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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 September, 2004, 02:12 GMT 03:12 UK
Disabled visitors get freedom of Alcatraz
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

The infamous Alcatraz prison - on an island in the bay of San Francisco - has been made accessible to disabled tourists.

Photo of Alcatraz island
Alcatraz is now a fully accessible tourist destination
From boarding the ferry at Pier 39 to arriving at the cellblock on the island's summit, anyone with a mobility impairment can enjoy a totally step free experience.

"It's a very difficult environment because it's very steep and the buildings are so old," access consultant, Richard Skaff, told BBC News Online.

Mr Skaff assembled a group of experts and together they set about persuading the National Parks Office, which owns Alcatraz, to start removing physical barriers.

"Some architectural historians said we couldn't remove a step at the entrance," he remembers.

"We persuaded them that we could do it, and in the end they gave in. We now have an accessible front entrance to the famous cellblock where the Birdman of Alcatraz was incarcerated, and it's a very exciting experience."


But the first obstacle to be overcome was how to get people over to the island.

Accessible Alcatraz

"The problem was to design gangway structures that could deal with the tidal fluctuations that we experience here in San Francisco bay," said Kevin Jensen who was the accessibility coordinator for the port at the time of the alterations.

Like Mr Skaff, he recalls that several objections had to be overcome in order to press ahead with the work.

"There's always the attitude that it can't be done, that it's not feasible, that it costs too much, that we don't know how to do it, that's it's going to be too unsafe for people with disabilities."

"Once you start talking to people they realise that their preconceptions are just that, and that it's time to get down to sorting out the problem."

Because the walk from the dock up to the cellblock is so steep, a solution had to be found to transport people with mobility impairments.

"We used a tram that had been ferrying disabled athletes around during the Paralympics in Atlanta," said Mr Skaff.

The 'tram' is pulled by an electric tractor - the type normally used to push jumbo jets back from the stand at airports.

It is equipped with a ramp and places are allocated on a needs basis.

Wheelchair users

When it comes to making the Alcatraz experience accessible, Mr Skaff is keen to stress that people with all types of disabilities are catered for, not just wheelchair users.

"There are people with sensory disabilities, cognitive disabilities and other types of impairments that one might not think about," he said.

"Civil rights belong to everybody, not just those of us who use wheelchairs, so that means that we have sign language interpreters, staff trained to interact with people with cognitive disabilities and people trained to guide blind visitors."

"The hardest disabilities to deal with are those that are less visible."

The National Parks Office is now planning to give visitors a similar experience to that meted out to prisoners when they first arrived on the island.

Their journey will take them from the quayside right up to the hilltop cellblock. And here again, the entire process will be fully accessible.

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