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  • Writer's pictureLesley Davis

Brussels, I Love/Hate You (Part I)

A disabled oarking space with two overlapping wheelchair symbols, with one rider facig right and one facing left. It looks like their eithe rpassing each other or up to something scandalous!

BRUSSELS, September 2022. I had heard from my friends in the European disability community that Brussels was not a model of accessibility. Like many, I thought the presence of so many European Union institutions in this European capital city would have made at least the downtown area passably accessible, like in cities that host the Olympics and Paralympics and must make accessibility upgrades as a condition of hosting. Silly madame! I had a lot to learn about following the money, but more on that in Pat II.

A smiling man wearing work boots and holding one thumb up is standing on a sidewalk next to a building entrance. By his foot is a piece of wood slanted to make a small ramp from the sidewalk to the entrance step.The ramps has a brown doormat in the center.
Simon, proud of his ramp.

If you're looking for an accessible Airbnb in Brussels proper, you will be hard-pressed to find any hosts who have opted to check even a single one of the accessibility features that the Airbnb platform makes available. Step-free entrance? "No places to stay available." Grab bar by toilet? Nope. Extra space around bed? Of course not. It was so uncanny that I wondered if those features weren't even made available to Brussels hosts. But, there is a way for a host to indicate that there's an elevator in the building, and apparently it's quite easy to click a box that indicates your building's lift is at least 32" wide. My delightful host, Simon (pictured at right) made this simple mistake, and he wound up getting a personalized crash course in inclusive design thanks to yours truly.

Knowing that not everyone thinks about whether their rental is or could be accessible, I have become adept at looking for clues in the photos of Airbnb listings, checking for the presence of elevators, asking hosts if they can place a plastic patio chair in a threshold-free shower, and seeking other indicators that a place might work for my particular needs. Simon was gracious and responsive via email, and we discussed the height of the half-step to get into his building (which I found by intentionally seeking out the front of the building on Google street view) and whether my lightweight, powered travel wheelchair could make it over the step. As it turns out, my chair could not get over the 6 cm step without help, and as I was traveling alone, I wasn't counting on help. Simon, an electrician by trade (and a jack of all, it seems), left me for no more than 15 minutes, ducked out to the hardware store down the block, and came back and McGyver'd this threshold ramp, complete with decorative door mat, in no time. He screwed it to the concrete and it worked like a charm. I could get in and out of the building independently. Sadly, I saw no other residential buildings in Brussels without at least one step to enter, and none with ramps. A ground floor apartment (or a standard-sized elevator), a portable ramp, and a shower bench could vastly expand the Airbnb market - literally a captive market - for a variety of people with mobility disabilities and the property owners providing the accommodations.

[Pictured below: Views into and out of Simon's amazing flat]

But the elevator in Simon's apartment was another story. It was tiny--like two people who've got to be okay with forced elevator intimacy tiny. Its opening was decidedly not 32" wide, and Simon's apartment was on the sixth floor. My travel power chair folds, and when folded, the chair can fit into the elevator, but that is not a job I can do solo. Simon had two choices: refund my money for the 8-night stay, or find a way to get my chair up up and down from the sixth floor. He'd already proven himself resourceful, and I loved the apartment, so we agreed to give it a go. And just like that, Simon threw himself into the role of wheelchair Sherpa. Twice a day without complaint, Simon folded my chair and brought it up the elevator at night and down again in the morning, all the while asking me for more information about accessible design, disability, and my advocacy work. Then, five days into my stay, Simon got Covid and couldn't get out of bed. But by then I had friends in the building, friends who volunteered to step into the Sherpa role. What Brussels lacks in accessibility, it has in abundance in amazingly kind, helpful and vigilant people who do not hesitate to come to one's aid. Would it be better if Brussels invested in basic built-environment accessibility? Definitely, yes. But was getting to know Simon, Lucas and Lauren of Chausée de Charleroi a worthy consolation prize? Also, oui.

From left to right: A bald man with a beard wearing a blue shirt, the author wearing a black and white dress, and a young woman with dark hair and a red jacket smiling for a selfie.
With new friends from ENAT and EASPD

I was in Brussels to visit European disability agencies: the European Disability Forum, the European Network for Independent Living (hosts of #freedomdrive), the European Network for Accessible Tourism, and the European Association of Service Providers for People with Disabilities. The buildings where these organizations had their offices were all in the same area of town and they were all wheelchair accessible. The NGO scene in Brussels reminded me very much of Washington, DC--full of young, idealistic 20 and 30-somethings ready to change the world. It was good for the soul to see so much enthusiasm from people with and without disabilities working in service of disability equity. All of these buildings had usable, clean disabled toilets. All of the buses I took (only very few tram stops are accessible, so trams weren't an option) to reach these buildings had ramps that worked, though the stops were occasionally so steep that I needed help getting on or off. Bus passengers and people waiting to get on the bus were all exceedingly helpful. However, the lack of curb cuts, the various stretches of road work without accessible alternate paths of travel, and the vast expanses of cobblestones made each trip to a disability organization by wheelchair frustrating, time consuming, and often harrowing. Again, as the people of Brussels proved time and again, there was always a kind passerby ready to help me up and down a curb, even in the dark and in the rain. A city-wide investment in curb cuts, I guarantee, would mean that I would not be the sole person I saw over eight days in the city using a wheelchair. Adding more accessible tram stops would make it possible, for example, for people with mobility disabilities to travel to gainful employment throughout the metropolitan area with greater ease and speed than relying on a network of buses alone.

Shopping and dining in Brussels is as difficult as entering residential buildings. I went inside a grand total of one restaurant in my eight days there. It was located within a hotel that had a wheelchair accessible entrance. That hotel/restaurant did not have a wheelchair accessible toilet in the lobby, in the restaurant, or in any other public space. A check of Brussels restaurants on Trip Advisor shows some with accessible entrances, one of which I saw, sporting a portable ramp at its one-step side entrance, from the bus window in the Ixelles area of the city. Other restaurants I went to investigate from Trip Advisor turned out to be that special, deluded kind of "just one step" [in]accessible that must predate the advent of motorized wheelchairs, and assumes that a disabled person always has an attendant with them (venture out alone in a wheelchair?! Egads! Jamais!). As an independent power wheelchair user in Brussels, I had the choice of dining al fresco at one of many restaurants with outdoor terraces (or the delicious outdoor frites wagon), which was fine for September, and I enjoyed several delightful meals and watched my fluid intake so I wouldn't have to pee. Otherwise, I could cook at home with what I found at the one grocery store (Carrefour, the international chain) in the neighborhood that had an accessible entrance (but an inaccessible checkout). Portable or purpose-built ramps for those 1-2 step restaurant and shop entrances, a widened doorway and a few well-placed grab bars for the toilet if it's on the main level and sizable, or a accessible public toilets (like the Paris sanisettes) in accessible public spaces if not, and the Euros from us disabled small and big spenders would start rolling in...

[Pictured above: scenes from (mainly) outdoor restaurants with friends of mine]

The author on the sidewalk in her wheelchair wearing a grey patterned dress and white sweater, holding two thumbs up. A rarely accessible tram is passing by in the background.
Brussels, I'm open to offers!

Brussels, if you are looking for a disabled person to use as a prime example of the business case for accessibility, look no further. Je suis le business case for accessibility!

So, why is Brussels (or any other city in the European Union) not more accessible? See Part II (Deux) of Brussels, I Love/Hate you, coming soon!

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