Navigating the Netherlands
2022/11/03 | By Joanna Bouma | Photo by Unsplash
At first glance, public transport and public buildings in the Netherlands are accessible to people with disabilities wherever you travel. But what is it like in practice and how inclusive really is Dutch society?
ACCESS spoke with an independent mobile wheelchair user and the parents of a child with Down Syndrome to get a deeper understanding of how they experience accessibility and inclusivity.
The Netherlands is working towards making its public transport system completely accessible to people with disabilities. Its goal is that everyone can travel anywhere in the country independently. While things might not yet be perfect, it seems they are at least well on the way.
“In most places, I can get in and out of trains, buses and trams independently” says Jules, a mobile wheelchair user, “as the platforms are now at the same level, and wider buses and trams are being used.”
This is a far cry from a decade ago however when Jules had to either book help from the transport providers to get him in and out of the vehicle or rely on the help of muscular strangers. But Jules does recognise that making trains, buses, and trams more accessible to users of wheelchairs, mobility scooters, walkers, crutches and so on, is an expensive and long-term project that cannot be achieved overnight.
Living in Amsterdam, Jules moves around the city with ease, knowing which stops are accessible and which are yet to be made so. He also knows that other cities such as The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht are making changes and he can check accessible stops on the transport provider’s apps.
“The problem areas tend to be the old, historic streets that were built centuries ago for pedestrians and horses, rather than cars,” says Jules. “These are much narrower so will simply not fit modern-day public transport, let alone stops with accessible platforms” he adds.
Another issue comes when Jules needs to go to a rural railway station or use local (regional) buses. Given the lower population density, renovating these stops is further down the list of priorities. But it also comes down to the question as to whether the demand by mobility aid users at such locations is lower, or if the inaccessibility of such stops simply means less demand?
These smaller public transport stops will be made more accessible at some point in the future but for now, it seems that continued patience is required.
Accessibility to government buildings, museums, offices, blocks of flats, and so on has vastly improved in recent years. Disability access is being incorporated into new buildings, and many older buildings have also been fitted with ramps and lifts. However, what remains a problem are the historic buildings that only have staircases and are often so small that it is difficult to fit chairlifts – let alone ramps and lifts – inside. The same goes for restaurants, cafés, and public services situated inside historic buildings – which brings us to the topic of accessibility to toilets.
Spend a penny
While much attention is paid to ramps, lifts, and wide corridors, the same cannot be said in relation to accessible toilets. All too often entering buildings is the easy part. Using the sanitary facilities is not. Such spaces are often too narrow for mobility aids and in older buildings, going up or down a stairwell is often required too.
Jules recognises that limited space and the layout of historic buildings means “it is virtually impossible to make toilets in these buildings accessible, but as a wheelchair user it means that before I can even think about going out for a drink, dinner or party, I have to check if the sanitary facilities are accessible at the location,” he says.
This is indeed a major area of exclusion that still needs to be addressed.
While speaking with the parents of Sofia, a child with Down Syndrome, they outlined that in their experience, children with mental disabilities like their daughter are ‘invisible’ in society in the Netherlands. “We believe this stems from the country’s highly-organised system of care which, with good intentions, tries to cater for children with diverse special needs,” they say. “However, what this ends up doing is to exclude children with special needs from regular schools and remove them from other children and the wider society,” they go on to add.
Children with learning difficulties have the right to a toelaatbaarheidsverklaring (TLV) which is literally a declaration of admissibility and gives a family the right to a grant to help support the child’s needs. This brings many benefits but in terms of education, once a child has a TLV, very few ‘regular’ schools will admit them so the child will be obliged to go to a ‘special’ school.
Once there – and given that the school must cater for a wide spectrum of learning difficulties – few children learn effectively and thus in effect, forego their right to an education. Such special schools have protocols for various types of conditions, and the interaction between carers and children is predetermined. So, if a child does not respond in a certain way, there is no further stimulation and Sofia’s parents feel that this can hold back children instead of allowing them to develop to their full potential.
In the picture
Unfortunately, the highly organised Dutch healthcare system often leads to a lack of contact between the public and children like Sofia. That said, in other European countries, care can be less structured and available so families – and society – must provide much (or all) of the care and education themselves. “While this does bring disadvantages to families,” say Sofia’s parents “it does help ‘expose’ society to children with special needs, and these children to society.”
Sofia’s parents believe that if Sofia were more embedded in society, she would get more mental stimulation than she currently does at her special school.
Looking at other aspects of accessibility and inclusivity, Sofia’s parents share an interesting insight. There are a lot of public playgrounds of all types and sizes scattered around The Hague and surrounding areas which are open and welcoming to children to run in and play. “This is wonderful for most children, but not for Sofia,” they say, “as she could suddenly run off and before we know it, end up on the road.”
Children like Sofia need a playground that is contained by a fence. So, unless Sofia is under very close supervision, she simply cannot use such public playgrounds which further highlights differences to be addressed. Next to that, such situations only serve to keep Sofia away from other children, and the wider society in general.
We can all probably be more inclusive to others in our day-to-day lives – whatever their (or our) physical or mental situation, gender identity, ethnic background, personality, or style. It is true that over the past couple of decades, society has become much more aware of accessibility and inclusivity. Many things are improving but there is still a long way to go in the Netherlands and the rest of the world before every individual – with their unique characteristics – is completely free to move about and live their life to the full.
Did you know:
These websites contain info about accessible tourism and travelling with a mobility aid.
About the author:
Joanna Bouma and her dog, Cinta (which means ‘love’ in Malay) live in The Hague. Joanna is a freelance writer/editor/translator and enjoys nature, hiking and playing badminton (which she plays very badly!). Cinta enjoys walks and food.