Accessibility in Europe and how it differs from the US

By Sarah F. Griffin

In September 2023, my family and I took a “last hurrah of summer” trip to Madrid. 

Being disabled, I was curious to see what accessibility looked like in Spain and how it compared to accessibility in the U.S., especially with Europe’s reputation for being more walkable than North America.

As someone with moderate cerebral palsy, I do not use a mobility aid; however, traveling to large cities can sometimes be hard on my joints with all the walking.

Although my condition might be considered “less severe” to some people, I still think about how much walking I am going to do on trips, and going into the vacation, I was worried about slowing my family down or preventing them from seeing everything they wanted to.

When I first stepped out of the airport in Madrid, one of the first things I noticed was the amount of Ubers and buses waiting to take people wherever they needed to go. 

I also noticed that most of the Ubers waiting were large vans that seemingly had a step, but no wheelchair ramp.

Public transportation in Madrid was rated as a three out of five on, stating that their metro system wasn’t fully accessible, but it was easy to get around the city in a wheelchair. 

New York City was rated as a two out of five on the website, and said to avoid the subway and stick to buses. 

“Despite New York’s status as the ‘city of the world,’ it is lagging in many critical areas of accessibility,” said “The city’s subway system is complicated, crowded and only partially accessible.”

Alongside public transportation accessibility, Madrid also offered accommodations for visually impaired individuals.  

In my experience, most U.S. crosswalks do not have audible crosswalks. While in Madrid, my family and I heard many crosswalk signs tell people when it was time to cross the street and when it was time to wait; we figured out that this was to help people with visual impairments know when it is safe to walk across.

This year in Chicago, a federal judge ruled that the city’s crosswalks violated the federal Americans with Disability Act, and that they needed to improve its crosswalks to help visually impaired individuals, according to an article by CBS News. 

In terms of mobility assistants, like walkers or wheelchairs, I have always had reservations about how the famous cobblestone streets of Europe would be able to accommodate their wheels. 

I only saw one person using a wheelchair while I was walking in Toledo, Spain, and they seemed to be having no major issues navigating the unique bumps in the road, although their disability experience is their’s to tell, not mine.

Although I only saw one wheelchair user on my trip, approximately a quarter of Americans and Europeans have some kind of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the Council of European Union.

The ways in which I have described Europe and America being different are not to say that one way is better than the other.  

The thing about accessibility is that every disabled person’s needs are different and no disabled person will ever have the exact needs of another.

What we have to remember above all else is that we must be willing to fulfill all the accessibility needs of all disabled people.

Related Articles

Back to top button