One of the key parts of any Paralympics is its legacy – and when it was announced that Paris would host the 2024 Games, many hoped that this would include better disability access within the city.
However as the Games draw closer, several disability right organisations have sounded the alarm about whether Paris is even ready to host the event itself – never mind make long-lasting improvements to infrastructure.
In January, Pascale Ribes, the president of France’s oldest rights organisation for people with disabilities penned an op-ed titled “Paris 2024 Olympic Games: Toward a catastrophic scenario for people with disabilities?”
“The whole world will be watching,” she wrote in the Journal du Dimanche. “It is up to the public authorities to decide whether the 2024 Games will be the pride of France or its shame”.
Of the roughly 10 million people expected to visit France during the Games, an estimated 350,000 are expected to be people with disabilities, including around 4,000 wheelchair-users per day.
Within France itself there are approximately 7.6 million people over the age of 15 who report having some kind of disability – 11 percent of the population – including four million people with reduced mobility, according to Handirect France.
So how accessible is Paris?
One of the easiest – and most important – measures of accessibility in any city is its public transport network, and here Paris does not fare well.
On the Metro only one line is fully accessible to people with mobility issues – the automated line 14 – and it represents just three percent of the capital’s Metro stations.
The city’s tram system is classed as accessible, but most trams only serve the city outskirts and suburbs, so are not very useful for tourists or people needing to get into the city centre.
The city’s bus network is supposed to be accessible – and it is this fact that allows the capital to claim that it does have accessible public transport, even if the Metro is off limits to many.
But although the buses themselves are all fully wheelchair accessible, many of the bus stops are not. In the greater Paris region, just 39 percent of bus stops are classified as accessible, and in central Paris, even though the number rises to 91 percent, there are still over 250 bus stops that are not accessible to people with mobility issues.
Although the RER, the commuter train that serves the city and its outer suburbs – including links into Paris from its two airports – might be more ‘accessible’ than the Metro, many stations require the assistance of a person working there.
Patrice Tripoteau, deputy director general of the campaign organisation APF Handicap, and a wheelchair user, told The Local: “Just recently, one of our members of APF France Handicap who had prepared for her journey on public transport, wanted to take the RER, which is marked as accessible.
“Except it was not clear on the website that you still need to ask for assistance at one of the sites because there is a part of the journey where you must walk. She found herself there without any help.
“This is just one example of how Paris may be able to welcome people with disabilities, but many may find themselves struggling to get around the city.”
When it comes to a place to stay, the situation is no better – only 3,450 of the approximately 80,600 hotel rooms in Paris are wheelchair accessible – less than five percent.
Apartments in the city – whether long-term rentals or short-term lets such as Airbnb – are also unlikely to be accessible. Many of the city’s historic apartment blocks have no elevators, and even those that do will often be too small for a wheelchair.
In response, the French government has worked alongside the Olympic and Paralympic organisers to create an online platform called “Accès Libre” which will list ‘verified accessible’ hotels, restaurants and shops prior to the start of the Games.
Annette Masson, the head of the association for Tourism and Handicaps in France, told Franceinfo that users should beware that a hotel or store being listed on the website does not mean it is adapted for all types of disabilities.
“Professionals in the hospitality industry say they have adapted rooms, but when you ask them what that means, they only talk about motor disabilities”, Masson told Franceinfo. She explained that hearing-impaired people, for example, would need to verify that the establishment offers a visual alarm for emergency situations, rather than only auditory ones.
On the Accès Libre website, it is possible to click on the ‘accessible’ establishment to read how adapted the building is and whether or not staff are trained to receive disabled people.
As for all other hotels and apartment listings, visitors should assume that if the webpage does not specifically mention adaptations to be accessible, such as the presence of an elevator, then there won’t be one.
Bars, restaurants and public buildings
Likewise the city’s bars, restaurants and public buildings are also unlikely to be fully accessible – especially the smaller bars and cafés, where it is common for toilets to be located up or down a narrow staircase. Elevators are rare.
Old buildings often contain several flights of steps, sometimes narrow and slippery. If an elevator is present, it could be too small to fit a wheelchair.
By 2023 almost half (40 percent) of the 60,000 establishments welcoming the public in Paris had still not taken any steps to make their location accessible to the public – despite a law requiring this.
What does the law say?
Back in 2005, France passed landmark legislation codifying accessibility procedures for all public buildings and establishments – but 18 years later, very few public buildings are actually accessible to people with disabilities.
The 2005 law was groundbreaking “not only in France, but also on the European stage”, according to Soraya Kompany, the president of the Association for the Promotion of Accessibility and Conception for All (APACT).
“We have a law that takes into consideration both the situation of the person with a disability, as well as the environment around them. It built the notion that society must be in solidarity with people with disabilities, offering a formal definition for un handicap [disability] to mean any limitation to one’s full social participation in society and in citizenship.
“Basically it created the principle that a person with a disability should be able to leave their house – accessible lodging – and take public transportation, passing through public locations, and get to their job”, Kompany said.
In practical terms, the law tasked the operators of all public buildings with creating and submitting work plans for how they would become accessible to people with disabilities – of all kinds – by 2015.
However in 2014, with this goal far from being met, an ‘ordinance’ was passed requiring that all establishments open to the public submit plans for how they will make their location accessible, submitting themselves to a period of three to nine years to be able to carry out the work.
Out of the nearly two million establishments open to the public in France, only 900,000 establishments have so far filed plans for how they would become accessible, and disability campaigners say that many of those who have filed the plan simply state that it would be impossible to make their building accessible.
Penalties were also written into the law – a fine of €1,500 for failing to submit the action plan and eventually up to €45,000 for locations that fail to fulfil their obligations. However, it would be up to local authorities to verify whether or not establishments and spaces open to the public had followed through.
“France is now very far behind,” Tripoteau said.
“The real difference is that in English-speaking countries, like the UK and the US, the approach to accessibility has been focused on results. In France there is no verification that results have been met – we are still focusing far too much on people’s goodwill.
“APF Handicap reached out to all of France’s préfectures (regional authorities), and 65 responded (out of the 124).
“Only four were able to tell us that they have gone ahead and made plans for how to verify whether establishments open to the public had followed requirements to become accessible to people with disabilities”, the deputy general director said.
Another issue is the status of being “fully accessible”.
In 2018, APF France Handicap conducted another survey, this time looking at the Pays-de-la-Loire region in western central France. It found that of the 442 establishments who declared themselves fully accessible to people with disabilities, almost three quarters were in reality “hardly accessible” and 12 percent were “not at all accessible”.
At the end of April, France hosted its triannual National Conference on Disability. At the culmination of the event, President Emmanuel Macron promised €1.5 billion in funding to help make the country more accessible.
However, the president also announced that penalties for non-compliance would still not be enforced until at least 2024, and based on APF Handicap’s own calculations, the president’s plans would only allow for an additional €1,500 of funding per non-accessible establishment to aid in their works projects.
“It is great news that there will be more investment, but the problem is that we are pushing penalties back again – we keep pushing them back without end.
“For far too long in France, we have taken a posture of having to convince establishments. Now we need to switch to compelling them,” Tripoteau said.
Getting ready for the Games
When Paris put in its bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, organisers promised that 2024 would be different: there would be a strong emphasis on héritage (legacy) ensuring that all new structures built would be sustainable in the long-term, and the Games would be inclusive and fully accessible.
The hope is that as well as making the Games themselves accessible – infrastructure such as public transport will be improved, making a long-term investment in the city.
Solideo, a joint organisation with representatives from local and national organisations, is tasked with infrastructure – including making the Athletes Village (which after the Games will become housing for local families in Saint-Denis) entirely accessible and opening up training and athletic facilities. The city of Paris hopes to quadruple the number of members at para-sporting clubs by the end of 2024.
The head of the Paris regional transport authority, Jean Castex, has promised to triple the number of available adapted taxis for people with disabilities to at least 1,000.
During the events, organisers have announced that a bus system for people with disabilities will be available to take people in between different sites and Olympic events.
Volunteers will also receive some training in how to best welcome guests and visitors with disabilities.
A turning point for disability rights?
With just one year until the start of the Paralympic Games, disability rights activists hope that the moment will not only bring attention to the need for greater accessibility in France, but also spring forward sustainable and long-lasting measures.
But in April 2023 the Council of Europe ruled that France had violated the rights of people with disabilities, namely with regard to housing, transport and healthcare. The country was strongly criticised for failing to ensure equal access to key services, including public transport.
“The will and drive to make the Games accessible is present,” Kompany said.
“For me, I see this as an opportunity. This is an essential moment for accessibility in France. We can always have concerns that there will be failures, but despite that, I really see this is a chance for accessibility in France.”