Navigating Helsinki in a wheelchair throws up challenges where old meets new

The Finnish capital offers many accessible options for disability residents and tourists - but some other aspects can cause problems.

File picture of disability athlete Esa-Pekka Mattilä in Senate Square Helsinki, June 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

For most people who visit the Finnish capital during summer months, Helsinki is an easy city to explore.

With an extensive public transport system, a compact and walkable city centre, and many major attractions relatively close together, thousands of tourists see Helsinki’s highlights within a few hours when they arrive on cruise ships.

Now put yourself in someone else’s shoes – or someone else’s wheelchair.

For disability tourists the mix of old and new in the capital can be a problem when trying to see the sights, eat at a restaurant, find wheelchair-friendly access points and facilities or just navigating on cobbled streets.

Two-time Paralympian Esa-Pekka Mattila says that Helsinki gets a lot right when it comes to catering for tourists or residents in wheelchairs.

“Helsinki is mostly okay in terms of accessibility. Some of the new buildings are phenomenal in that aspect, but of course it’s an old city so there’s lots of stuff to be improved on” says Mattila, who was born with a condition that means he can’t use his legs, and who gets around in a wheelchair or with sticks.

The 30-year old, who represented Finland at the London 2012 Paralymics, and at and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, says Helsinki’s public transport is especially-well adapted for people with disabilities.

Buses have hydraulics which lower them to the ground, and a ramp into the side entrance with drivers always willing to give assistance. The latest-model trams are flush with the pavements for ease of access; and metro stations – especially in the new Länsimetro western extension – are particularly wheelchair-friendly.

“Even the older metro stations in the east are usually very accessible as well” says the 30-year old.

Uspenski Cathedral, Helsinki / Credit: Henryk Björkström, News Now Finland

Growing numbers of disabled tourists 

The World Health Organisation estimates more than one billion people around the world are living with mental or physical disabilities, and there’s a growing number of disability tourists as well, partly fueled by an ageing population with disposable incomes who become more reliant on walking frames, crutches or wheelchairs as they grow older.

Rights of disabled people are guaranteed in Finland’s constitution, but it’s more a general statement rather than offering specific legislation.

“This is not a law straight to each company to have their business plan tailored so that one with physical disabilities can access to the premises and use their services” writes Hanna Korhonen from Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences in her 2016 thesis evaluating the accessible experience of some of Helsinki’s tourist attractions.

However, there are specific guidelines laid out by the European Union and the Finnish Association for People with Physical Disabilities Invalitilliitto which go into more detail about issues such as the ideal size of parking spaces and pathways; how steep wheelchair ramps should be; the maximum height of steps, chairs and tables, and making sure there’s a clear evacuation plan in the event of emergencies for people with disabilities.

“For wheelchair users Helsinki’s attractions can be said to be accessible but for special needs of visual impairments there is many things that should be done to improve the accessibility” Hanna Korhonen concludes.

She ranks Ateneum Art Gallery as a highlight, and Linnanmäki amusement park as well. However Korkeasaari Zoo and Seurasaari did less well in Korhonen’s research study mostly due to their history and geographical limitations.

Other disability tourists like American Cory Lee have highlighted their own pros and cons of visiting Helsinki and how some tourist attractions like the Uspensky Cathedral are realistically only going to be viewed from the outside.


File picture of Esa-Pekka Mattila, Senate Square, June 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Wheelchair-level view of the capital 

The history of Helsinki does cause some problems, but Esa-Pekka Mattila doesn’t think that every old tourist attraction needs to be made wheelchair-friendly.

“Senate Square is filled with cobblestones which are usually the bane of accessibility. And usually buses drop the people to Senate Square and for example the accessible entrance to the cathedral goes around and behind the building and you need to make the long trip there. For elderly people, on a warm summer’s day, it’s probably not the best option as well” he tells News Now Finland.

Mattila also commends new museums like Kiasma, as well as older gallieries like Ateneum for their accessibility. But Tori Quarters gets a mixed grade – some parts he finds quite accessible, but as an old structure not everything is easy for someone in a wheelchair, and Mattila noted a lack of signs showing wheelchair entry points.

So how can older buildings become more friendly for disabled people?

“I’d say if you renovate things, from the ground up, it could be a good [reason] in every renovation to make it as accessible as possible. But I’m not of the opinion that every place should have ramps only and no stairs, because stairs are efficient. They’re very good for space, and people do walk!” Esa-Pekka Mattila explains.

“There’s also some historical buildings, and the costs to make them accessible is just not good enough in my opinion. It’s not meant to be accessible, like old castles, it’s built into it that it’s not completely accessible.”

File picture of Esa-Pekka Mattila on cobblestones in Helsinki, June 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland