Twice a month I walk four easy minutes to my local tram stop, hop on the tram, and disembark fifteen minutes later at Ebertplatz. From there I walk just five minutes to join the other women of my writing group. My trip is usually so easy, I don’t even think about it. Last year, however, tram and subway service to this station—which happens to be one of the busiest of Cologne’s public transportation system—was unexpectedly disrupted.
As might be expected, this sudden change in my usual route prompted some personal adjustments. Each time I waited at the station, my lungs were now greeted by pungent clouds of dust. Bagfuls of concrete fragments had now been piled high, right next to the tracks. At 11 pm, transit workers blasted concrete at deafening deci-bels, each worker entertaining me with evening fire-works while welding pieces of train track.
Every week there seemed to be more boarded walk-ways, exposed wiring and blocked exits. And then, there was the unthinkable: my station was closed for the whole summer. I complained loudly to my family and friends about this unnecessary hindrance to my travels.
My friend Andrew is able to walk, but with such excruciating pain in his back that he needs to use a mobility scooter to get around. It wasn’t until he and his wife Bonnie visited me in Cologne that I became acutely aware of what was actually happening at my tram stop: Ebertplatz was the first of several stops that were being transformed into disability accessible stations and transfer points.
During Andrew’s visit I had the opportunity to discover first-hand what it means to get around a city as a person with a disability. Even as they were planning their trip from England, Andrew, Bonnie and I discussed the logistics of getting around Cologne. Andrew had recently purchased his mobility scooter (which looks a lot like a golf cart) and needed a vehicle large enough to contain it. This meant the couple had to buy a new car. Additionally, Andrew and Bonnie couldn’t fly to Germany because there was no way Andrew could get his scooter onto a plane. Nevertheless, Andrew wanted to use the scooter throughout Germany, to have some independence of movement on their trip. So he and his wife decided to drive here.
From the outset, we all knew Andrew would need periodically to charge his scooter’s battery during our travels. In order to do this, Bonnie and Andrew would need access to a power outlet. I live in a first-floor apartment so, upon my friends’ arrival, the three of us set about finding a way to run an extension cord from my place to Andrew’s car. We would also need an adaptor, however: English plugs are not the same as those in Germany.
Charging Andrew’s battery proved to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. I had figured he could simply park outside my building, near the laundry room, and I could then run an extension cord through the window. But the parking spot near the laundry room was already allocated to someone else. At a loss, Andrew parked his car underneath our apartment, in an available parking spot, and we began improvising.
Implementing our operation reminded me of Rapunzel letting down her hair. First, an extension cord was fed down from my window (and clanked its way along my neighbor’s!). But sure enough, the cord was not the right length for our purposes. Up went the cord, and another extension cord was added to it. This worked!
But now the question arose: what would happen should it begin to rain? The cord retreated back up through the window. In pitch blackness, we searched through my outdoor balcony storage area and managed to find an all-weather extension cord. Finally we had a system that just might work, and Andrew’s scooter could be charged all night, even if it should rain.
The next morning we were all set to go exploring. Andrew painfully walked up the twenty steps to street level, and we all climbed into his car, off to the Cologne Cathedral. We chatted amiably, Andrew behind the wheel, and anticipated finding disability parking under-neath the cathedral. We searched for the familiar wheel-chair sign—but our hopes were dashed. After circling around the parking lot a few times, we finally decided to settle for any spot we could get, thinking we had some-how missed the disability parking.
I found an attendant and asked him where we could find a disability parking spot. “There aren’t any,” was his curt answer.
“Do you have an elevator we can take to get out of here?”
“Nope. We don’t have one of those either.”
“Then how are we supposed to get out of here?” I asked. The attendant’s nonchalant answer was that we could simply take the scooter out through the exit, where the cars leave the garage, and then find our way through the streets and sidewalks of Cologne.
Dejected, we rolled out of the garage, forcing the car behind us to wait, only to find ourselves in a huge construction zone that had no sidewalks. With no other options, we rolled on down a road and even onto gravel, which irritated Andrew’s scooter. Eventually, somehow, we were able to get onto a sidewalk. But how would we get to the cathedral, uphill from the parking garage?Could we find our way without stairs?
Somehow we did! And although we had to take the long way around to get there, we finally made it into the cathedral, and could move around inside of it at liberty.
As a resident of Cologne who enjoys showing my guests around, I was overjoyed that there was a way for a person with a disability to get into the cathedral, even if finding it had been a bit difficult.
Near the cathedral we found an outdoor café and parked Andrew’s scooter. He managed, with a few pained groans, to climb onto a chair and we enjoyed the afternoon sun and delicious Kölsch beers with our lunch. Our courage fortified, we continued our adventure, heading over to a two-story music store where Bonnie, a musician, browsed through sheet music. Here Andrew’s run of good fortune came to an end: there was no way for him to get upstairs. Instead, he waited at ground level, where he entertained other shoppers with his jokes. I wondered if he found it funny that there was no way he could look at or buy sheet music if he needed it.
Continuing down the main shopping street, we decided to stop for ice cream cones. It was then that we noticed that Andrew’s was the only scooter amongst thousands of pedestrians. Where were all of the people with dis-abilities in Cologne? Did they not exist, or were they hiding somewhere?
On another venture into the city, we decided to try taking Andrew’s scooter onto the tram to hear a Saturday afternoon jazz concert. We all managed to get onto the tram with no mishaps, grinning at each other with relief. We shared our space with bikes and baby strollers. Someone on the tram assumed that we wanted to go to the zoo, the stop for which is along the same line as the one we were traveling. A stranger informed us, however, that a scooter can’t get off of the tram at the zoo. Thankfully our station, Appelhofplatz, had a high, disability-friendly platform and an elevator!
Once at the concert, we took an elevator to the sidewalk outside, went into a city-center shopping mall, and got on another elevator that took us to the basement where the jazz concert was to take place. All went well. After the concert we went grocery shopping at a health food supermarket that, alarmingly, featured aisles wide enough to accommodate a scooter. Shopping in a department store proved to be no problem. This was getting fun!
Feeling inspired, we decided to take a tour of the Rhine. We phoned the shipping line and were told we would have no problem taking Andrew’s scooter. What a delight (and a relief!) it was to watch Andrew’s scooter roll steadily up the gangplank, onto the boat, towards an onboard elevator that could take us right to the deck! I was so excited I bought us all cakes and tea.
The weather was glorious, warm and sunny. My pleasure at watching the scenery was intensified by the feeling of gratitude that this was all possible. Life does not diminish, I discovered, if you are in a wheelchair. My eyes were now open to the very real possibility of traveling the globe as a person with a disability.
Our return Rhine trip, however, proved slightly more difficult. The boat we boarded was an old, romantic steamer with no elevator. Though there was a makeshift lift on the stairs, it was too narrow to accommodate Andrew’s scooter. Nevertheless, we sat on the deck of the ship’s main level and were treated to a great view.
Having seen, first-hand, the needs of a traveler who has a disability, I now find myself looking for people in wheel-chairs or scooters when on my own excursions. Though I rarely see such people in Germany, Cologne is steadily becoming better prepared for them when they do show up. This summer, in fact, the tram stop at the zoo was demolished and beautifully rebuilt. I look forward to the day when sidewalks, car parks and trams are packed with tourists and shoppers who ride in mobility scooters! I will happily put up with the congestion.
Articles in the Alfred Molina Issue; Senator Tom Harkin — IDEA 35 Years; Ashley’s Column — Girls Ride; Acupuncture — Ancient Chinese Secret, Revealed!; Aphasia: The Movie — A Film Beyond Words; Love Simple — Lights! Camera!...Lupus?; Trail Mix — The Wilderness Made Accessible; Amputee Recovery — From the Middle East to Haiti; Lachi — A Voice in the Darkness; Laura Hogikyan — The Play’s the Thing; Creative Arts Festival — Veterans with Artistic Vision; A Trip to Germany — Disability and Deutchland; A Day In The Life — Nursing with a Movement Disorder; Alfred Molina — Law & Order and the Injustice of AIDS; Malcolm Smith — A Ride Down Memory Lane; Shakes — Parkinson’s Disease; Victoria Taylor — Excerpt From Caitlin’s Wish; Sally Franz — Excerpt From Scrambled Leggs; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe
Excerpts from the Alfred Molina Jan/Dec 2010-11 Issue:
Alfred Molina — Interview
Love Simple — Lights! Camera!...Lupus?
Malcolm Smith — A Ride Down Memory Lane
Creative Arts Festival — Veterans with Artistic Vision
Amputee Recovery — From the Middle East to Haiti
A trip to Germany — Disability and Deutchland
Lachi — A Voice in the Darkness
Acupuncture — Ancient Chinese Secret, Revealed!