I saw very few people with disabilities during my month-long study program in Rome. At first, I didn’t realize their absence; I was so wrapped up in seeing the sights that I did not notice what I wasn’t seeing.
Early one morning, I saw a man pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair through the narrow, uneven cobblestone streets of the Trastevere neighborhood, and had an aha! moment. This was the first person in a wheelchair I had seen in weeks. I had not seen many with canes or walkers, either. In a flash, I realized saw just how inhospitable Rome is to all but the able-bodied. In the same moment, I saw its dilemma.
The central parts of Rome are centuries old, with crooked little streets running every which way. If there is a sidewalk at all, it is often narrower than a standard wheelchair; cobblestones are common, and are almost always uneven. Repaving alone would not make them accessible; the historic houses would have to be torn down to make space for curb cuts and adequate sidewalks.
But there were other problems. Train stations don’t have platforms at a standard height. At the Aurelia Station, the trains were even with the platform, but at others, a gap of 8-12 inches made it hard to enter or exit. At many stations, elevators (or an attendant to run the elevator) were absent. Passengers had to be able to climb the stairs if they wanted to ride.
Most of the city’s many churches have narrow swinging doors, often two sets set at right angles to maintain quiet. Along with the wooden thresholds, these make it nearly impossible to get a wheelchair inside without a couple of assistants. The stairs (no ramps) up to the doors makes many churches even less accessible. In fact, many shops on the narrow streets also have a single step at the entrance.
I never figured out the etiquette for sharing the sidewalk in Rome. At first, I often found myself taking a few steps out in the street, in spite of traffic rushing by, as oncoming people simply wouldn’t give me any space in which to walk. As time went by, I played that particular game of “chicken” better, and was less often shoved into the street. I wonder how a blind person would fare? I only saw one in my time in Rome, and she had someone to guide her and – literally – call out for people to make way in the crowded streets.
I came home with a greater appreciation for the many strides we have made in the country: reserved parking, curb cuts, broader sidewalks, the ADA requirements for accessible entryways, city buses that “kneel” for people to get on, braille annotations on many signs, and more. I have no illusion that it is easy to be a person with a disability in America. As a nation, though, we have recognized that we want and need the participation of all our citizens, and have applied that general principle across many situations.
The photo at the top is from “Accessible Rome – Vatican City” written by Mary Murphy-Hanson for SlowTravel Italy. She made it into St. Peter’s, the Vatican Museum, and Castel Sant’Angelo – but with what effort!