How wheelchair-friendly is Amsterdam? An Interview with Josephine from Able Amsterdam5 min read

After finishing a six-month internship in Cambodia, Josephine Rees was getting ready to return to university for a master’s programme in the Netherlands. She knew that if she wanted to go back and reconnect with her friends and colleagues in Cambodia one more time, this was the time to do it. So, she did; Josephine packed her bags and headed back to Cambodia for a few weeks of travel. But on the sixth day of her trip, she was hit by a car.

Josephine was riding on the back of a friend’s scooter when they were hit by speeding taxi on May 12, 2017. Because both of them were wearing helmets, they survived the hit-and-run. But that one moment would radically change Josephine’s everyday life, as well as her plans for the foreseeable future. A few weeks ago, I sat down with Josephine for an interview. I was fascinated to hear her story and find out how this accident eventually led her to founding Able Amsterdam, a pioneering platform in English that promotes awesome wheelchair-friendly places in Amsterdam.

Interview with Josephine Rees about accessibility in Amsterdam

Q1: What is the story behind Able Amsterdam and where did it all start?

Josephine: “My accident involved a direct hit. The impact of the car severely shattered my right leg, and caused numerous other life-threatening injuries. I spent three weeks in intensive care in Cambodia and Thailand. Eventually, I was repatriated back to the Netherlands, where I have been recovering ever since. I am still re-learning how to walk and rely on various mobility aids.

Before my accident, I was quite oblivious to the daily struggle faced by people with mobility issues. Walking around Amsterdam, I didn’t stop to think how accessible a restaurant, a museum or a street was. Because of my disability, I now experience Amsterdam in a different light – always paying attention to ramps, lifts, smoothly paved streets, and all sorts of things that make a place more wheelchair-friendly. If I didn’t get into the accident and didn’t personally experience reduced mobility, I would have never started Able Amsterdam.

It’s difficult to notice accessibility issues if they aren’t something you struggle with yourself. If I didn’t get into the accident and didn’t personally experience reduced mobility, I would have never started Able Amsterdam.

Over the past year and a half, I spent a lot of time recovering in bed and in a wheelchair. Two months ago, after regaining some independence thanks to my crutches and rollator, I was able to move to Amsterdam. I’ve always loved the city and was extremely excited to explore as much of it as I could. The architecture and layout of Amsterdam are rich with history, like old buildings, traditional stairway entrances and cobble-stoned streets. While these elements look beautiful, they make Amsterdam a challenging place for anyone struggling to walk. Whether you use a wheelchair, crutches, or a rollator, it can be a real struggle to explore the city and maintain your independence.”

Finding out if a place is accessible or not

“I quickly realised I wanted to research which places were inclusive and adapted for people with reduced mobility. After all, everyone living in or visiting Amsterdam should be able to enjoy what this city has to offer. With that in mind, I took out my phone and started a list of accessible places. I can’t walk up or down stairs, so places with a lot of steps and no lifts are a problem. Disabled toilets can be hard to come by. Some restaurants only have bar seats, which are often too high and uncomfortable. Heavy doors and thresholds are also major limitations, which prevent me from being able to enter a place at all.

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I did some research to explore which accessibility databases were already out there. While there ARE a lot of resources about Amsterdam in Dutch – websites, social media accounts, and apps – I often found them to be incomplete or lacking in personal insight. Restaurants could be listed as ‘accessible’, but then fail to have a wheelchair-accessible toilet. In many cases, it just wasn’t clear what the term ‘accessible’ really covered. That’s why I made my own list. After a month or so, I thought to myself: ‘Why am I keeping this list to myself? Why not share it with others?’. And so, Able Amsterdam was born.”

Q2: What is different about a platform like Able Amsterdam?

“Existing platforms on Amsterdam’s accessibility are usually only in Dutch. This means they can’t be used by tourists or expats living in the Netherlands who don’t speak the language. Many resources lack personal insight and specific information on how the accessibility of a place is defined. Most of all, I felt that existing resources lacked the perspective of a young adult. But why? It’s not like teenagers and young adults aren’t reliant on mobility aids. With just one quick trip on the metro from Amsterdam Central Station last week, I saw four 20-somethings in wheelchairs and on crutches. Just like anyone their age, these young people might enjoy going to bars, clubs, gyms, concert venues and other places. I want Able Amsterdam to be conscious a wider spectrum of ages.

Remember too, that reduced mobility can affect pretty much anyone. People fall off their bicycles, people hurt themselves playing football, people slip on ice; the list is endless. It doesn’t matter whether your mobility is reduced for six weeks, six months, or a lifetime. Believe me, you’ll want to keep your life exciting and know which places to visit! With all of this in mind, I want Able Amsterdam to be an empowering social media platform that brings all of these factors and people together.”

Q3: So apart from mapping the accessible places in this city, Able Amsterdam also aims to change ideas about disability and mobility?

“In essence, Able Amsterdam is about empowerment. From personal experience, I know that reduced mobility means you are confronted on a daily basis by limitations of inaccessible environments. You might want to go and work out in a gym, but you can’t because there’s only a staircase leading down to the fitness equipment. You might want try that new Japanese restaurant in town, but you can’t because there’s no way of accessing the toilets in a wheelchair. The lack of accessibility takes away any agency for individual decision making. By reviewing great accessible places in Amsterdam, I want to allow readers to decide for themselves what they can and cannot do.

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Aside from this, I strongly feel that disability and reduced mobility does not define you as a person. You still have hobbies, you still have talents, and you still have ambitions. You are still a capable human being; an adventurous and a curious explorer. By creating Able Amsterdam I hope to encourage anyone with reduced mobility to explore the city, to find exciting things to do within their capabilities, and to see that Amsterdam has so much to offer for everyone.”

My accident was difficult and life-changing. It was completely beyond my control. For me, Able Amsterdam is a way to take back control of the situation and turn it into something positive and helpful for others. It’s about agency, which everybody should have. It’s about empowerment. I want this to reach the people that need it most.

Turning negativity into positivity

“Able Amsterdam is all based on personal experience. It has grown out of a lot of emotion and struggle. I flip all of this negativity upside down and turn it into something positive. My accident was difficult and life-changing. It was completely beyond my control. For me, Able Amsterdam is a way to take back control of the situation and turn it into something positive and helpful for others. It’s about agency, which everybody should have. It’s about empowerment. I want this to reach the people that need it most.”

An interview with the founder of Able Amsterdam about wheelchair-friendly places in the city.

Q4: What are your plans for the future?

“Able Amsterdam is currently on Instagram and Facebook and a website is in the works. I’m going to feature more and more places. Restaurants, bars, (night)clubs, cinemas, museums, libraries, gyms and all kinds of shops. Able Amsterdam is still a young platform, so I’m reaching out to as many places I can possibly think of. Places that set a positive, accessible example for other establishments to follow. I try to offer advice when possible, if I see there is room for improvement in an establishment. I’m eager to collaborate, connect and work together with others in the field to make a widespread positive impact in Amsterdam. I’m passionate, because it’s about my life. It’s me.”

Want to get involved with Able Amsterdam?

Are you thinking about contributing to Able Amsterdam or collaborating with Josephine? Contact her through her Instagram page or send her an email at able.amsterdam@gmail.com. You can always DM her or email for inquiries and tips.

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