From Iceland — You Can't Always Go Downtown

You Can’t Always Go Downtown

Published August 16, 2012

You Can’t Always Go Downtown
Photo by
Alísa Kalyanova

Sun peers through the large windows at Hressó on Andri Valgeirsson, shining on his transition lenses and heavy 5 o’clock shadow. He sometimes comes to Hressó when he’s in 101 Reykjavík, but most of the time you won’t see his dark navy Pumas around the downtown area.

That’s because Andri uses a wheelchair. He was born with arthrogryposis, an uncommon disorder that can affect joints, limit range of motion and cause muscle weakness. Andri, who’s now 27 years old, has been in a wheelchair since around the time of his 16th birthday after undergoing a failed surgery to correct the angle of his legs.
For many in his position, the shops and restaurants in downtown Reykjavík are simply out of bounds. The steps, curbs and cobblestones that line the cafés and stores on Laugavegur and near Alþingi cause constant frustration for wheelchair users. So they mostly just stay away.

In many ways the wheelchair, as well as ramps, lifts and accessible parking spaces, has become symbolic of both disability and accessibility issues. But it should be noted that accessibility covers a wide range of impairment related issues, like blindness, deafness, and mental, physical, intellectual or developmental impairments. About 10% of Iceland’s population has physical disabilities, according to the Association of Disabled Icelanders.

“The thing that annoys me the most is that at some places, it would be so easy to fix the problem,” Andri says. “You don’t need to go to a metal factory and get some schematics.”

Later, as he’s wheeling his motor-powered wheelchair up the hill where Bankastræti turns into Laugavegur, he concedes that not all of the businesses are ignorant to the wheelchair-using population. “Like this, this is so simple,” he says, nodding at the small metal ramp in front of Aurum, a jewellery and design store. The ramp is at an angle for wheelchairs easily to come in the front door, protruding onto the sidewalk no more than a metre.

For people with significant mobility impairments in Iceland, many places are difficult to access without assistance. “That’s the hardest part,” he says, “always relying on somebody else to get me somewhere.” This, Andri says, leads many wheelchair users simply to go to one of the malls, Kringlan or Smáralind, rather than spend money downtown.

Yes, The Wheelchair Is Fucking Heavy

Andri works as a tech advisor for Þekkingarmiðstöð Sjálfsbjargar, which is the information centre for Sjálfsbjörg (“Self Help”), the National Association for Disabled People in Iceland. The organisation has youth services and also rents accessible apartments to wheelchair-using travellers.

He’s been a part of Sjálfsbjörg’s outreach groups since he was 12 and says that he is still friends with many of the kids he met there. “We did things that people said we couldn’t do,” he says. “We went jet-skiing, went up to some of the glaciers, and went to other countries.”

He admits that sometimes they’d just stay in and play cards, but the adventurous habits he formed there must have made an impression on Andri, as he later reveals that he’d just been riding in a helicopter around Mt. Esja before meeting us at Hressó.

Going out with friends from Sjálfsbjörg is still a challenge, though. “When I got to the age where I could go clubbing, first of all I didn’t drink so I didn’t go very often. When I did, I just talked to the bouncers or people who work there and they help you up.”

“That was the hardest part, always relying on somebody else to get me somewhere,” he says. “Sometimes I just didn’t want to go because it was just so much trouble going up the stairs, so I wouldn’t go unless there was a band worth seeing.”

It’s easy for Andri to go to Hressó, which has two ramps in front. But if he wants to see a band at Faktorý, he has to get creative. “We carry him up, then we carry the chair up,” says Egill Kaktuz Þorkelsson Wild, a friend of Andri’s since 2001. “The chair is fucking heavy.”

Egill and Andri met at a hardcore show at Hitt Húsið a few years back, but their friendship is more than that. Two years ago, the Icelandic government began to further expand a programme of direct payments, allowing people who require personal assistants to manage their own services.

“Andri is my friend and he advertised on Facebook for an assistant and I said, ‘cut the crap, I’m being your assistant,'” Egill says with an inkling of a smirk. “If I hang out with him, which I do, why not hang out with him and get paid for it?”

Wheelchairs Users Bitten By Toothless Laws

Roughshod regulations have enabled the uneven accessibility conditions in Iceland. While building codes passed by Parliament in 2012 strengthen accessibility rules for new construction projects, a history of vague laws and tepid enforcement has left many wheelchair users shut out from entering businesses downtown.

“We will always have a problem with old buildings. The law wasn’t detailed, so it was easy to get around,” says Harpa Cilia Ingólfsdóttir, who runs the private firm Aðgengi (“Access Iceland”), which rates building accessibility in the capital area and around the country.

The City of Reykjavík often calls in Harpa to check the drawings for new city building projects and private enterprises—but work is slower, she says, with lagging construction and a government that has not prioritized accessibility.

Both disability advocates and government officials say today’s wheelchair users in Reykjavík are drinking the backwash of decades of accessibility ignorance. Iceland’s key disabilities laws, like the 1992 Act on the Affairs of Disabled People and city-enforced building regulations, have not outlined punishable offences for inaccessible businesses, says Helga Baldvins-og Bjargardóttir, a researcher at the University of Iceland’s Centre for Disability Studies.

“The law doesn’t really specify what to do and who’s responsible. There are no consequences. Politicians are very slow to make it their demand,” she says. “They’re very slow to make businesses pay damages. They have to have some kind of incentive because businesses are not going to make extra work for themselves out of goodwill.”

Iceland’s Minister of Welfare Guðbjartur Hannesson too admits that Iceland is still behind the curve, but he is quick to hype the country’s renewed commitment to disability issues, pointing to the stricter 2012 building regulations, a strategic plan for disability issues being drawn up in Parliament, and proposed ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“Some important progress has been made in laws and regulations. However, there is a long way to go in these matters before we can talk about real equality and same living conditions for disabled people,” Guðbjartur says.

We Found Laws In A Hopeless Place

The landscape is shifting though. This year, Parliament overhauled the rules that guide building construction—ones that spell out the need for elevators, the width of doorways and the height of toilets, for example. Starting next year, if new buildings lack accessibility, it’s considered discrimination. Blueprints for any building under construction must get the seal of approval from local building regulators abiding by stricter rules.

For wheelchair users, the timing is perfect. As Iceland recovers from an economic collapse that wiped out its construction industry, city development is returning to downtown Reykjavík, which means owners of new buildings now will have no choice but to ensure accessibility. With proposed renovation projects in the Kvosin district, bulldozers will soon be a frequent sight downtown—stacking up floors that now must be reachable by elevators and putting up doors that legally must have electric openers.

Björn Karlsson, director of the Iceland Construction Authority, a government agency formed in early 2011, says the law gives the strongest push yet for architects to design buildings with universal access. “The local building controllers don’t want to break the law and they will most definitely try to make sure all designs handed in adhere to the law,” he says. “We will be following this, and there are special interest groups who keep a watchful eye on us.”
But the law is not quite a cure-all for Icelanders with disabilities. Any building constructed before January 2012 is exempt from these stronger guidelines, so the restaurants with basement bathrooms or banks without ramps do not need to bring their access up to par.

The culprit? Costs.

Björn says it’s tough to pin a price tag on accessibility upgrades for old buildings, adding, “It would be extraordinarily expensive for society if we tried to enforce this on all existing buildings. And that’s usually not done. It’s very, very seldom that you make new laws and you enforce them backwards.”

Andri’s All-Access Pass

When access has been taken into consideration, Andri says it makes all the difference. He estimates that 60% to 70% of Reykjavík is inaccessible to him, and he and other disabled Icelanders keep trying to put pressure on both government officials and business owners to make changes downtown.

“I’m hoping that they will change most places. I try to be optimistic. It’s not fun not being able to do stuff,” Andri says.

Growing up, Andri’s school and suburb, Grafarvogur, were relatively more accessible than many parts of downtown. The suburb was new at the time, and the school had an elevator. But going out with friends was a different story. Ferðaþjónusta Fatlaðra (“Transport Services for Disabled People”), requires wheelchair users to call in advance (same-day travel has to be three hours in advance and costs extra), so if someone asked Andri to go to a movie one night, he’d have to pass unless somebody else could drive, which was often a long-shot.

But isn’t that what public transportation is for? It turns out that the Strætó bus system is also something of a sore point. “Strætó says now that they’re accessible but that’s bullshit,” Andri says.

Sólveig Ásgeirsdóttir, a customer relations representative at Strætó, says that while the fleet of around 80 buses doesn’t have ramps or stairs, it’s not really a problem. “When the bus stops, it goes down to the side where people walk in,” she says. “So it shouldn’t be any problem.” If the bus is too far from the curb, or if the sidewalk is too low, that’s when a bus driver (or other passengers) may have to step in and help, she says.

Iceland Versus The World: Behind The Curve

But where does Iceland stand in comparison to other countries? It is definitely not the worst, but not nearly the best, says Eric Lipp, executive director of the Chicago-based Open Doors Organization.

The organisation earned international attention a decade ago when it released a report that detailed the travel preferences of disabled people. Through this nonprofit, Eric focuses on improving accessibility in the travel industry and has for instance consulted for the airline Iceland Express about access.

He has seen countries rebound from accessibility woes. And Iceland could be next in line, he says, if it gets its priorities straight.

He says he marvels at the modern design for buildings in Japan and Sweden, which make those countries near havens for people who use wheelchairs. “Accessibility is just woven into the fabric of the culture so that design becomes smarter,” he says. In the legal scheme, the U.S.’s Americans With Disabilities Act has been widely heralded as one of the world’s toughest for 22 years. Federal officials even sued New York’s famous Metropolitan Opera last year for failing to comply with the law.

But people in Iceland, Eric says, “lack urgency” to make strides with accessibility. “I sat with people and trained them and told them stories about me and my family. The people seem willing. The Icelandic people aren’t against access at all, but if there isn’t the right government movement there, it’s going to be harder to get things done,” he says.

Eric says he still recommends that disabled travellers visit Iceland for its landscapes and friendly citizens. But the trip will not be easy, he cautions. “The hotels and whatnot aren’t required to do so much, so without regulation, they don’t. If someone took the horse to the water, I think they’d drink,” he says.

For this reason, Eric has hope that Iceland can remake itself, and appeal to more disabled visitors and citizens. He says cities like Rio de Janeiro, which has used its booming economy to land a future World Cup, Olympics and Paralympics, has doubled down on opening up access for wheelchair users as the city has developed.

Reykjavík, too, will see more city development after the crash, an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted, Eric says. “I think that if you build it now, people will come. As you rebuild, focus on building with inclusion in mind,” he says. “It’s cheaper than they would expect. The important thing is that the private sector takes the initiative, not necessarily the government.”

We Really Don’t Like People Who Don’t Make Fun Of Disabled People

While Andri waits for full access, he might as well laugh at the situation. Probably the last thing Andri would want someone to think about him is that he’s all business, trying to send anyone who can use two legs on a guilt trip. Quite the opposite. When Andri isn’t working at Þekkingarmiðstöð Sjálfsbjargar, he devotes his time to a comedy sketch group with a wheelchair twist called Öryrki ( “legally disabled”).

For more than five years, Andri and his peers have been using YouTube and Facebook as a means to challenge stereotypes about wheelchair users through Öryrki. “People always see disabled people in the paper whining,” he says. “We wanted to change that image so we went and made fun of ourselves and did these ridiculous things.”

Among the catalogue of “ridiculous things” Öryrki has done is make a Facebook page that, like pages advocating leash laws for dogs, discourages the presence of people in wheelchairs in public.

“We made statuses like, ‘Oh, I saw a wheelchair guy in the mall today. That really offended me,'” he says. In response to that one, someone messaged them saying they knew somebody in a wheelchair and the status offended them. “We sent them one line that said, ‘Have you ever been bitten by a guy in a wheelchair? Then you don’t know how it feels,’” he says.

The group’s website includes videos from its YouTube account: comedy sketches á la SNL, but with wheelchairs. In one such video, a man haggles with someone for his wheelchair. Eventually they settle, with the guy who walked there wheeling away and telling the man to send him the bill. “Of course,” the man on the ground says.
Another sketch is Santa Claus in a wheelchair, unable to spread the Christmas joy as the snow and ice-laden streets render his wheelchair nearly useless.

“We tried to make the videos black humour,” he says. “Some people don’t like that.
There was a rumour when we started that we weren’t disabled. They never thought that disabled people would make fun of themselves.”

Öryrki: The Only Normal People Around

Öryrki formed as a group in 2004, making a zine to go with Sjálfsbjörg’s twice-annually produced newsletter. In 2006, the nonprofit group began producing its shock-jock videos. Andri says the point was to make society disabled, making disabled people “the only normal people around.”

Naturally, some people got pissed, mostly because they doubted the veracity of the group’s disabled status. “But people really liked our sketches in general,” Andri says. “They’re allowed to laugh at the disabled person for a change and that is exactly what we wanted, not to be afraid to ‘treat us normally.’”

The year 2010 brought some change to Öryrki, which is funded by sponsors and charities. The group formed a radio station known as Ö-FM 106.5 that broadcasted mostly alt-rock or older music over the greater Reykjavík metropolitan area during the summer. Andri says not only was the radio station an enjoyable change in pace to the deadline-oriented video effort, but it also brought opportunities for amateur DJs. “We just split up the day,” he says. “We broadcasted from 09:00-17:00, and after that we allowed people that applied for a show to try it out and if we liked it, they could stay on.”

Öryrki has been involved with many other awareness campaigns, including concerts, arts shows, and even on national TV when a national organization for paraplegics raised funds to repair their house, Stöð 2 (“Channel 2”). These days, you can see what the folks behind Öryrki are up to be visiting the website or YouTube page.

Orri Snær Karlsson is a 23-year-old illustration graduate from
Myndlistaskólinn í Reykjavík. He’s gloriously unemployed, but if you
have a job opening, please find him. He spends most of his free time
reading and drawing, which he says is pretty much the only thing he’s
ever wanted to do. He’s been a part of Öryrki since 2007.

Film: The Intouchables Rise Up
Tens of thousands of Icelanders are getting a closer look this summer at life as a wheelchair user—on the big screen, that is. The most popular foreign, non-English movie in Iceland’s history is now ‘The Intouchables,’ a French film about a rich, white man paralyzed from the neck down who bonds with his poor black caretaker.

Nearly 45,000 people in Iceland have seen the movie since it opened here on June 15, a pop culture breakthrough that may give more visibility to the country’s disabled community.

The movie builds on momentum it gathered in France, breaking several box office records there before moving onto to more restrained responses in other countries. Some U.S. critics have called the plot cliché, even racist, but Icelandic crowds keep going back to the movie.

“This film comes out of nowhere. We definitely did not foresee this happening,” says Ísleifur B. Þórhallsson, who runs the film’s distribution company Green Light (“Græna ljósið”).

“The story connects with people,” he says. “It’s as simple as it can get, and I think when the summer is completely crowded with Hollywood blockbusters and superhero movies, people want something else. People are recommending this film to friends and families.”

In Reykjavík, the movie theatres Háskólabíó and Laugarásbíó are screening the film, serving up a tinge of irony for a film that stars a wheelchair user, says Helga Baldvins-og Bjargardóttir, a researcher at the University of Iceland’s Centre for Disability Studies.

“It’s only been shown in the least accessible movie theatres in Iceland,” she says.

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