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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Paris promised the Olympics would be accessible. The clock is ticking.

The Seine River in Paris, on April 4, 2024. Paris is still working to fulfill its promise to make itself “universally accessible” before the opening ceremony of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, on July 26. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

By Anne-Marie Williams

During a trip to Paris last November, Samantha Renke just couldn’t seem to find a taxi that could accommodate her motorized wheelchair.

“Every time I logged on, it just kept saying, ‘Unavailable, unavailable, unavailable,’” Renke said, recounting her struggle to book an accessible cab using the G7 taxi app. Eating out was also a problem for Renke, a 38-year-old British actor and disability campaigner who has a genetic condition commonly known as brittle bones: Too few restaurants had step-free access.

As Paris prepares to welcome around 15 million visitors — an estimated 350,000 with disabilities — for the Olympics and Paralympics, the city is still working to fulfill its promise to make itself “universally accessible” before the opening ceremony, on July 26.

“Paris will be accessible. We are rising to the challenge,” said Fadila Khattabi, the minister delegate for disabled people.

Paris put inclusivity and accessibility at the center of its bid to host the Summer Games, and the city has made a great deal of headway. For example, the newly built 128-acre Olympic and Paralympic Village, hailed by the organizers and advocacy groups as a shining example of universal design, offers accessible buildings, multisensory signage and zones for assistance dogs. The city plans to have 1,000 wheelchair-accessible taxis by the time the Games open (it had just 250 in 2022), and Uber will increase its fleet of accessible vehicles to 170, from 40.

Despite this progress, advocacy groups such as APF France Handicap are concerned that the city remains unprepared for visitors with disabilities. For example, said Pascale Ribes, the group’s president, train and airline companies need to be notified in advance to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs.

And even that isn’t always enough, explained Ribes, who uses a wheelchair: Recently, she said, staff members at a Paris airport refused to bring her personal wheelchair to the jet bridge after a domestic flight. Another time she almost missed her connecting flight waiting for promised assistance.

A new urgency

France’s first law mandating accessibility in public spaces dates back to 1975, but effective enforcement has been a challenge. The Olympics and Paralympics have brought new urgency to the issue. “It’s not just accessibility for people with reduced mobility,” said Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, in an interview last month. It is about all disabilities, including sensory disabilities. “This will be a very important legacy of the Games,” she added.

Lamia El Aaraje, the deputy mayor in charge of universal accessibility and people with disabilities, has worked to make shops, schools, public services, cultural and sports facilities, and buses and trams accessible across the city. In the last 10 months, at least 1,750 bus shelters have been renovated to be compatible with bus wheelchair ramps.

The city’s extensive Metro system poses its own special challenges for visitors with disabilities, with only one line (No. 14) fully accessible. This line, part of the ambitious Grand Paris Express project, will serve Orly Airport this summer. Other lines incorporate tactile paving, which has textures that help blind and visually impaired people, and more than half offer audio and visual announcements inside the trains.

Two suburban lines, RER A and B are also considered accessible by the regional transport agency. RER B serves both airports, though Ribes says people with disabilities still often need assistance on this line. For the Games, the city will also offer what Ribes considers temporary solutions: 200 shuttles for wheelchair users and their companions between Paris train stations and sports sites.

‘The law is not enough’

Since the 2012 Games in London, there has been a significant shift in the Olympics’ approach to accessibility. For those Games, access was integrated into the construction of new sites. But starting with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, a big move toward sustainability meant that Paris 2024 used more existing venues instead of building new ones. This has posed both challenges and opportunities for accessibility.

The Paris 2024 committee has reserved 280,000 tickets for spectators with disabilities, and the venues themselves will be accessible. Many, but not all, of the events will have audio descriptions in French and English, and the organizers are being as inclusive as possible, said Julien Zéléla, a board member for the French Federation for the Blind.

French regulations require 4% of hotel rooms to be accessible, but the total number of such rooms in Paris is unknown. Airbnb (which has 13 accessibility filters) and Vrbo (which has a wheelchair filter) also offer accessible listings in the Paris region.

Paralympian and wheelchair rugby player Ryadh Sallem acknowledges that hotels are making efforts to be more accessible, but said, “When we want to host a major competition, it becomes very problematic; sometimes we need to book several hotels” for a group of athletes.

Despite the progress, one barrier to accessibility remains stubbornly persistent: public attitudes.

“The law is not enough. We really need to change mentalities,” Ribes said.

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