was not a problem. Not so in Prague.

“The last time we took the metro we were frustrated again,” he said. “According to their signs all over, the Smichovske nadrazi station has a non-barrier exit. But when we got to the station, we found out they still haven’t built it.”

Schroder said he runs into similar difficulties with his daughter nearly every day, and for her such troubles are often humiliating.

Now the government is trying to fix the problem. A new initiative, the “Mobility Program,” comes into force in 2005 whereby all institutions will have access to financial support to make their facilities more accessible to people with disabilities. “The main aim is to enable the non-barrier entry into buildings and public transport,” said Jan Malek, director of the government’s Division for Equal Opportunities.

Central planning under the communist regime paid little attention to the needs of people with disabilities, opting instead to marginalize such people. This played a role in the building and infrastructure design.

According to Malek, the Mobility Program will prompt institutions to reconstruct exits and entryways even though the structure may not need other types of renovation.

People such as Schroder and his family, however, say their biggest problem is not with access to buildings but with the transport system. He and his wife, Simona Schroderova, have incurred police fines for illegal parking — something they say they must do when there are no designated handicapped spaces. Their car was once even impounded.

“I have to visit police stations quite often to prove that we have a disabled daughter,” Schroderova said. “The police excuse us from paying the charges, but it is a hassle we face three to four times a month.”

“To create special access would cost billions.” Karel Peceny, Dopravni podnik official

She explained further that trips to downtown locations such as Wenceslas Square or the Tesco store on Narodni often mean she has to park illegally. “The parking places for disabled people are very often taken, sometimes by luxury cars without the handicapped card.”

But for the police there is no excuse.

“The handicapped cannot park all over,” state police information officer Eva Mitlikova said. “This group cannot totally disregard the rules of public transport. They have special parking places.”

According to Schroderova, however, the family’s car once received a ticket even in a handicapped spot in the Prague 9 neighborhood of Cerny Most. She was told by police officials that many drivers use false permits and the officer thought this was the case.

Train in vain

Hoping to avoid such troubles, the Schroder family sometimes opts for public transport. But again, even a quick trip across the city can become an ordeal.

In almost all cases, access to buses, trams, trains and the metro is by stairs. During the past 15 years there have been some improvements, but nothing dramatic. For example, of the 47 stations in Prague’s metro system, just 15 feature access for people with disabilities. Another six have elevators that can only be operated by a metro employee. In the city center, only three stations have access for people with disabilities.

Jan Skopec, who heads an advocacy group for handicapped people, said that when construction on the metro began in the late 1960s, the architects were told to ignore the plight of the handicapped.

“When the metro was built … the attorney for the metro construction company, [architect Oskar] Ferecky, forbade non-barrier accesses,” Skopec said. “But later Ferecky lost his leg [in a car accident] and he was the first one who introduced in 1985 an ordinance against discrimination [of the handicapped].”

Ferecky died in 1986.

Even now, three decades after the metro was completed, creating equal access for the handicapped will not happen easily. “It all depends on money; to create the special accesses would cost billions,” said Karel Peceny, the deputy transportation director of Dopravni podnik’s Metro division.

Some improvement

Otto Kamm, who has been wheelchair-bound for the past eight years, said the situation is slowly improving. “There will always be problems here, but little changes have been made,” Kamm said, citing a recent move by the City Hall office in Prague 13, where he lives, to a building with full access. “I don’t have that many problems in the shops or with the transport. But then I don’t shop in the center. I don’t rely on the signs and maps that indicate barrier-free places. I ask around before I travel to destinations I don’t know.”

Kamm said when he travels by city bus, he mainly waits for a newer bus with wheelchair-accessible entry. Prague now has more than 250 such buses.

Acquiring wheelchair-accessible tram cars is a priority for the city, according to Jiri Prokel, director of ROPID, the Prague transport authority. “Our priority is not segregation but integration of disabled people into public transport.”

Prokel added that the first two wheelchair-accessible tram cars from a 20-car purchase will be in service by the end of next year. If the carriages are well received, ROPID is going to ask for another 40. Prokel said he also wants to improve metro accessibility. “The stations built in the last few years all have the required access. In the older ones there will be additional work to do.”

For people with disabilities and elderly people who have trouble walking, Prokel has no easy answers . “We will do our best, but it all depends on the budget for next year,” he said.

UPHILL BATTLE

• 10.2 million Population of the Czech Republic
• 325,000 People with disabilities
• 34,000 Wheelchair users
• 1985 Year of first ordinance prohibiting discrimination against the handicapped

Source: Socioklub

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