Historic preservation, the idea of maintaining historic buildings and sites as they were originally designed, has prevented many disabled people from accessing some of the most iconic UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Even where some degree of access has been provided, it is rarely total, with officials claiming that such improvements would be detrimental to the “historic value” of the site. I would suggest that the concern is less about maintaining the history of a site, and more about preserving its visual appearance.

UNESCO status often discourages accessibility improvements

Many governments fear making changes or accessibility improvements to UNESCO sites, as they can be delisted if altered. This begs the question, would replacing some cobblestones to create an accessible pathway at UNESCO sites like the Grand Place in Brussels, the historic center of Quebec City or the central squares in numerous other cities truly be a fundamental alteration? Surely those places have received a UNESCO nod for more than their cobbles? Would one accessible sidewalk really destroy a site’s historic value? I think not.

Wheelchair user in center of old town square with cobblestone pavement.
Place Royale in Old Quebec City. | Photo courtesy Julie-Anne Perrault/KÉROUL.

In fact, I have documented accessibility improvements at many of the world’s most iconic UNESCO sites. Consider the Palace of Versailles, which has elevators; Table Mountain, with its accessible cable car, ramps and pathways; and the Statue of Liberty, wheelchair accessible to the highest point technically feasible. None of these sites have lost their historic charm by becoming more accessible.

Prioritizing appearance over equal access

Inaccessible features are beautiful. That is how we have been trained to think, at least. I will admit, cobbled streets, old staircases and the like all appeal to feelings of nostalgia. We do like to see the way things were — myself included — despite the inaccessibility of the built environments of the past. It isn’t just nostalgia, however. The appearance of inaccessible features has endured as a symbol of beauty and remains a problematic pursuit even in modern-day architecture.

Tiered levels of bookshelves, each accessible by a staircase to the left.
Photo courtesy Max Touhey for Queens Public Library.

Let’s take the brand-new, $41 million Hunters Point Library in Queens, New York. The library opened in September 2019 and made several sections accessible only via stairs, solely to create an aesthetic appeal. Although the space is not fully accessible to disabled people, the library has received widespread praise as a “stunning architectural marvel” and “an unmitigated success of architectural design.” Despite the acclaim, the city was quickly served a lawsuit by disability rights groups and later faced a site inspection by the U.S. Department of Justice for potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Perhaps, due to that civil rights law, accessibility will ultimately win out over aesthetics — but not without a fight.

The Ancient Greeks built ramps for the disabled

The architecture of Ancient Greece is known for its focus on symmetry, proportion and harmony — the traditional components of beauty. It grew out of a cultural devotion to aesthetics, evidenced and reinforced by the surviving statues and sculptures from the period, which depict human figures in a style now regarded as the “classically ideal body.” But, even in a society driven by a desire for perfection, there were still disabled people. New research suggests that those people were not as excluded as one might assume, and the Ancient Greeks did not deny their existence as was once the case thousands of years later in Soviet Russia.

An artist’s representation of a stone ramp at the ancient Greek Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus.
Image courtesy John Goodinson/John Svolos/Anasynthesis Project.

In a recent study published in the journal Antiquity, researcher Debby Sneed of California State University found that the Ancient Greeks had outfitted many buildings and temples with ramps to permit access to those who were disabled or had trouble climbing stairs. While these ramps, built some 2,500 years ago, appeared well before the first wheelchair was created, they suggest that the ancient civilization had put some effort into making holy sites and temples more inclusive. Of the ramps, Sneed said that “The distribution is pretty clear: They show up in places where there are more disabled people.”

Given Sneed’s research, Ancient Greece appears to have embraced limited aspects of inclusive design at an early stage of recorded history. This is an exciting discovery, given the fact that legal requirements to construct ramps for disabled access are still only a recent development in even the most progressive of western democracies. The Americans with Disabilities Act is now only 30 years old, and many other countries still lack accessibility legislation.

Final Thoughts

We live in a time where, at least with respect to basic accessibility, the world is moving in the right direction. But in the continued exclusion of disabled people from many historic sites, we preserve a wrong and immoral aspect of history that even the Ancient Greeks seemed to recognize as problematic.

While there remains, to some extent, a preference for aesthetics over accessibility in some circles, it is clearly time to eliminate that tendency and reconceptualize beauty. Does a ramp, a smooth pathway or an elevator truly do so much to destroy sites worth preserving that we should continue to be satisfied with exclusion? Or, can we move forward — using examples like the Palace of Versailles as a guide — to preserve our history and provide equal access for all? I think we can, and we should.

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