November 30, 2023
Beyond the Pavement
by: Nerissa Cannon
Nerissa’s own journey with chronic illness has made her very passionate about helping other people get the most out of life in spite of a disabling condition.
After spending 6 months working in Boston, I couldn’t leave without touring the historic Freedom Trail. I grew up with a romantic notion of the American Revolution so it was intriguing to be able to visit the locations where it all began. I decided to roll the dice on adventure instead of doing prior accessibility research. Obviously, the buildings wouldn’t have been built as wheelchair accessible originally. However, I expected that those with disabilities would have been kept in mind given that it’s a popular tourist destination that is under constant restoration and renovation.
Highs of the Freedom Trail
Visitor’s Center/Boston Common
The visitor’s center, while small, was easily maneuverable with my GRIT Freedom Chair, and its entry had automated door buttons. My friend and I even found a “Complete Guide to the Freedom Trail” that had a full page in the back dedicated to wheelchair accessibility along the route. After deciding to do a self-guided tour instead of one led by someone attired circa 1776, we found the red brick road and started on our historic quest.
The first “official” site of the Freedom Trail was Boston Common. Described as America’s oldest public park, it also acted as the campground for the Redcoats during the British invasion of Boston in 1775. It’s a crowded place, but I had no trouble navigating its wide pathways and gently sloping hills. Following the Freedom Trail you move quickly into the winding, densely packed city streets and sidewalks, so starting the trail in a green space was a pleasure.
Granary Burying Ground
One of the stops on the Freedom Trail I found most interesting was the Granary Burying Ground. Initially, it appeared that it was a place I’d have to admire from the curb as the red bricks led to a set of steps and no accessibility signs were present. Luckily, the trusty guidebook we purchased did a fantastic job leading us around the ENTIRE block to find an entrance at the back of the cemetery that a wheelchair could access. While our guidebook led us around to this entrance, it appears it’s not a well-known detour. NewMobility published an article about exploring the Freedom Trail in a wheelchair and had this to say about the Granary Burying Ground:
There is no accessible way to enter the cemetery. Several of the graves can be viewed from the sidewalk.
I can assure you that I did indeed find an accessible entrance into the cemetery!
King’s Chapel / King’s Chapel Burying Ground
After retracing our cemetery detour steps, we went to check out the next site: King’s Chapel. Surprisingly, King’s Chapel was relatively accessible! The entrance had a rudimentary, yet functional, ramp covering the entrance steps. The aisles were wide, and several of the private pews were left open so I could see inside instead of having to struggle to lean over the tall walls. The only area I wouldn’t have been able to access was the balcony viewing area, but I wasn’t too disappointed in that. I could see all of the architectural elements just fine from the first floor. The adjacent King’s Chapel Burying Ground, while smaller than the Granary Burying Ground, was equally as interesting and more convenient accessibility-wise. I could go right through the front gate! Our guidebook warned me of a 2-inch lip to enter this cemetery, and another online resource mentioned a 7-inch lip. However, as of late August 2017, I can assure you that lip has since been filed away and it’s a smooth entry!
Faneuil Hall/Faneuil Hall Marketplace
Having hosted the first town meeting in America, Faneuil Hall is often referred to as “the home of Free Speech.” I rather enjoyed Faneuil Hall! It had an easily accessible ramp and an elevator devoted to those with mobility challenges to explore the different floors. We stopped off at the floor that housed a type of armed forces museum. That floor is also the headquarters of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. On the first level of Faneuil Hall I had no trouble navigating the crowded gift shop stands in search of a Boston souvenir patch to add to my collection.
The patch hunt was a success, so we ventured off into the marketplace near Faneuil Hall in search of lunch. This was my first taste of what ye olde Boston cobblestones must have truly been like. All day I had been glad I chose to use my all terrain wheelchair for this adventure. Upon the cobblestones I realized that it was an invaluable piece of equipment. Hard to gather from photos, the cobblestones had so many rises and falls to them it was like water was paved over. The stones themselves were irregular with non-standard spacing. I can only imagine what that would have been like having to constantly look down at the stones so the small casters of my everyday chair wouldn’t get caught. Not only would that be frustrating, looking at the ground instead of the sites, it would have closed me off from socializing with my friend and other visitors. All my efforts would have been spent to keep me from being dumped from my wheelchair instead of making conversation. I was so grateful that I had my GRIT Freedom Chair. With this equipment cobblestones became a fun site that I breezed over instead of them hindering my enjoyment of the day.
Old North Church
The Freedom Trail leads directly to Old North Church by passing through a small garden and up another significant set of stairs with no sign explaining where to go if you are in a wheeled piece of equipment. We decided to just use our reasoning skills and go around the block. We came upon a one-way street that was perhaps comfortable for a wagon in old-timey Boston, but the extra-wide pickup truck became quite the obstruction. Also, the existing sidewalks were too narrow for my wheelchair to ride on altogether. To get through I had to perform some of the best ninja skills in my Freedom Chair I’ve done to date! I popped my front tire up on the curb, maneuvered my right tire to follow and carefully pushed myself forward. I squeaked past the entire pickup truck in this extremely tilted position.
I was reminded instantaneously how sometimes barriers just need a little creativity to be overcome. I got through a challenging situation while having fun doing so. Needless to say I rather enjoyed the stunned looks on the faces of passersby when they saw my skills! This was definitely NOT something I could have done in my standard ultralight wheelchair. This was yet another moment I was so glad I chose to explore this day with my GRIT Freedom Chair.
Lows of the Freedom Trail
Benjamin Franklin Statue & Boston Latin School
No mention of the Benjamin Franklin Statue & Boston Latin School was made in our guidebook’s wheelchair accessibility section, so we had no idea what we’d be encountering. Turns out this historic site had pole barricades likely meant to keep cyclists from cutting through a high-traffic pedestrian area. Unfortunately, that also meant it was impassable to those in wheelchairs of average widths or even parents with certain strollers. Fortunately, we weren’t overly intrigued to tour these locations so we pushed onward.
Old State House
The architecture of this site was particularly interesting. One side of the Old State House featured a golden lion wearing a crown and a silver unicorn! We had passed by the site fairly quickly and ADA features weren’t apparent. However, a quick internet search led me to the building’s main page:
Is the Old State House wheelchair accessible?
No, unfortunately the site is currently not accessible. Although the building is exempt from ADA regulations as a National Historic Landmark . . . please be aware that there are many stairs in the building.
I’ve heard this type of thing a lot. The most common term is being “grandfathered” in. Even those negatively affected by this rhetoric seem to believe it and take it as fact. Is this true, though? Nope! The National Park Service does a wonderful job explaining how the Americans with Disabilities Act’s accessibility requirements are required to be fulfilled by ALL properties open to the public:
Under Title III of the ADA, owners of “public accommodations” (theaters, restaurants, retail shops, private museums) must make “readily achievable” changes . . . When alterations, including restoration and rehabilitation work, are made, specific accessibility requirements are triggered.
It is the cruelest of ironies that in the same building of which John Adams declared, “Then and there the child independence was born,” where the timeless document stating that “all men are created equal” was shouted from the rafters, in this place an entire demographic is so casually denied their civil rights.
The good news is that the Bostonian Society has plans to install ramps and a lift at the Old State House. The bad news is that there is no estimated date of when that project will be completed.
(Near) Old North Church
It was on the way to Old North Church that I encountered the most frustrating cluster of accessibility barriers of the day. Near Old North Church is a little building that houses Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop (now permanently closed) and The Printing Office of Edes & Gill. Not only have I always been fascinated by old-style printing, but I’m a chocoholic. I couldn’t wait to get inside! The problem was that the entrance door was too narrow. It was a double door set up, but the left side door of the entry was stuck shut. An employee kindly tried to open it for me to no avail. He suggested the wider door on the back side of the building which, unfortunately, had a series of steps leading up to it. In the end, we just had to walk (and roll) away. Departing with a chocolate craving and disappointment is not a great combination. I feel like I am the first person in a wheelchair who has tried to enter their building when situations like this arise, but I know that’s not possible. And if other people have been unable to enter before, why has nothing been done to fix the issue?
There were several locations I came upon throughout the day that were 100% inaccessible, and I had to pass them by or admire them from the curb. Taking that into consideration, would I recommend the Freedom Trail to a wheelchair user looking for an activity to do in Boston? Absolutely! Despite the barriers in my way, it was still an enjoyable day and a fascinating trek. I just recommend doing as much research as possible prior and being prepared for anything that you might encounter; be prepared to use some creative problem-solving to get to where you want to be. Above all, do not let the fear of obstacles stop you from an adventure! After all, it’s when things don’t go right that you come away with the best stories.