Tearing down barriers one tour at a time

People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the Czech Republic. They also make up the largest minority group in the United States, but despite this similarity, the traveler with disabilities who chooses to visit the Czech Republic will face unique challenges. In the 25 years since the fall of Communism, the Czech Republic has enacted limited disability rights laws. The Technical Requirements for Persons with Limited Motion and Orientation Ordinance No.174 passed in 1994 requires public places to provide entrance and services to people with disabilities, but it only covers structures built post-1994, leaving many buildings inaccessible to some.

An initial observation of metro stations and bumpy cobblestone streets of the Czech Republic’s capital city of Prague indicated that the city likely poses challenges to those with physical disabilities. This is an issue that Prague native Lea Skanerova wanted to resolve, so in 2007 she founded Accessible Prague. Skanerova says she was excited to create an agency that offered tourists with disabilities the opportunity to encounter and fully experience Prague. After living in England and working at a similar agency, Skanerova says she was inspired to bring what she learned back to her hometown of Prague. She was particularly motivated by one of her clients who received flyers each year from different agencies across the world advertising their tours. “In those days, Prague was not really accessible,” Skanerova says.

Now Skanerova employs about 15 freelance guides who have been licensed by Prague Information Services. Skanerova and her guides personally greet guests at the airport and transport them to their accessible hotels. Accessible Prague offers an array of tours, ranging from historical landmarks to river cruises.

Skanerova says that the tours are based on the visitors’ interests and what they want to see, which affects the length of each tour. Skanerova tries to match guides and groups based on their interests and backgrounds. For example, if a group has a Jewish background, she will place them with a guide who also has a similar background and will be able to give them a more in-depth tour of the Jewish Quarter.

Tours also depend on where her clients are staying. Skanerova helps groups book their stays in accessible hotels that are in a central location to make inter-city travel simpler. She also invested in six scooters and one adapted van that can be used on tours. The agency’s cooperative relationships with companies such as Sociata and Vozimevozickare, also help transport clients around the city. The agency uses some public transportation because of the growing accessibility of the trams, buses and metro stations. “This year they are going to open a few more accessible stations,” Skanerova says. “There is a plan that by 2020 or 2025 all public transportation will be accessible.” Public transportation vehicles have markers to indicate their levels of accessibility, including lifts, inclines, elevators and wheelchair sections.

Accessible Prague

On tours, the guides take their clients to popular attractions, including Prague Castle, Charles Bridge and Old Town Square, which are crowd favorites, Skanerova says. Tours begin at Pohorelac, leading to the palace, St. Vitus Cathedral, Basilika of St. George and Golden Lane. Each of these attractions is wheelchair accessible, with lifts and inclines at the entrances. The guides then drive their charges in an adapted van to the Old Royal Garden.

Many groups choose to visit Lesser Town. Here they find accessible attractions such as Kampa Island and the John Lennon Wall. The groups cross Charles Bridge to the Old Town Square. According to Skanerova, Old Town Square is popular among tourists but is not easily accessible because it is often packed with locals, tourists, musicians and food stands. Skanerova adds that the St. James Church in Old Town is a great, accessible destination. Another popular destination for groups is the Jewish Quarter, though only the synagogues and a fraction of the cemetery are accessible.

Scootable Prague

Skanerova launched another branch of Accessible Prague in 2011 called Scootable Prague, which caters to people with physical disabilities and limited mobility, including those who have trouble walking long distances, particularly on the hilly, unsteady streets of Prague. People can rent reliable scooters for the duration of their trip. The agency maps out tours that are best accessible to groups with a scooter. These tours include Best of Prague, Old Town, Jewish Town, New Town, Christmas and many other individually tailored tours. Each of these tours can be directed toward certain topics, such as the history of Prague or the road to democracy. The Christmas tour is especially magical, as advertised on the Scootable Prague website. Skanerova recommends taking the tour in the afternoon or at night, when all of the lights are twinkling, to get the full experience. Guests are also able to learn about common Czech Christmas traditions.

Touchable Prague

In 2013, Skanerova expanded her agency again by offering services to people who are visually impaired through a program called Touchable Prague. The year before she brought the program to the public, she trained her guides to work with and give appropriate tours to the blind. People with visual impairments can still appreciate Prague, but they do so in a different way than others who are able to  see the city around them. To train for these tours, the guides led one another around the city while wearing blindfolds. They guided each other through public transportation and up to monuments and tourist attractions that they could touch to learn about using alternate senses. “The guides especially enjoy working with blind people because it is a different experience,” Skanerova says.

Touchable Prague offers the half-day walking tours of Old Town, Lesser Town and the Castle area, as well as tours of Museum of the City of Prague, Convent of St. Agnes and Schwarzenberg Palace. The agency can also customize individual tours for the visually impaired.

Future tour plans

Some of the Accessible Prague guides lead up to six tours a week, often including two half-day tours a day, but Accessible Prague also offers tours outside the city so clients may visit other regions of the Czech Republic. A trip to Pilsen is a great choice for beer lovers while Kutna Hora offers an escape to the Czech countryside. Groups can also visit the Terezin Memorial to learn about World War II and Jewish history during the Holocaust.

Skanerova is gratified that she has been able to make her hometown accessible to people from around the world. She breaks down physical and language barriers by offering her tours in multiple languages, allowing access to Prague to tourists who could not experience it otherwise. She says she is proud that she and her guides know the most accessible routes throughout Prague. She wants to make the tours the best for people with disabilities, “because this is their lifetime experience to be in Prague,” Skanerova says.

Groups are able to book their trip, reserve scooters, choose a tour, and select a language directly on the website before beginning their journey to Prague. If you or someone you know has a disability and are interested in touring Prague, barriers free, visit Skanerova’s website or find the agency on Trip Advisor.