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Londoners Lend Helping Hands

May 31, 1987|WALTER BLUM | Blum is an associate editor at the San Francisco Examiner

Traveling abroad is never easy, even less so when you're disabled. But if I had to choose one country where people bend over backward to help a handicapped person, it would be Great Britain.

Take the day my wife and I visited the British Museum. We were standing in the forecourt, I was leaning on my cane, contemplating the flight of stairs to be climbed--and the vast unknown spaces beyond--when a guard came rushing up.

"Could you use a wheelchair, sir?" he asked. "There's a lot of walking inside, you know."

I knew what he meant. After a moment's hesitation I told him I thought a chair might be a good idea. Discreetly, he signaled a second guard on the porch of the museum. I was guided to one side, where an "invalid lift" stood waiting to raise me to the level of the porch. There, the second guard had a lightweight wheelchair in readiness.

Minutes later I was rolling merrily through one of the world's biggest museums. I don't think my wife and I could have seen half its wonders if I hadn't been pushed.

In many thoughtful little ways the British extend a hand to the disabled visitor. And they're becoming more adept at it.

Sidewalks and Buses

In London I found that many sidewalks boast those handy cutouts in the concrete that make life easier for wheelchair users and people who have trouble with curbs. On the big red double-deck buses, people instinctively extend themselves to help.

Each time I boarded a bus, hands reached out to assist me and someone moved aside to give me a seat. In no other major city I know of do people make such a fuss about helping the disabled. It is, in a sense, a phenomenon.

The double-deckers are a special boon for the disabled because many (although not all) are run by two-man teams of driver and conductor. Instead of fighting to keep your balance while you fumble with change, the system lets you take a seat and wait until the conductor comes around to collect your fare. We rode the bus quite a bit, leaving the tube--the London subway--to hardier souls.

However, I must admit that I seldom climbed to the second deck of the bus, despite the better view. The steps are steep and winding and can be most intimidating when the bus is in motion.

'Stick Person' Defined

I am what the British call a "stick person." Wherever I go my cane travels with me. I can manage without a wheelchair, but that doesn't mean that there are not some formidable obstacles--stairs to be climbed, cobblestone streets to be negotiated (they seem to be everywhere in Europe), narrow doorways to be squeezed through and centuries of castles, museums and great houses, all built long before any king or bishop gave a thought to the problems of the handicapped.

In fact, the obstacle course starts with your first day overseas. If you're arriving in Great Britain, you'll have to pass through the world's biggest airport, Heathrow. Forget about walking it. The place is much too enormous for anyone with a disability.

Instead, arrange with your airline for a wheelchair; the airport should have the chair waiting at the door of the plane, complete with a friendly employee to push it. Not only will this save you endless walking but you'll find that it has certain other advantages.

You get to whisk through the passport desk, bypassing the long line of travelers who must wait their turn. And after you've picked up your baggage, placing your carry-on carefully in your lap, the authorities will often waive the lengthy customs inspection that can keep you tied up another half-hour or so.

Taxi Beats the Tube

From there you have a choice of the airport bus, a taxi or the tube. The latter has a line that runs straight out to the airport and it's certainly the cheapest way to town if you're physically up to it. But with luggage, not to mention jet lag, you may find it's not worth the hassle.

A word about those big black taxis, so ubiquitous in London: They are quite simply marvelous for anyone with a handicap. You can easily load a folding wheelchair into the back and still have room to stretch your legs. There's even a jump seat if it's necessary to prop up a limb.

The cab drivers with their breezy manner will usually give you an assist (if you ask), although alighting does take a bit of doing. The old London cabs are high, which means a step down whenever you get out. With a bit of practice, however, it can be done.

Bit of West End Blues

After a day of sightseeing you'll probably be considering an evening at the theater. By all means go, but first ask at the box office if there are stairs to contend with. We bought seats in the stalls, the British equivalent of the orchestra, to avoid a long climb to the balcony.

Arriving, we discovered to our dismay that many West End theaters are designed so that you walk down a long flight to reach the stalls. That means, of course, a hard climb back up, and perhaps another climb to reach the restrooms.

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