July 26th marked the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is not an anniversary that Hallmark sells a lot of cards for, or that most people even give a first or second thought.

I likely would not have thought about it — nor would I be writing about it –had I not received a press release or two via e-mail and had not just recently visited England on vacation.

I am not saying that the ADA is unimportant. Quite the opposite. It is landmark legislation that ensures that every person with disabilities can enjoy the same rights and freedom of access as other Americans.

That is why we now have sidewalks wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass each other. It is why sidewalks at intersections now have ramp-style access to street crossings and now sport those bright yellow areas with bumpy surfaces to warn people in wheelchairs, with walkers and the sight-impaired of impending dangers.

The ADA is the reason buildings must be accessable to people with disabilities.

A new perspective

I am not saying Americans are unique in their passion and commitment to providing people with disabilities the same rights and freedoms as those without disabilities. But I do know that all people in the world do not share this commitment.

I had always thought the British were at least as compassionate about social issues such as this as we Americans are. However, the recent week I spent in London and some outlying “tourist” attractions gave me a new perspective—which may have been heightened by my suffering with a bad left knee.

We have considered it a major problem recently in Atlanta when escalators and elevators in MARTA rail stations have been shut down for inspections to ensure they are safe.

It is a true rarity to find a rail station in London, or the towns we visited outside of London, that have either a lift (as the Brits call an elevator) or full access to the various levels with an escalator.

Just about anyone will tell you the way to get around London is by riding the “Tube,” the underground rail system. For trips out of the core of London, one takes the national rail service, which is connected to the Tube at major hub stations.

The rail system is incredibly efficient for moving around the city and suburbs—unless you are handicapped. Very few tube or national rail stations have lifts. Several stations have escalators, but they do not connect all the way from the Tube boarding levels to the street levels. At Victoria Station—one of the city’s major rail hubs—there is no lift between the Tube platforms and the national rail tracks.

Everyone recommended taking a train day trip to Hampton Court, site of the massive palace and extensive groomed grounds of King Henry VIII, and to Salisbury, the town closest to Stonehenge. But neither the palace nor the rock formation are really accessible for handicapped or disabled people. Nor is the Tower of London, which is not really a tower at all.

I would say none of the trains are really accessible for people in wheelchairs. On every platform and in every train car, the words you hear most frequently are “mind the gap.” The gap is the distance between the platform and the train car and always includes a step up into the train car. No smooth wheeling.

I managed to climb the several flights of stairs at each of the train stations, but it was not without pain. I kept up most of the time with my wife, daughter and grandson as we probably walked 30-40 miles in the eight days, but it was painful most of the time.

It also didn’t help that we had rented a third-story apartment for the week. No lift, just a lot of stairs.

My impression was that the subliminal message delivered to people with disabilities in England is: “stay home.” Hopefully, the message we Americans send because of the ADA is: “come out and enjoy life”—the same rights and freedoms as others without disabilities.

On a lighter side

We really did enjoy the week in London and surrounding countryside…and sharing it with family.

This was my third trip to London, but most of what we saw this time, I had not experienced before: the history of 4,000-year-old Stonehenge; the ruins of the first Roman castle in Colchester, near the eastern shore; and the Tower of London; the grandeur of a king’s palace built centuries ago; the majesty of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and centuries of royal jewels and crowns on display at the Tower of London.

The unusual treat during the very serious ceremony of the changing of the guard to hear the marching band that was part of the event strike up Abba’s “Dancing Queen” right at the steps of Buckingham Palace, home of the queen. Most of the hundreds watching the procession broke out in laughter.

But no visit to London is complete without a visit to Harrod’s department store. It is always a treat and always an experience. This time was no exception.

My wife, daughter and grandson had to visit the famous Harrod’s ice cream bar, where there is no such thing as a normal dish of ice cream. The prices are not normal either. The concoction that my wife and daughter shared cost almost 20 U.S. dollars. My grandson’s plain vanilla dish (he wanted the add-ons removed) cost about 15 U.S. dollars.

Fine cars and fancy shopping

We hailed a cab back to our apartment and got tied up in a traffic jam on the side of Harrods’, where we were looking at a lineup of very expensive, exotic parked cars—a Rolls-Royce convertible, followed by a Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Maserati, Porsche, etc.—all with license plates from Arab nations. We were struck with wonderment.

The next day, it all came into focus with an article in one of the free London newspapers, which described exactly the scene we had witnessed the evening before. It pointed out these were the cars of rich Arabs in their 20s who spend the summers in London and frequent Harrods for afternoon drinks.

They park their cars—usually illegally—on the street beside Harrods and the police have difficulty giving them tickets because their hand-held computers “don’t have the squiggly letters” that appear on the Arab nation license plates, the newspaper said.

The reporter for the article asked one owner how he got his car to London. “On my private jet, of course” was the answer.

Of course, an Arab investment group now owns Harrods and the store is filled with wealthy shoppers—every day and in every one of its many departments.

The newspaper article pointed out that 100 billionaires now own second homes in the London neighborhood where Harrods is located.

One thought from all this that came to mind was that maybe Ben Carter should entice Harrods to open its first U.S. store at The Streets of Buckhead. It might help sell a lot of multi-million-dollar Buckhead condos. But the Atlanta parking meter police may have to get some new software for their ticket-writing computers.

Oh well, just one more thought from a great week of vacation in England.

John Schaffner

John Schaffner was founding editor of Reporter Newspapers.