How Electric Wheelchair and Scooter Restrictions at Museums Affect Disabled Visitors

On September 6, 2019, I had just returned to Amsterdam from a fully accessible river cruise on the Rhine River in Germany. I had several hours to explore a few more sites, so after visiting the Royal Palace, I rolled over to the Amsterdam Museum to learn more about the city. The entrance was accessible, so I rolled up the ramp and approached the counter to buy my ticket. That’s when I was informed that the museum prohibits all electric wheelchairs and scooters, and I would have to transfer into a manual wheelchair if I wanted to see the exhibits. I was frustrated and angry, but not surprised, as this has happened to me at other museums in Europe. This is how these policies negatively impact both potential visitors and the museums that create them.

In April 2017, this happened to me for the first time also in Amsterdam, but at the huge Rijksmuseum. At the time, they did allow power wheelchairs, but just not electric scooters. I had the option to transfer into one of their manual wheelchairs, but the museum is huge, and I don’t have the upper body strength to wheel myself around in a manual chair since I travel alone. The Rijksmuseum did not offer an explanation for the scooter ban (which it has since lifted). Instead, I went next door to visit the Van Gogh Museum, where I had no trouble at all getting admitted.

Taken just prior to my visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

In April 2018, I was visiting Lisbon, Portugal, and I went with my guide to see the Queluz National Palace. after my guide went to get my ticket, he said they told him I would have to transfer from my electric scooter to their manual chair. I asked him to please get an explanation, and all they could tell him is that they didn’t want the wheels of my scooter damaging the rugs inside the palace. After I visited the palace, I realized that there was not a single rug anywhere on the floor where visitors are allowed to go, only parquet wood floors.

However, by far the most bizarre explanation for such a wheelchair and scooter ban has come from the management at the Amsterdam Museum. After posing posting about my negative experience on Facebook, this is the response I received:

We’re very sorry to hear about your experience. In order to provide access to people in electric wheelchairs, we offer the possibility of borrowing a manually operated wheelchair, and an accompanying person can come along free of charge. 

The reason we cannot allow electric wheelchairs is due to the construction of our historic building. The floors of the Amsterdam Museum are not designed for the weight of electric wheelchairs and that is what the policy is based on. Making exceptions creates confusion for other visitors and for the security and floor management staff. 

We realize that the policy of not allowing electric wheelchairs leads to undesirable situations such as yours, but the risk to your safety and that of other visitors, and the collection, has been found to be too great. 

An exception would also mean an adjustment in the liability and the laying down of risks. To quote our head of management of buildings and facilities: “Natural laws and construction calculations are precise data that must be used rigorously from the point of view of limiting risks and establishing liability”.

More information and future updates regarding our policy can be found on this page: 
https://www.amsterdammuseum.nl/…/plan-your-vi…/accessibility

We’re working on improving the situation for electric weelchairs and accessibilty in general. Please send us a direct message so that we can hear out your story completely and take your recommendations for the future.

Taken outside the Van Gogh Museum, which I visited in April 2017

There are a couple of things I should point out before taking apart this response. First, I almost always travel alone, so I do not have an assistant or anyone who can push me in a manual wheelchair. Second, I have multiple sclerosis, which means that I’m subject to fatigue if I work my body too hard. I do not have the upper body strength to propel myself in a manual chair for long periods of time, and certainly not up any ramps. Third, I weigh 115 pounds, or 51 kg, and my power wheelchair weighs exactly the same. Combined, we weigh less than most American adult males.

When I complained at the Museum front desk, the security guard first told me that the old floors were not designed to hold my weight in my power chair. I explained to the security guard how little my weight is combined with the chair, but he just said that he didn’t create the policy. Then after I mentioned the weight of the chair, he changed his story to say that power wheelchairs and scooters present a problem with “uncontrolled movements.” This is what the website says:

For safety reasons, it is not possible to visit the museum on a mobility scooter or in an electric wheelchair. You may, however, make use of our loan wheelchairs. These can be reserved via email [email protected] or call + (0)20 5231 730.

Visiting the Stedelijk modern art museum

The first big problem I see with this policy is the weight restriction based on so many presumptions. It’s true that some power wheelchairs can weigh in excess of 300 pounds, in addition to the weight of the person sitting in the chair. Some bariatric scooters combined with their occupants can also weigh an excess of 300 pounds. However, there are some scooters that weigh as little as 91 pounds, and some power wheelchairs that way as little as 50 pounds. Although manual wheelchairs usually way about 25 pounds, there is no Museum weight restriction on the person sitting in the manual wheelchair. That means that you could have a disabled visitor sitting in one of the museum’s manual wheelchairs and allowed to visit the exhibits on their old floors who weigh more than many scooter or power wheelchair users combined with their chairs.

The second problem I have is their concern about safety and supposedly “uncontrolled movements.” I understand that this could be a problem stemming from people who rent scooters and have very little experience using them on a regular basis. However, for regular wheelchair users, our chairs are like extensions of our bodies. We tend to know exactly where our chairs are in time and space. Someone who is not used to being in a manual chair, or someone who is not used to pushing a manual chair, may actually be more of a safety concern than someone maneuvering their own power chair that they’ve been using for years.

The third problem I have is that there is no ban on small children, children in strollers, the size or weight of children being pushed in strollers, people who are drunk, or people who are high — which is pretty much everywhere in Amsterdam. I’m sure if anyone was causing a problem or bumping into exhibits, they would be asked to leave by security. However, there is no policy in place preventing them from being admitted into the exhibits in the first place.

The view of Dam Square from the Royal Palace balcony in Amsterdam

I would like to make clear that I understand there are no accessibility laws in the Netherlands that oblige museums or other buildings to be wheelchair accessible. I would also like to point out that I was able to visit the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Hermitage, the Nieuew Kirk, and the Royal Palace with no restrictions. To this day, I have never damaged or bumped into anything at a museum anywhere in my scooter or wheelchair across 44 countries.

I have visited hundreds of museums and historic buildings around the world, so I understand the restrictions to accessibility that come with age. However, the vast majority of the time, these restrictions are in the form of no ramps, no elevators, or narrow doorways. If a museum is concerned about the weight of a power wheelchair on its floors, then perhaps the building might not be safe for any visitors — especially larger groups of larger people. If they are concerned about safety or protecting items in their exhibits, then they should be prohibiting small children, large strollers, and conducting sobriety checks at the front desk.

The ultimate results of this misguided policy are twofold. First, wheelchair users are deprived of equal access to a building open to the public, and from experiencing a museum the same as any other visitor. Policies like these are purely discriminatory, and even the alternatives they have in place — specifically, the provision of a manual wheelchair — take away our independence and cause us to rely on someone else to enjoy the experience. Second, this is a stain on the reputation of museums that proclaim to be inclusive to all visitors, and deprive these institutions of income from a more diverse population.

I will be explaining my position to the management of the Amsterdam Museum, which has solicited my more detailed feedback. If you come across a situation at a museum where you are prohibited from entering simply because you use a power wheelchair or an electric scooter, make sure you let management know your frustration with the situation, and follow up with the museum directors to hopefully implement some positive changes for future visitors in wheelchairs.

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