Living with a handicapped parent for most of my life means that I have adapted to look for certain features whenever I visit a new place. I automatically look for ramps at entrances, I always notice whether or not aisles are wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through, and I always look to see if counters are low enough for a person in a wheelchair to reach. I’m often disappointed at home in the United States when I find that a business has not taken into consideration that some people will need to be able to access it from a wheelchair, but here in Italy I have noticed that handicap accessibility is a bit more scarce than at home. Florence is absolutely gorgeous, but unfortunately, not everyone is able to visit some of the beautiful places this city has to offer.
Most museums that we have visited here in Florence and in Rome have taken measures to make their facilities accessible to the handicapped, including equipment such as ramps, elevators, and stair lifts. However, older buildings such as the medieval and renaissance era churches are still inaccessible to people with physical disabilities. The fact that many structures in Italy have not been updated to include handicap accessibility is no surprise. When every inch of a building was designed by a famous renaissance architect, the question of augmenting the structure to add an elevator or other practical (but not so beautiful) element is a difficult one to answer. On the one hand, preserving the antique beauty of Florentine structures is incredibly important from an artistic as well as a historical standpoint. But on the other, not adding wheelchair accessibility to these structures keeps many people from being able to experience them.
Centuries-old Florentine churches are not the only structures that are difficult to access for the handicapped. Shops and restaurants in the city often have at least one step at the doorway, and sometimes have sales floors or dining rooms that are situated on multiple levels separated by steps. In addition to this, doorways and aisles in stores and restaurants are often much too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through safely. Though handicap accessibility is by no means universal in the United States, more legislation and regulation of businesses means that most apartment buildings will have at least one handicap accessible unit, and doorways of shops are required to be at least wide enough for a standard wheelchair to pass through. Here in Italy, my apartment building and most of the others I have been in have no unit on the ground floor and no elevator. Shops and restaurants in Florence and several in Rome require you to walk down a flight of stairs immediately after stepping through the doorway. These stores and restaurants are full of beautiful and unique items and food, but it is unfortunate that part of the population cannot even get through the doorway. Aside from the actual structures in Florence, the streets of the city are complicated to maneuver for a person who uses a wheelchair. This problem is not necessarily unique to Florence; many cities have uneven or cobblestoned streets. In Florence, though, most of the city has sidewalks for pedestrians, but they are too narrow in most places for two people to stand side by side, and definitely too narrow for most wheelchairs.
The opportunity to live and study in Florence has been incredible and I am extremely grateful that I have been able to do this. Our group has seen so many beautiful sites, rich with history and culture. Florence is a breathtaking city, and I am hopeful that a solution can be found that both meets the needs of handicapped people who wish to explore this city, and preserves the history, culture, and beauty of the city.