Rich Donovan is an entrepreneur from New York City who also happens to have a disability. He recently went on a holiday with his wife to Paris, France, only to find to his dismay that he couldn’t go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower!
I’m about to pick a fight.
Ah, Paris. The city of romance. My wife Jenn and I decided to visit Paris for a much needed vacation last week. Beautiful surroundings, great food/wine… our first bonding time away from our 15 month old son Maverick and our intense professional lives. Oui Monsieur, love was indeed in the air.
So you can imagine my surprise when I was denied access to the top of the Eiffel Tower, specifically because of my disability. I was told that because of French/Parisian law, I was only permitted to visit the second floor. The apparent rationale is that if power was to be lost, or an emergency occur, it would be ‘difficult’ for me to walk down the 1050 stairs from the top. The tower is accessible. Elevators, lifts and ramps are all over the joint. The State of France apparently has decided that altitude is dangerous for me. C’est ridicule, non?
I’m a fairly level-headed guy, so I calmly repeated my desire, as a customer, to visit the top floor to a series of senior security/management officials. I was given the same answer, that due to French/Parisian law and for my own safety I would not be permitted to the top, as any member of the public with 13 Euros is permitted to do. They would gladly ‘permit’ me to go to the second floor, which is 39% of the way to the top floor, even offering to comp the entry fee. How nice of them? One problem… I’ve never done anything at 39%, and wasn’t about to start now.
After the fourth denial, my wife started to cry…and this caused my head to explode. My voice was raised, and my words were chosen carefully. We attracted a crowd, including 7 security guards and 3 men in combat fatigues carrying German-made sub-machine guns. Not bad for a crip in a wheelchair…
That’s when it got ugly. Jenn is a native New Yorker, and is incredibly protective of the ones she loves. That is not a good combination if she perceives a threat from you. She had a stroke of genius, and started snapping pictures of the scene, and of the guards. Documenting an incident of democracy… genius. She was threatened with arrest and the confiscation of her camera by uniformed security guards, at which point I began saying, in my best trading floor French, that if you arrest her, you arrest me. All of this is occurring with three big dudes carrying sub-machine guns 15 feet away in the corner of my eye. Paris or Pyongyang?
I’ve travelled all over the world. I’ve visited the CN Tower in Toronto. I’ve climbed Mont St-Michel in Normandy. I’ve been to the top of the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, the Gerkin in London, and the Peace Tower in Ottawa. Jenn and I got engaged at the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. I skipper 50-ft sailboats, on the open ocean. I’ve never come close to the lunacy I experienced at the Eiffel Tower, the state telling me that I cannot do something everyone else can because I walk with a wobble.
The Eiffel Tower is the icon of the proud nation of France. When you see it, you think of liberté and égalité… the two ideals that helped build one of the world’s great democracies. These ideals bonded the two nations of France and America together in peace and battle, even resulting in the people of France gifting a stalwart symbol of freedom in my city’s harbor – the Statue of Liberty – welcoming all to the great city of New York. I’ve been to the top of the Statue of Liberty. I couldn’t do that in France. Perhaps we need to remind our friends of their lesson to us many years ago.
As a person with a disability, I face the attitude that I am a second-class member of society every day of my life. I expect that on the streets and in daily competition for scarce resources. I certainly did not expect this while visiting the national icon of a country that has signed international treaties celebrating human rights and the idea of equal opportunity for all.
I spend my professional career activating on the power inherent in the market of people with disabilities. I talk about the market rewarding companies that ‘do disability’ well, and punishing firms when people with disabilities have a poor customer experience. Well, that applies to governments too.
I propose that until Paris changes the law that prohibits people with disabilities from going to the top of the Eiffel Tower, we spend our tourist dollars away from Paris. London, Prague and Toronto are beautiful this time of year. Come to New York City… no laws here prohibit disability at the top of our city. People with disabilities and their families represent 53% of the population. For every 400 people that avoid Paris, it costs the city at least $1 million in economic activity. I’ve created a Facebook page where you can express your intent to avoid Paris until they open the top of their city to all customers. Join Jenn and I in our pledge to avoid Paris at the Facebook group we set up.
Let me be clear, save for our Eiffel experience, I love Paris. It is a beautiful city, and its people are wonderful. That said, the situation at Eiffel trumps my affection for the city.
On a personal note, Paris. You made my wife cry. This is not good, and you must make it right. I propose that you fly her back to Paris, first class. Put her up in the most accessible Presidential Suite in the city. Invite her to the Top of the Eiffel Tower where the Mayor of Paris will apologize for such a poor customer experience. By the way, change that law first… she won’t come without me.
By Rich Donovan