Access all areas: Meet the man building 1600 wheelchair ramps in Iceland

Haraldur Þorleifsson using an accessible ramp whilst on a walk with his family.
Haraldur Þorleifsson using an accessible ramp whilst on a walk with his family. Copyright Axel Sigurðsson
By Estelle Nilsson-Julien
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Haraldur þorleifsson has made it his mission to build ramps all across Iceland to allow people with physical disabilities to access local businesses.

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Two years ago Haraldur Þorleifsson had to sit outside a shop in his native Iceland, unable to go inside with his wife and young son because there was no wheelchair access.

"I started to think about all the times I’ve waited outside places, isolated and alone," he said.

It didn't take long for the entrepreneur - who recently sold his digital design company to Twitter - to come to the conclusion that solving this problem would be a matter of "changing one or two steps," to make everyday life less challenging for people with physical disabilities. 

His brainwave moment lead him to create Ramp Up Iceland, and embark on a quest to build ramps all across the Nordic nation, to allow people in wheelchairs to get to previously inaccessible locations.

Long-term goal for building ramps

Since its launch, Ramp Up has already built more than 450 ramps, and aims to complete at least 1600 over the course of the next three years. 

The ramps are installed in all kinds of places, from outside hairdressers and restaurants, to dentists and ice cream parlours.

"Our biggest project so far has been creating Iceland’s first accessible gas station. We altered the height of the pumps, raised the ground and the owner also renovated the inside through changing the toilets for example," Þorleifsson told Euronews.

To fund the project, Ramp Up has raised around €3.5 million, with Þorleifsson investing his own money as well as attracting private and corporate backers.

His activism has even seen him named Icelander of the Year in 2022.

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Haraldur Þorleifsson, his team and the gas station staff outside Iceland's first accessible gas station.Orkan

Iceland's disabled-access laws

Iceland's parliament - Alþingi - passed a law in 2012 which requires all new-builds to provide disabled access. However, the law is not retroactive, which means that it does not extend to revamping old buildings.

And that's a legal stance which Þorleifsson disagrees with: "people say you can’t make some buildings accessible, but even the Colosseum has an elevator in it."

"We need people like this who make changes and decide that it's more important to make these places accessible than to leave them completely unchanged."

On top of this, new-builds don’t always comply with regulations.

"It’s not more expensive to build places properly the first time round, but it does take a lot of effort to change them retroactively," he added.

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Woman fills up her car at Iceland's first accessible gas station.Orkan

Disability access across Europe

Having lived abroad for many years, Þorleifsson, who was diagnosed with a muscular atrophy disorder aged two, was struck by the lack of disability accessibility in Iceland.

"Iceland hasn’t been spending enough money on accessibility, I always have to call ahead when going out - whereas I’ve lived in places where you don’t need to do this kind of planning ahead."

Travel is a particular issue for people living across Europe with physical disabilities. Amsterdam, Paris and London were crowned Europe's most accessible destinations in a survey released by the business collective Valuable 500.

However, Þorleifsson has noticed that accessibility in Europe often varies according to how wealthy a region is, ‘"for instance disabled access in the South of Italy is terrible, whereas it is far better in the North of Italy, which is a rich region and a tourist hotspot."

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How does Ramp Up work?

If businesses want to upgrade their own wheelchair access they can submit applications directly to Ramp Up, but þorleifsson’s team also goes out on scouting missions to find potential locations.

Ramp Up then provides the materials as well as the manpower for installing the ramps, and a fast turnaround usually means it takes the team just a few days between identifying a ramp spot and installing it.

"We go out across the country in teams to try and find places which are in need of better accessibility," said þorleifsson, who has big plans for the impact his project can have in his homeland. 

"By the end of the next three years, pretty much every single big and small town in Iceland will have some kind of ramp."

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