PARIS (AP) — Angry about decades of unmet promises, people with disabilities protested in France Wednesday by showing how difficult and frustrating it is for them to travel alone by train into Paris, delivering a stinging rebuke to government inertia before the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
President Emmanuel Macron, hosting a national conference on disabilities, conceded failures, noted slow progress, and promised concrete action for France’s 12 million people with disabilities, including ahead of the Games.
“This world is not a parallel world,” Macron told the gathering. “I want this world to end being a world of silence, that people with disabilities be heard, be present and visible everywhere in our society.”
He pledged 1.5 billion euros ($1.65 billion) to improve accessibility, targeting small establishments receiving the public — from restaurants to administrative locales and taxis, train stations and trains. Details, and a timeline, are to be worked out before the summer.
Macron also promised full reimbursement for wheel chair purchases in 2024.
Today, many disabled people in France face a constant struggle.
In the town of Melun on the outskirts of the French capital, Babou Sene, 31, had to get out of the wheelchair he uses and shuffle with help down and then up two flights of stairs to catch the 11:15 suburban train to Paris’ Gare de Lyon, which connects to the only fully accessible Metro line in the future Olympic host city.
Other people with disabilities had to stay behind, continuing the protest with placards denouncing limited access to public services. Their electric-powered wheelchairs were too bulky to be carried to the Paris-bound train platform. Helpers carried Sene’s smaller hand-pushed chair and assisted him on the stairs and navigating the gap between platform and train.
“It’s frustrating, really frustrating, not being able to get around,” Sene said. “The feelings are of anger, frustration, revolt and resignation. Because in fact, despite the fights undertaken, the impression we have is that we’re not listened to, despite all of our efforts.”
Sene works for APF France Handicap, which lobbies for disabled rights and organized the protest. It was among the groups invited to Macron’s national conference on disabilities.
Amid frustration over slow progress on disabled rights, another organization, Collectif Handicaps, an umbrella association of more than 50 campaign groups, boycotted the conference. Collectif Handicaps had asked for an opportunity to speak in front of Macron and said it was refused.
The group said it feared fresh pledges of improved accessibility from Macron would fall short of what is needed.
Just getting to the conference at the presidential Elysee Palace would be an ordeal for many of the people the event is focused on, because of very limited accessibility on the Paris Metro and frequent frustrations for people with disabilities on the French capital’s supposedly fully accessible buses.
The RATP, the Metro authority, has said that 32 stations, out of more than 300, will be accessible by the Olympics.
This month, an arm of the Council of Europe, the continent’s foremost human rights body, found France in violation of a European treaty on social and economic rights, citing multiple failings in meeting the needs of adults and children with disabilities.
The looming deadlines of the July 26-Aug. 11, 2024, Olympics and Aug. 28-Sept. 8 Paralympics also risk highlighting how inaccessible France is, in contrast to advances in other rich countries.
For the Paris Games, France needs “to press on the accelerator” because “a catastrophic scenario is in the offing if we don’t,” APF France Handicap President Pascale Ribes said, citing concerns about accessibility, hotel accommodations and other issues for spectators with disabilities.
The French president said that “universal inclusive access” and giving sports an “inclusive dynamic” are two priorities for the Games. But he limited his closing remarks at the conference to a pledge to provide extra transport, including five times the number of the taxis accessible for people with disabilities that are currently in the Paris region — with a goal of increasing them to 1,000 — plus a special shuttle service.
Olympic organizers say the host city will “provide the best possible conditions for para-athletes and visitors with disabilities.” They say they’re aiming for “an obstacle-free experience for all,” with 100% of venues to be accessible for people with disabilities and all volunteers to be trained in serving their needs so as to “avoid users feeling that they have any kind of disability.”
But other Olympic cities have done better on improving accessibility in their subways. In Tokyo, more than 90% of the 758 subway and rail stations were already wheelchair-accessible when it hosted the Olympics in 2021.
At the Melun railway station, protesters’ placards denounced difficulties navigating schools, housing, transport and other services. Sene’s placard read: “When buildings aren’t accessible, we can’t access our rights.”
A sports fan, Sene has signed up as a candidate to work as an Olympic volunteer. He said he hopes the Paris Games “will serve as a take-off ramp for accessibility.”
Protesters said improvement works at the Melun station have been repeatedly pushed back and that difficulties there for people with mobility challenges are mirrored across the Paris region.
“There’s a generation that’s seen the trains go past and hasn’t been able to get on board,” said Pascal Aubert, of APF France Handicap.
Salima Yenbou, a French member of the European Parliament, representing Macron’s centrist party, rode the train with Sene to Paris and told him that his struggle to get on board is “like house arrest.”
“It’s unacceptable,” she said.
AP journalist Nicolas Garriga in Melun, France and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed.
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