Kees-Jan van der Klooster’s motto is “live fast”.
And he does, in spite of a snowboarding accident that left him paralysed in 2001.
Seven years later, he won a gold medal at the 2008 Winter X Games.
KJ gives children and adults in wheelchairs training to help them face a world seldom suited to their needs.
To get an idea of the world he lives in, we went out for lunch with KJ in Amsterdam, a city of bridges and cosy little restaurants.
KJ spots one he likes:
“So what often happens to me is I see a nice little restaurant and I want to go in there. I am confronted with a few steps, these are not too big actually, but let’s see what they have for lunch today and if I can get in,” says KJ.
There are two flights of stairs between KJ and the toilet. The waitress sends him to the restaurant next door.
More steps, another door.
KJ’s second attempt is more successful, but not without some hurdles.
“We can have lunch over there,” he says, pointing to a room you can only access by taking a couple of steps. “That’s funny,” he adds good-humouredly.”
Two members of staff are needed to help this paralympic athlete get up the stairs in his wheelchair.
A simple ramp would have avoided all this.
But legislation in the Netherlands, like in many other European countries, does not impose clear rules on how and when existing public buildings should be updated to make them accessible.
In countries where legislation does exist, it is often ignored because controls and sanctions are rare.
He finally makes it to the toilet:
“This is the toilet from the inside. Actually I’m quite happy with my small wheelchair, I’m able to get in here, but you can imagine if you have an electric wheelchair, it would be impossible to get into the toilet in this restaurant. And it’s a pity because they have good food, and it’s a nice restaurant, but accessibility-wise…,” KJ leaves the sentence unfinished but his expression tells it all.
These three steps could have made all the difference for a less abled person in a wheelchair: sometimes it’s easier to just stay at home rather than go out for lunch with friends.
“There are actually too few people with disabilities moving actively in society,” says KJ. “Especially in wheelchairs, a lot of people stay inside. Once there are more people moving around in society in wheelchairs maybe business owners will realise that it’s necessary to make their business more accessible.”
Spain is among the most active countries in the EU in terms of accessibility. The Fundaciòn ONCE plays a big role in promoting social integration for disabled people.
Several Spanish cities have won recognition for their achievements. Avila won the first edition of the European Award for accessible cities in 2010.
Euronews met Jesús Hernández-Galán, Director of Accessibility at Fundaciòn ONCE in Madrid, which is hosting the organisation’s fourth Contemporary Art Biennial Exhibition.
Jesús is part of the jury for the Access City Award. This allows him to monitor whether accessibility is taken into consideration in urban planning, culture and new technologies.
“European cities are working to become more accessible,” says Jesús. “But they still have a long way to go,” he adds. “Things are improving, but at a very slow pace. We need legislation on accessibility at a European level, we need harmonisation between member states, so that we can all move in the same direction.”
Spain’s Fundaciòn ONCE works hand in hand with schools of architecture and architectural firms to plan more accessible cities and avoid urban spaces becoming real labyrinths.
The district of Valdebebas, currently under construction in northern Madrid, is considered a pioneering example of accessibility.
Accessibility was included in the project from the very start, with help from experts at ONCE.
It’s a whole new world of codes: different materials, colours and textures are used to help disabled people get around.
“The pavements are divided into static and dynamic bands. In the dynamic band, tiles are bigger, to give an idea of movement. Next to it, we have the static band, with smaller tiles, which indicates obstacles,” says Susana Canogar, Urban Planning and Landscape Director in Valdebebas.
Texture codes and colour codes help people with sight and mental disabilities.
The height of the patterns and the angle of the slope at a pedestrian crossing are carefully studied to address different forms of disabilities.
Pedro Lòpez is an accessibility expert at Fundaciòn ONCE.
“People who use wheelchairs prefer continuity,” he tells us. “While blind people prefer having a tangible element that can make them understand where the pavement stops and where the street starts, something they can feel with their feet to understand immediately if they are stepping onto the road.”
But when accessibility has not been taken into account from the start, things get more complicated.
Mariano Fresnillo has been blind since he was 18. He takes us for a walk near Colòn square, in central Madrid, renovated just two years ago.
With his dog Lillo by his side, things go pretty smoothly. But when Mariano is alone with his stick, glaring planning mistakes surface.
Sharp edges border the pedestrian crossing, the tactile paving is too high and the bus shelter’s design is confusing. Blue stickers had to be added to prevent people with sight problems from hitting the glass.
“This is really strange because it has these openings here and you don’t understand why,” says Mariano, showing a gap in the bus shelter. “There are corners that are really confusing, because you think, well, where is this opening taking me? Is it the end of the bus shelter? Is it a lateral exit? I don’t really understand, and why is this corner here?”
The European Commission is working on a European Accessibility Act and is active in developing accessibility standards at a European level.
According to Jesús Hernández-Galán of Fundaciòn ONCE: “The goal for the future is to not have to ask, when we go to a hotel for example, whether it is accessible or not, the same way we never ask if it has electricity or water, we take that for granted.”
Lack of accessibility often means disabled people are deprived of a social life, a job, or access to public services.
Invisible to many, accessibility remains one of the most subtle forms of discrimination.