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Paralympics set to leave lasting impression on London (+video)

The Paralympic Games have proved remarkably successful, not just in tickets sold and prominent media coverage, but in making London into a city more accessible to disabled people.

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“They've been talking about disability in the most down-to-earth and natural way,” wrote Ms. Morgan, the sports anchor, who has been covering the Paralympic Games herself for Channel 4. “I know that they didn't want to hide from anything; they wanted to be as blunt and honest as they could.”

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Whether those open discussions and good feelings will continue after the Paralympics comes to a close remains to be seen. But there’s one impact of the Games that will certainly endure well after all of the athletes have left town: the myriad infrastructure changes that have made the British capital a city more friendly to disabled people.

“There have been numerous changes right across London,” says Margaret Hickish, an accessibility consultant who has been working since 2005 to help the city prepare for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

All of the city’s buses and black taxicabs are now fully accessible to people in wheelchairs, and 66 of London’s 270 Tube stations have been made step-free. The government invested £4 million ($6.4 million) in overhauling the South Bank, a popular tourist destination, to make it more accessible to disabled visitors. And Heathrow Airport has undergone extensive renovations in preparation for the arrival of the Paralympic athletes.

Ms. Hickish, who uses a wheelchair herself, says that improving accessibility in a centuries-old city like London has not been easy; things like cobblestones can be particularly challenging. But, she adds, she has witnessed remarkable attitude changes in the people she has worked with over the last seven years.

“People who you wouldn’t expect to normally have noticed accessibility suddenly have – and they’re thinking about what they can do to make things better,” she says. The designers, architects, and planners she has worked with are “more willing to make changes” and are “being far more positive” about wheelchair-friendly designs than they were before the Games came to town, she says.

Of course the centerpiece of London’s infrastructure changes has been the Olympic Park itself, which was designed with accessibility in mind from the outset. And thanks to the London Legacy Development Corporation, disabled people will be able to take advantage of the space for many years to come: The park will play host to an annual disability sports festival beginning in October 2013.

But for this last weekend of Paralympics competition, athletes and spectators are taking full advantage of the warm weather and sunny skies that have graced London over the last week. Hickish says she has visited the park almost every day since the Paralympics kicked off Aug. 30.

“It’s fabulous to see so many disabled people just being out and enjoying the open air,” she says. 

“Having the confidence to know that you can go out and you can enjoy an area without feeling as though you’re going to have some sort of hiccup – it’s just incredible,” she adds. “The sense of freedom is really hard to describe.”

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