Negotiating Zurich city centre in a wheelchair

Shopping in the city can be a problem for those in wheelchairs

Voters will decide on May 18 whether the country's 700,000 disabled should have improved access to public buildings.

This content was published on May 13, 2003 - 09:29

Ahead of the vote, Isobel Johnson spent a day with Rudolf Weiler - who is wheelchair-bound - to learn what challenges the disabled currently face in Switzerland.

Rudolf Weiler is 37 years old and paralysed from the waist down, following an accident 20 years ago.

The part-time metal worker agreed to come to Zurich for the day to test out access to the city's shops, public buildings and transport.

Rudolf arrived in Zurich's main station - where there are parking slots for the disabled - in his specially modified car.

Gaining access

Our first stop was the Zeughauskeller restaurant in the busy Bahnhofstrasse, the city's main shopping street.

Rudolf's verdict was favourable, as he only had to negotiate one door. He said typical problems encountered when trying to enter restaurants were steps, heavy doors or doors opening towards the outside.

Over lunch, he explained why he was in favour of the initiative.

"If it works out I could go to almost any restaurant, I could wash my hands there without asking any help and that's great; that's the way it should be," he said, referring to the fact that the initiative would also grant him better access inside buildings, including to the toilets.

Tram trouble

But taking the tram was another matter.

"I don't usually take the tram because it's very difficult for me to board, there's no access. I need lots of help, so I use my car - it's much more convenient," admitted Rudolf.

We missed the first tram because it was too difficult for Rudolf to board on his own and there was no one around to help. The second time Rudolf did get on the tram - but only with the help of two strong young men, who also helped him off.

"I was very lucky to get those people to help me in and out, but I don't always expect somebody to always help me. I prefer to do it on my own if possible," said Rudolf.

A tour of the old town to check out the shops produced mixed results. Some shops had easy access, but often there were steps into buildings. It took us several attempts to find a pharmacy with wheelchair access.

Rudolf said he normally shops at bigger shopping malls, which are more accessible for wheelchairs.

But the situation is not just limited to shops. Rudolf said it often takes many phone calls to find a doctor or dentist's practice with access for the disabled.

He explained that he encountered the biggest problems getting in and out of official buildings, such as embassies and local authority offices and often had to ask for help.

No way in

Our next stop, Zurich's cathedral, or Grossmünster, also proved to be a challenge. The first path leading up to one of the city's most famous landmarks was blocked by stairs. So we had to try the other side, which meant negotiating a slope.

But Rudolf managed to get into the cathedral itself quite easily.

He was philosophical about the experience: "As a wheelchair-bound tourist there are just many things you can't do. There are architectural barriers, steep paths, alleys and stairs, especially in old towns, but these are things we have to accept, it's just a matter of life," he said.

Back at our starting point at Zurich station I asked Rudolf how he would sum up the day.

"It's not too bad; I can get around most places I want to with help from third parties," he said.

"But I can't speak for other people. They might not have the same power as I do, they might be paralysed from a higher level or they might use a motor-driven wheelchair which makes it really difficult to get around and get into stores and other buildings."

swissinfo, Isobel Johnson

Disabled summary

Rudolf Weiler is paralysed from the waist down, following an accident 20 years ago.

On a tour of Zurich, he found the restaurant fairly easy to get into but shops often had steps.

Trams proved to be the greatest problem, with Rudolf needing help getting on and off.

Rudolf said his experiences in Zurich were not too bad, but he wondered whether other, less fit, disabled people would find it as easy.

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