Saturday, September 8, 2012

London - Aug 2012

For months, I was trying to decide where to go for my vacation this year. I have always loved the Olympics and Paralympics, so I thought I would go to London and watch the Paralympic Games. This was my first time outside Canada/U.S. I have always been hesitant to travel outside North America because I knew the accessibility would not be the same as it is here. Not only is the accessibility comparable to here, this trip opened my eyes to new cultures and experiences. Bottom line: there’s a whole lot more to see in this world outside North America.


I stayed with a record 3 different hosts on my London trip and also made many friends – all through couchsurfing. When I look back on this trip, I realize that I was with people almost every single day. What really made this trip special were the people I met and the relationships that were made.

Dan and Fay

My first host was a young couple who lived on the outskirts of London. It was a place called Chorleywood, which is literally the 2nd last stop on the Metropolitan Underground line. It took me almost 2 hours to get there from Gatwick Airport. Dan and Fay are a wonderful couple and they lived in this cozy little apartment just a 5 minute walk from Chorleywood station. Upon my arrival, Fay gave me the Official Paralympic Guide book as a gift because I told them that was my main reason for coming to London. That was the first time a host had given me a gift and I thought it was very sweet of them.

We explored the city like tourists and on my first full day they took me to see the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, and even stopped in a traditional English pub where I had steak and kidney pie.

However, we did have one mild setback. The elevator in their building broke one night and Dan had to carry me up to this apartment. Luckily, he lives on only the 2nd floor! The elevator was fixed the next day.

I stayed with Don for a few days in south London near Clapham Junction and Wimbledon. He’s got a nice apartment in the 8th floor of a building with great views of London. His apartment was mostly acceptable except for the bathroom. It was too small to get my chair in so I had to transfer out. The shower was completely out of question since it was a stand-up shower with a step to get in. Otherwise, the rest of the place was good and I slept on a big comfy couch. We watched a film on the origins of the Paralymics Games and had brunch one morning at a French cafe.

Bhavik and I watching the Paralympic
Opening Ceremonies in Trafagar Square

Bhavik originally couldn’t host me at all, but I ended up staying with him for more than a week. He is from India and was living in London for 4 months on a work project. He lived in East London in a serviced apartment where there was a pullout sofabed in the living room with its own door. We even had housekeeping so it was pretty much like living in a hotel! I had actually planned on staying in a hotel in central London for at least a couple of days on this trip, but since Bhavik was so much fun to hang out with and he invited me to stay longer, I just stayed with him the remainder of my time.

I actually met Bhavik before surfing with him. He invited me to a do the London Eye and party with a bunch of other couchsurfers. During my week with Bhavik, we went to a lot of bars and nightclubs and partied with many other couchsurfers, including some who also stayed with us. I don’t normally spend so much time in bars and clubs, but the nightlife in London is absolutely amazing.


I don’t know what London was like before the Paralympics, but I found getting around to be very easy. I saw many people in wheelchairs. I would rate the accessibility just as good as any eastern North American city.
North Americans use the term ‘wheelchair accessible’, but the British seem to like the term ‘step-free’ to mean the same thing. I like using ‘step-free’ because it’s more descriptive and precise. Step-free means just that – no steps!

Public washrooms (restrooms, toilets)
We definitely need these buttons in
Canada, if you know what I mean
When you’re out and about, finding an accessible washroom is always a concern. I found the easiest solution was to find a cafĂ© like Starbucks or Pret a Manger which are everywhere. Just keep in mind that if there’s a step to get in, there could still be a fully accessible washroom room inside and if the entrance is level, there may not even be an accessible washroom. All of these washrooms will have a call/emergency button which I assume notifies the staff.

the high-tech toilet in Westfield Mall
In Westfield Mall in Stratford, there is the most high-tech wheelchair accessible washroom I have every seen. It’s about the size of an apartment, has height-adjustable sink, and changing table with hydraulic lift!

Some shops and restaurants have a level entrance, but many have a step or two to get in. If that’s the case, ask if they have a ramp, which many do. I can pull myself up one step, but two requires help or a ramp.  

London is very flat and I don’t remember encountering any major hills. There are curb cuts at every street. However, London is a very busy city and many areas are heavily congested with pedestrians. Some areas have cobblestone, like Covent Garden, but they can be easily avoided by going around the outside.


I flew in and out of London through Gatwick Airport which is very accessible. If you need any kind of special assistance, any personnel will gladly help you. I remember near the arrivals area, there are super nice accessible washrooms.

Underground (Tube)

Disabled space on a newer Tube train
The London Underground is the main mode of transportation around the city, but only about 20% of the stations are accessible. The ones that are accessible are done properly. Navigating the system can be quite complicated. It’s similar to the New York City subway, but London does a much better job of making it accessible.

There is a very good transit website where you can even plan a step-free route. I used this all the time. There’s a Step-free tube guide which you can get online and on paper which shows you all of the accessible stations. Keep in mind there’s a difference between step-free from street to platform and step-free from street to train. The latter means there is a step, anywhere from a few inches to a foot, from the platform to the train. If that’s the case and you can’t get up on your own, find a transit staff and ask for assistance. They will put down a ramp for you and radio the station where you’re getting off and someone there will put the ramp down for you.

There’s lots of transit staff around to help you. Unlike NY where no one helps you. The signage is also very good. There are plenty of signs directing you to the elevators and step-free routes. And best of all, I never encountered a broken elevator. They may have been slow, but at least they worked. Unlike NY where there were broken elevators everywhere. Sorry to bash NY. Great city, but I hate their subway with a passion.

One last note: there is no discount for disabled persons on the Tube unless you’re a UK resident. You have to pay full price and it’s expensive. I spent more on public transit in London than I have in any other city. 

As I stayed closer to central London, buses were actually my main form of transportation because every single one is accessible. And that’s only a recent improvement for the Olympics. Plus wheelchair users ride absolutely free! Here’s the setup: As the bus pulls up to the stop, make sure the driver sees you. You wait at the rear door and an automatic ramp comes out and you enter/exit through the rear doors. There are two spaces for wheelchair users with no tie downs or anything. Simple. Effective. 

Stands for Docklands Light Rail. It’s an above-ground train system very similar to the skytrain here in Vancouver. DLR is located only in the east of London and since it’s newer, every train and station is fully accessible without assistance. This is how I commuted to Stratford to watch the Paralympics.

National Railway and Gatwick Express
This is an older railway system that I only took a couple of times. They operate within London and to other cities in England. You will definitely need an agent to help you. They will put down a manual ramp for you to get on and off because the step up is quite high. The Gatwick Express takes you directly from Gatwick Airport into central London. It’s pricey, but it has no stops so your travel time is cut in half.

I only took a taxi once and it’s an interesting setup. Unlike in Canada where you have to specifically request a wheelchair accessible taxi, in London every taxi is accessible. The backdoor opens wide and an automatic ramp comes out, the backseats go up and there are straps if you want them. It is a bit tight there even with my small manual chair. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be big enough for a powerchair, but I’m sure there are bigger taxis to accommodate powerchair users.


Now for the main reason for coming to London in the first place – to see the 2012 Paralympic Games! I remember how amazing the games were here in 2010, and I wanted to relive that experience. 

London Olympic Park
First of all, getting tickets to the games turned out to be quite challenging. There was no physical ticket office. You could only buy tickets online, but you had to be a UK resident with a UK address and have a UK credit card. As a Canadian (or any foreigner for that matter), I couldn’t buy my own tickets. And to top it off, many events were sold out. I wanted to see the opening ceremonies, but the cheapest available was 200£. I ended up watching the opening ceremonies in Trafalgar Square on a big screen. I had to have Dan, my host, buy tickets, but it worked out quite well. He called in, because you can’t buy wheelchair tickets online, and managed to get tickets for men’s wheelchair basketball on the first day of competition for only 15£ - and the attendant was free! But wait, it gets even better. 

The Olympic Park is located in Stratford, in east London. The place is massive! Your ticket gives you access to the whole park which has the Olympic Stadium, Aquatics Centre, Basketball Arena, Velodrome, several soccer fields, tennis courts, Copper box, plus the Olympic Store, the two largest McDonald’s in the world, Westfield Mall, and the Athletes’ Village. 

Men's wheelchair basketball
Our basketball tickets allowed us to watch all basketball games that day. We watched US vs Turkey in the morning and CANADA vs Japan in the afternoon. I was quite happy I got to see Canada compete since I know a few of the players. There were more games in the evening, but we had had enough so we checked out the rest of the park. Our ticket also allowed us to watch a women’s goalball Great Britain vs China. Throughout the day we checked out the other sports venues, ate at McDonald’s and purchased Paralympic merchandise. Even though this was the only Paralympic tickets I was able to get, I was extremely satisfied with the experience.


Big Ben
On my first day in Central London I saw the Houses of Parliament and the famous Big Ben. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open to the public. Next I visited Westminster Abbey. It may be more than 1000 years old, but they made almost every part of it accessible. A few areas had steps or narrow passageways and because of this anyone in a wheelchair and their attendant is free! 

Buckingham Palace is not open to the public, but it’s quite a sight to see even from the outside. Trafalgar Square was where the Olympic Clock was located, but I’m sure it’s not there anymore. Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square are within walking distance and also a must-see.

One day I did the Big Red Bus tour which has fully accessible buses. You have to sit on the bottom deck of course, but it’s still worth it. It costs £29 for a 24hr ticket which also includes a free Thames River Cruise and free walking tours. I don’t normally do tours, but this one is a good idea to do at the beginning of your trip to give you an idea of what’s around, and then later on you can visit the attractions you’re interested in.

Tower Bridge with the Paralympic symbols
There is step-free access right across the famous Tower Bridge and on the south side there is a brand new plaza and fountain area which is all flat.

Highest point on the London Eye
The London Eye is an amazing attraction and one of the highlights of my whole trip. Don’t let someone tell you it’s just a Ferris wheel because it’s so much better than that. It costs £15 and the attendant is free. Wheelchair users can go to the front of the line which is very convenient because the lineup is very long. They’ll stop the London Eye and put a ramp down for you. Inside the capsule you can roll around easily and enjoy amazing views of London!

I unique aspect of London I really liked where the pedestrian-only streets. My favourite was Carnaby Street. There’s cool artwork and shops and pubs. Keep in mind many have a step or two to get in, but just ask if they have a ramp and most likely they will. Even the alleys were nice. In Vancouver, the alleys are dirty, unlit and usually have junkies shooting up or using them as a public toilet. But in London, they are very clean and even nice to look at for the architecture.

Kensington Gardens
Another great thing about London is all the city parks. For such a large, metropolitan city, I was really surprised at how much green space there was. One of my favourite places was Kensington Gardens where you’ll find Kensington Palace and the Albert Memorial. You can spend hours wondering through Hyde Park and walk along the ponds. Every park has paved paths so you’ll have no trouble getting around.

Another favourite place (I seem to have many) is Covent Garden which I would compare to Granville Island in Vancouver. There are plenty of unique shops and merchants selling art, crafts and typical fare you would find at a farmer’s market. Be sure to visit The Icecreamists where you find some ‘unique’ flavours of ice cream. The only annoying part about Covent Garden was the cobblestone, but you can avoid them by going around the outside.

I was planning on visiting many museums because I heard they were mostly free, but I actually only managed to see one: the British Museum. No admission fee here. I literally spent 6 hours here and probably could have spent more if the place didn’t close so early (5pm). I was absolutely fascinated by everything in sight and since this is one of the few activities I did alone, I was able to take my time and just relax and enjoy myself.


Couchsurfers having drinks at the
Piccadilly Institute
London made me enjoy nightlife again. The nightclubs here are extraordinary and make Vancouver’s nightclubs look like broom closets. The first one I went to was the Piccadilly Institute with other couchsurfers. It has 3 floors and they even had an elevator! Each floor has different DJs and music. Multiple dance floors and a lounge area.

Camden town is apparently known for the market, but I enjoyed it for the nightlife. There’s a beautiful network of canals and bridges. Combine that with cobblestone and getting around in a chair is a challenge, but with some help it can be done. I loved this one nightclub I was taken to called Shaka Zulu. It had its own escalator! There were huge African-inspired art and sculptures. The place pretty much looked like a museum instead of nightclub. Amazing.  

Another great area is Huxton Square where I partied and bar-hopped. The thing I found about London is that it’s really easy to meet and talk to other people, especially when you’re out drinking.

My last night night in London at
Chinawhite nightclub
On my last night in London, I was invited to a VIP party hosted by a couchsurfer at a nightclub called Chinawhite near Oxford Circus. No elevator here, so I had to get carried down some steep stairs by my friend and the bouncer. I was taken through four different rooms, and more stairs, before we finally hit the VIP area. There were comfy couches, private bar and dance floor, hot ladies and free vodka for the night. What more could you really ask for?

I spent a lot of money on my London trip, even though I didn't spend a dime on accommodation, but it was worth every penny. It was by far the best trip I have ever taken. What made it really special was the amazing people I met who will be friends for life. The accessibility was far better than I ever expected. So far, London is the only city I have visited where I would actually want to live.


  1. This is great! I am a fellow wheelchair user and I have set up this site so we can get every piece of information that is useful for wheelchair users in one place-it would be great if you could come and share your information and then link to your blog for people who want to read more information on the destination? Hope to see you there soon!

  2. I should have said this before-If you want to get in touch with me directly. My email is

  3. Hi! I love the information that you have here to help us travelling wheelchair users-I’m an avid wheelchair traveller and I always struggle to get great information so I set up an information sharing site to try and help us easily find resources like yours-it would be great if we could talk so that we can make sure that the information on your site is easily linked from my site so we can help all wheelchair using travellers!
    Is this something you would be interested in doing?

    1. Hi Susie! Thanks for your comments. I would be happy to collaborate with you.