Tips for the Disabled Traveler in Britain
Britain is a great country to visit. However, it is not always the easiest country to navigate for the disabled, especially those confined to a wheelchair.
Getting the most out of your trip with such limitations requires a certain amount of knowledge and savvy. It also requires the understanding that disabled access is generally not as good as it is in America, especially when historical buildings are involved.
Finding disabled-friendly accommodation can be difficult, and not just in more rural areas.
Smaller guest houses and farmhouse B&Bs are often best avoided. There is no requirement that they make their property wheelchair accessible, and most of these establishments are converted private homes.
You need to ask the right questions and be very clear as to your needs. Don't just ask "Are you wheelchair accessible?" Be specific about what you need or want. It is always best to ask for a ground floor room - most guest houses and smaller hotels lack elevators. One otherwise fantastic townhouse hotel in London has an elevator. Unfortunately, it's so small only one person and one suitcase can fit in it. A standard-sized wheelchair would have no chance. Some of these converted private homes have steps or high thresholds at one or all entrances.
However, larger hotels that are accessible often make it a selling point. Traditional inns can also be a good choice as some have motel-style extensions providing several ground floor rooms. In large cities, an American-owned or international chain may be the safest choice.
As a warning, always ask for a 'ground floor' room, not a 'first floor' room - in Britain, the first floor is the floor above the ground floor/entrance.
Many parts of the country lack good public transportation. Major cities, however, generally have very good options (with the notable exception of Birmingham...I honestly cannot think of another city that needs a subway more and does not have one).
However, London's famous Underground system has very limited disabled access. Most stations do not have elevators and at some platforms, the gap between the train and the platform is sufficient to cause problems for wheelchairs or for blind individuals. Taxis are a good, if expensive, option - the large cabs used by most council cab services are designed such that a wheelchair can slide right in.
New buses built since 2000 are legally required to have wheelchair ramps, but older vehicles remain in service in some areas, potentially resulting in an unpleasant surprise.
Yes, it deserves its own section.
Disabled individuals should contact the train company the day before they travel. They will provide assistance if given this much notice. Also, if you are disabled, you can get a discount on anytime tickets (although not discounted tickets - it's worth checking which option is actually cheaper). These discounts are restricted to wheelchair users who stay in their own wheelchair through the trip or blind/visually impaired persons traveling with a companion.
Wheelchair space is limited and making reservations in advance is strongly recommended. Not all trains will take powered scooters, either because of the internal layout or because the temporary ramps they use to assist people onto the train won't take the weight. Which brings up another issue. Most of these ramps have a load limit of between 500 and 660 pounds. If you AND your chair, combined, weigh more than that, you won't be able to travel. At some smaller stations the weight limit is even lower as the only way they can get somebody onto the train is to have porters manhandle them. Use a lightweight travel chair if at all possible.
Many of the most famous attractions have only limited wheelchair access. However, there are still plenty of options even if climbing the towers of a castle is out of reach.
One of the nicer quirks of the system is companion discounts. If you are blind or in a wheelchair, not only do you get reduced admission, but your traveling companion will also get reduced admission. Some attractions even allow companions/caregivers to enter for free.
Large area attractions such as zoos often rent motor scooters, but may have a limited number - if you want or need one, it is best to plan your trip early in the day.
Most movie theaters are accessible, as are a good proportion of live theaters. A company called Artsline keeps up to date accessibility information on live venues.
In America, disabled toilets are generally a wider stall within the normal, gender separated, system.
In Britain, the vast majority of public disabled toilets are on the RADAR system, for which you need a key. These keys are very cheap (they are physical metal keys that cost 2.25 sterling), and can be ordered through the RADAR website (http://radar-shop.org.uk/Detail.aspx?id=0). You must state that you (or the person you are buying the key for) has a disability when ordering, or you will be charged VAT on the purchase. An additional 5.00 sterling will get you a guide to help you find the location of these facilities, which are all designed to allow independent use by a wheelchair user.
Most attractions have their own disabled toilets that may or may not be on the RADAR system. However, they are almost always separate from able-bodied toilets and unisex, meaning it may take a few moments longer to locate them. (It is not considered socially acceptable for an able-bodied person to use a disabled stall in England even if they are not locked).
Renting an accessible vehicle is hard in Great Britain and even harder in Ireland. Hand controls designed for left hand drive vehicles will not work on right hand drive cars. If you are traveling alone, you can consider the more expensive, but effective, option of renting a car with a driver. Otherwise, you may be able to rent a vehicle with hand controls, but it is by no means guaranteed. Nor is renting a van and having your companion drive it always an option - vans large enough for wheelchair users are also relatively unusual and even harder to find if your companion can't drive a stick. Automatic vehicles are often more expensive to rent.
Bring your disabled parking pass. There is a reciprocal agreement in place that makes American parking passes valid in the United Kingdom.
Because the United Kingdom is rabies free, any dogs taken into the country have to comply with their 'PETS' scheme. This means that your dog has to be chipped and up to date on its rabies shots, and will also need a rabies antibody test within the previous six months. He will also need to be up to date on treatment for certain parasites - check with your vet. The dog will need a veterinary certificate detailing that these procedures have been met.
Service dogs in the UK are called 'assistance dogs'. Service providers are legally required to allow assistance dogs on the premises. It is expected that assistance dogs are kept clean - try to groom your dog every day during your trip. Use an official jacket from the charity that trained the dog if possible. You may have problems with self-trained dogs as ONLY dogs trained by a registered charity are legally accepted as service dogs in the United Kingdom, although most people are likely to be okay with the dog as long as it is clean, obviously well-trained and wearing a jacket. Emotional support dogs may cause issues as they are far less common there.