Disability is no handicap at Expo

Sandra Kalt is allowed to go to the front of the queue

Switzerland's national exhibition, Expo.02, is trying to appeal to everyone - no matter their age, ethnic background or disability.

This content was published on August 12, 2002 - 21:09

Most of the infrastructure at the four exhibition sites was designed with the handicapped in mind.

About one in ten people in Switzerland is physically or mentally handicapped, and organisations representing them have set up a special committee - handicap.02 - to ensure that their needs are catered for at Expo.02.

A special Expo guide for the disabled is available to make getting about easier and hundreds of volunteers have also offered to accompany those who need assistance to visit the exhibition.

A day in the life

So has all the effort paid off? Dale Bechtel spent a day with a paraplegic - 28-year-old Sandra Kalt - on her first visit to Expo.02.

Even though Sandra is in a wheelchair, she is independent. She drives a modified car equipped with a hand accelerator and brake and as she proved at the two Expo sites we visited - in the towns of Murten and Biel - she is quite adept at getting around in her sporty wheelchair without assistance.

Our day began at a car park outside Murten, where Sandra was directed to a parking space reserved for the disabled. The space was big enough to allow her to open her car door and remove and assemble her wheelchair.

From the car park, a ramp took us up some steps to the Expo bus stop, and the bus itself was equipped with a wheelchair ramp. For the blind, a loud beeping noise let people know when the doors opened and closed.

On the Expo grounds in both Murten and Biel, there were ramps or lifts to enable Sandra to get into the various exhibitions or onto the boats. Friendly staff always seemed to be at hand to lend her assistance, and where the paths were made of gravel instead of asphalt, the surface was smooth enough to allow her to wheel across it without having to be pushed.

No waiting

When it comes to queues, the disabled have preference and are allowed to go to front of the line. At many of the exhibitions, this meant avoiding waits of up to 90 minutes. Sandra said the reception given to her at Expo and the ease of accessibility to the pavilions was unusual for Switzerland.

"It's rarely possible to go to an exhibition or concert," she said, since there are too many barriers to overcome. She added that it was not uncommon to be turned away at cinemas in Switzerland, because the management does not know how to deal with people confined to wheelchairs.

The visit to Expo.02 reminded her of her holidays in the United States, where wheelchair accessibility is taken for granted. "I remember going to Disneyland and being able to go on all the rides, but that's rarely the case in Europe."

Pushed to limits

Sandra was also impressed with the fact that Expo is trying to highlight the problems faced by Switzerland's large community of disabled people. In Biel, the exhibition "Experiencing Frontiers" exposes visitors to the stories of people pushed to their physical or psychological limits.

In Murten, the Blindekuh (Blind Man's Bluff) pavilion has proved one of Expo's most popular attractions. The blind lead other visitors through a series of pitch-black corridors and rooms, and into a bar run by blind barkeepers.

It is easy to become claustrophobic, and to spill drinks which can't be seen. It was even a greater challenge for Sandra who, in the pitch dark and confined to a wheelchair, couldn't rely on her feet to feel her way across the floor.

She turned her wheelchair into an advantage, though, while viewing a panoramic slide show inside the "Monolith" structure which floats on Lake Murten. Her chair allowed her to pivot 360 degrees to catch all of the images flashing by on the screen while the able bodied visitors had to crane their necks.

"It's a little like flying," she said.

by Dale Bechtel

Disabled Expo

Parking is reserved for disabled visitors.
Buses and exhibitions have ramps or lifts to provide wheelchair access.
Disabled are given preferential treatment and do not have to queue.
Some pavilions at Expo focus on problems faced by the disabled.

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Expo disabled brief

swissinfo's travel editor, Dale Bechtel, accompanied a paraplegic woman, Sandra Kalt, to Expo.02, to see whether the national exhibition has lived up to its pledge of being accessible to the disabled. Sandra was impressed, saying the good reception and the facilities were unusual for Switzerland. She also praised Expo for its efforts to highlight the problems faced by Switzerland's large disabled community - one in ten people is handicapped.

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