Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Visiting Parliament - culture is for everybody

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a ‘Visit Parliament’ afternoon.  Visit Parliament are a member of Tourism for All (TfA), and have a listing which details their accessibility on our website www.openbritain.net.  This listing includes their very helpful video, ‘How to access the Houses of Parliament’.
After an early morning train journey to London from the Lake District, I met up with TfA’s CEO Ray Veal, and we set off on our way to Westminster.
I’ve attended Parliamentary meetings in the past with Trailblazers, who chair the All Party Parliamentary Group for Young Disabled People, so was fairly familiar with some areas of the House of Commons, but there was so much more to see.
The accessible route into the visitors entrance heads down a long ramp, with a view of Big Ben to the right.  It feels right to pause, look around and take in the moment – here we are at the seat of democracy!
After airport-style security checks, Ray and I arrived at the start of the tour... The 900 year old Westminster Hall. 
There is bench seating in Westminster Hall, and visitor assistants can escort visitors with disabilities from Westminster Hall to Central Lobby. This part is particularly interesting, as the accessible route takes you to areas that visitors don’t usually get to see, and our assistant was very keen to share even more information with us at this point.  It is worth noting that the lift used is very small, we just managed to squeeze the 3 of us in as my manual wheelchair doesn’t take up much space.  The tour is step-free from Central Lobby onwards.
Our tour was self-guided using an audio tour, which offers a fascinating insight into the history and traditions that make up Parliament, whilst you are surrounded by beautiful art and architecture.  The sheer size of the Palace of Westminster is amazing, and following the same route as the Queen at the State Opening of Parliament is pretty special.
Helpful staff advised of alternative routes where space may be too narrow for a wheelchair to pass, and thankfully I managed to pass through the very lavish Lords Chamber without scratching the leather benches! 
At the end of our tour we were encouraged to visit the Houses of Parliament Shop, accessed via a more modern lift.  Here you can buy everything from books, to cufflinks, to wine.  There is also a café on the same level serving homemade Panini’s, coffee & cake, and lots more yummy treats!  An accessible public toilet, including a changing bench and a hoist, can be found in Lower Waiting Hall just off Central Lobby.
Accessible tourism sometimes gets a bad reputation but we received an impeccable level of service at all points – train, taxi and the Houses of Parliament.  To me, this raises the question - If historic buildings such as the Houses of Parliament can adapt, why can’t all others?  After all, culture is for everybody.

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