By Adam Lloyd

As a native of D.C. it is easy to overlook the wealth of sights and activities which Washington has to offer its visitors. The inspirational memorials, the huge array of museums, tours of the federal government, top quality theater, and the city’s unique shopping and dining are often taken for granted by those of us who reside here. However, for those who are not Washingtonians, our city has the allure of political intrigue, the cosmopolitan energy of a major world center, and the beauty of a historic Southern town. There truly is no place like Washington, and rediscovering the District as a tourist in my own home proved to be one of the best “trips” I have ever taken.

Only five or six years ago I would have warned disabled travelers away from the nation’s capitol. Washington, D.C., despite being the birthplace of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), was one of the slowest cities at implementing it. Things have changed though, and now Washington can hold its own in a comparison with just about any other major metropolis.

Being relatively small in size, Washington can readily be viewed as several interconnected neighborhoods, each with its own distinct qualities and atmosphere. The subway system, which is both easy to navigate and inexpensive to use, makes exploring the city a snap. As such, choosing where to stay depends less on where you want to tour, and more on what you are looking for in a hotel.

Getting Around

Between the numerous accessible buses (70% of D.C.’s fleet), wheelchair converted taxis (202) 645-6005, and the subway system, there isn’t anywhere you should find off limits. The Washington Metro Transit Authority which runs the city’s public transportation has made great strides in providing access to everyone.

My personal choice in public transportation is taking the subway. A smart idea for those touring the city is to buy a $5 all day pass. These are sold only in the left-most fare card machines in each station, and provide a good way to see everything you want without spending much money.

There are 165 elevators throughout the Metrorail system, and every station has wheelchair access. If an elevator is out of service, there will be an announcement at all the stations, and a wheelchair accessible shuttle will provide free transportation from the next closest station.

Unfortunately, broken elevators have become somewhat of an epidemic lately, and from personal experience I find it quicker to walk the five or six blocks to the next station rather than wait for the shuttle. This only works, however, if you are downtown, as suburban stops can be miles apart. To avoid problems altogether, before I leave, I call (202) 637-7000 and ask about elevators at the various stops I’ll need. There is also a list of out-of-service elevators posted at the information booth in every station.

For those with visual impairments there are braille signs throughout Metrorail stations, by elevator buttons, on one farecard vending machine (usually the first on the left) explaining the farecard system, on emergency call boxes, on platform pylons and on the end of each railcard. In addition, voice enunciators are being added to elevators, giving the station name and level of each stop. Textured flooring marks the edge of the station platform. On-board announcements identify the stops, and door chimes and audio messages signal the opening and closing of the rail car doors.

If you have a mobility impairment you will find a lowered farecard machine in every station, and at least one entrance and exit gate is wide enough for a wheelchair. One problem that Metro has not addressed is the 1-2 inch height disparity between the station platforms and the subway cars. If you have large casters or can pop-a-wheelie, there won’t be a problem, but for those in power chairs, like myself, you may not be able to board the train without assistance.

For deaf or hearing-impaired commuters, flashing lights at the platform edge signal the arrival of trains. There are also TDYs in every Metro station, and Metro’s consumer and transit information lines include TDY service.

Checking Out The Feds

The first reason people come to Washington is to see where it all happens; to view their government at work. Many federal agencies, from the Department of Agriculture to the FBI, have some sort of visitor’s center or tour, and the good news is that everything is free. I chose to visit what I think are three of the most interesting stops: the White House, the Capitol building, and the Supreme Court.

The White House

Tours of the White House are given every Tuesday through Saturday in two forms. The most common tour is a self guided, half hour stroll through the building’s public rooms. Visitors will see the Vermeil room and Library, the East, Green, Blue, Red, and State Dining rooms and exit from the north portico lobby. U.S. Secret Service Tour Officers are posted in each room to answer questions.

Be prepared to go though a pretty extensive security check. All bags and purses are x-rayed and metal detectors abound. Being in a wheelchair, I was swept with security rods and had my backpack, which is attached to my chair, thoroughly searched.

Once inside, you may be surprised by how small many of the rooms actually are. Wheelchair users will find a few tight turns going through the House, but the tour is completely accessible. A necessary elevator ride upstairs even allows for a glimpse of areas unseen by able-bodied tourists. We’re not talking state secrets here, but my 30 seconds “behind the scenes” felt kind of neat.

Free tickets are required and can be gotten at the White House Visitor Center (202-456-7041 / TDD 202-456-2121) on the corner of 15th and E Streets. As I found out, an exception is made for wheelchair users, and up to four companions, who do not need tickets and can go straight to the entrance gate. For all others, tickets (four to a person) are given out on a first-come, first-served basis, starting at 7:30 a.m., and are good only for that day.

The second type of tour is a Congressional Guided Tour. These tours must be arranged ten weeks in advance with either the local or Washington office of your Congressional Representative, or one of your Senators. Tickets are free, and tours are scheduled Tuesday through Saturday, starting between 8:15 and 8:45 a.m. Once inside the White House, the guided tours usually take 25 to 35 minutes.

Group or individual tours for those with hearing or visual impairments are available in conjunction with the Congressional Guided Tours. An interpreter will be provided for those with hearing disabilities and blind visitors are able to touch selected objects under Secret Service supervision.

The Capitol

The Capitol has similar opportunities to explore its grounds. Accessible entrances are available on the east side of the building, facing away from the National Mall. Once again, security checks are mandatory, and if you plan on entering either the Senate or House Gallery, you will have yet another security stop at each.

Once past security you are free to roam the building, or may opt to take a guided tour (offered every 15 minutes between 9:00 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.). There is a Special Services office on the ground floor, located in the Crypt, which offers accessible tours using ramps, elevators, sign language, FM systems, tactile and descriptive accommodations.

Officially, you are supposed to arrange one of these tours in advance through your Congressman or Senator, but on the day I went, they were pleased to show me around unannounced. Another, unadvertised bonus, is that the Special Services office has a limited number of Gallery passes on hand (required for admission into the House and/or Senate Chambers). This can save you a tedious side trip to hunt down your Representative’s office several buildings over.

There are ramps and elevators throughout the building, but the Capitol was not built with wheelchair access in mind. As a result, you’ll find that many ramps are at severe angles, and one, set in a tight loop, is like rolling up a spiral staircase without the stairs. My sincere advice is to get assistance before tackling one of these ramps, or at the very least, back down the steeper ones.

The Capitol is four floors, each with it’s own fascinating sights. The first floor houses the original Supreme Court Chamber, the National Statuary Hall, and the Crypt (with displays of artifacts and art). The second floor boasts the picturesque Rotunda, the old Senate Chamber, and the rest of the Statuary Hall. The third floor houses only two public areas, the Senate and House Chamber Galleries. Here, visitors can sit in on both houses of Congress and watch as legislative sessions actually take place. A monitor with closed captioning allows hearing impaired individuals to follow the proceedings. Finally, often overlooked, is the basement. A virtual catacomb of underground tunnels which connect the Capitol to the Senate and Congressional office buildings. Anyone is free to travel the tunnels, and it is here that you are most likely to bump into your favorite politico heading to or from a vote.

Supreme Court

Across the street from the Capitol is the Supreme Court, open Monday – Friday during normal business hours. There is a wheelchair ramp on the north side of the building, but no electric door opener. However, if you mull around outside the door for a moment (two minutes in my case), a security guard will eventually invite you in for yet another security check.

The building itself is a work of art, from the bronze doors to the 5 story spiral staircase. In the Great Hall there is an interesting display of judicial artifacts from across the world, and busts of all the former Chief Justices. There is also a short film about the Court shown every half hour. However, the true attraction is to sit in on a session of the Court itself.

Beginning at 10:00 a.m. on the first Monday in October, the Court hears as many as four, one hour arguments, the first three days of each week. They continue in two week intervals until April. Then, from May until June, decisions are read on Mondays at 10:00 a.m.

Two lines begin forming as early as 8:00 (depending on the case being heard) on the morning of a hearing. One line is for those wishing to view only three minutes of a case, and the other for those willing to sit through an entire 1 hour argument. Everybody must wait in one of these two lines, but wheelchair users have a reserved area in the courtroom, so they are not competing for space with everyone else.

On the day I visited, the Court was not in session. However, I have witnessed an argument in the past, and watching the black robed Justices grilling nervous lawyers over matters critical to our country’s future is an awe inspiring affair.

Memorials

After viewing the Federal Government in action, another activity of choice, is to visit the many memorials throughout the city. The greatest number of these are concentrated on the National Mall. Comprised of a stretch of grassy fields, between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, the Mall is the center of Washington’s tourist world.

The Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Tidal Basin, Vietnam Memorial, Washington Monument, and FDR Memorial are all located along this corridor. Each has wheelchair access, and sign language tours are available through the Park Service (202) 485-9880. Except for the Washington Monument, which stops admitting visitors at 5:00 p.m., all of the memorials are “open” from 8:00 in the morning until midnight daily.

The memorials, particularly the Vietnam wall, are quite stirring. If you are a wheelchair user, don’t be surprised if at the Vietnam Memorial you get a “welcome home” or “thanks for serving” from a passerby. There is a good decade plus disparity between my age and that of actual Vietnam veterans, and still it happens to me fairly often.

It can easily take several hours to see all of the memorials properly. Distances along the Mall are pronounced, and lots of walking is involved. Chair access really is quite good, although several areas in the center of the Mall opt for gravel paths instead of pavement. If this presents a problem for you, the gravel walkways can be gotten around, though doing so often takes you out of your way a bit.

Museums and More

It is a misnomer that all of Washington’s museums are part of the Smithsonian Institution. There are a handful of excellent, unaffiliated museums such as the Phillips, Corcoran, National Gallery of Art, and the Holocaust Museum, each of which is well worth attending. However, the vast majority of the city’s artistic, technological and historical collections are housed in the group of buildings surrounding the Mall which bear James Smithson’s moniker.

It would be a simple thing to spend an entire vacation touring only the Smithsonian; open almost uniformly from 10:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. I’ve lived here some thirty years and still have not seen everything.

With a total of 16 museums, the Institute holds over 140 million artifacts within its walls, all of which are free to the public. With collections as diverse as African art, natural history, American art, sculpture gardens, Asian art, and even a postal museum, there is something for everyone. Two of my favorites are the Museum of American History and the Air and Space Museum.

The Museum of American History boasts a collection unlike anything you will find anywhere else. With such Americana as early computers, classic cars, the First Ladies’ inaugural gowns and an exhibit on popular culture, including Howdy Doody, the set of M*A*S*H, and Fonzie’s leather jacket, you are bound to enjoy yourself. Unfortunately, on this visit, two of my favorite exhibits, the Star Spangled Banner (the very flag which inspired the writing of the Anthem) and Foucault’s Pendulum, which visually demonstrates the earth’s rotation, were both closed for restoration.

It was then on to the Air and Space Museum, most popular of all the Smithsonian collections. The original Spirit of St. Louis, the Lunar Capsule, a WWII B-26 Marauder, and even Neil Armstrong’s space suit all grace this mecca to aviation. The Air and Space Museum offers numerous interactive exhibits, and even has a few gems for science fiction buffs. For anyone who’s ever looked to the skies with longing and wonder, this is the place for you.

The Smithsonian’s exhibits are, for the most part, accessible to wheelchair users and those with visual and hearing impairments. Some information desks do not have lowered areas, not all titular labels on exhibits provide braille text, and a few rare areas have stairs only access. However, the large majority of the Smithsonian collection is easy to experience no matter who the visitor.

Signing tours are available at all of the Smithsonian’s museums with two weeks advance notice (202) 786-2942 / TTY (202) 786-2414, and braille guides and audio tours are provided at most of the museums. For a complete and detailed description of accessibility accommodations click on the Smithsonian Access website.

Slightly outside the realm of museums, and frequently overlooked by visitors to D.C., are the National Archives, open daily from 10:00-5:30. Also free, and only a few blocks from the Mall, on 8th Street and Pennsylvania Ave., the Archives house and display original copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Louisiana Purchase, Emancipation Proclamation, President Nixon’s letter of resignation, and other fascinating documents from our country’s history.

Wheelchair access to the Archives involves an escort from the security checkpoint and at least one steep ramp. Signing tours are available by calling (202) 501-5400 / TTY (202) 501-5404 in advance. Unfortunately, for those with visual impairments, the dark glass and specialized lighting used to preserve the documents will only further frustrate your ability to view them.

Yet another free activity, courtesy of your tax dollars at work, is the National Zoo. A short drive or subway ride uptown to 3000 Connecticut Ave., the Zoo is a beautiful and fun way to spend several hours outdoors. An extensive collection of animals from around the world are kept in a park-like setting that rivals the nation’s best zoos. Virtually everything is wheelchair accessible, and sign language tours can be arranged in advance by calling (202) 673-4717 / TTY (202) 673-7800. For a “Zoo Guide for Disabled Visitors” write to the: Office of Public Affairs, National Zoo, Washington, D.C. 20008.

Theater

Culture seekers who desire something outside the government’s purview will be pleased to find that Washington has a thriving theater scene. The Kennedy Center (202) 416-8727 / TTY (202) 416-8728, National Theater (202) 628-6161, Folger Theater (202) 544-7077, Warner Theater (202) 783-4000, and Ford’s Theater (202) 426-6924 / TTY (202) 426-1749, are all downtown and have extensive musical and theatrical offerings. In addition, all offer wheelchair seating (sometimes via lifts), infra-red devices for those with hearing impairments, and some have sign language services, braille performance guides, and audio description booklets.

For those on a budget, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage has free musical performances nightly at 6:00 p.m., and the National Theater offers 50% discounts on tickets to disabled patrons. Call the respective theaters for details.

I didn’t actually attend any shows on this tour of Washington, but have, in the course of living here, been to each of the theaters mentioned. My personal preference is for the grandeur of the Kennedy Center, but the intimacy and historical significance of Ford’s Theater (where President Lincoln was assassinated) makes it a close second.

Where to Eat

In between all of your sightseeing, you may actually find the time to get a bite to eat. There are an extraordinary number of options, especially if you are willing to leave D.C. for the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Rather than provide an incomprehensible list of hundreds of shops and restaurants, I think a general area guide with a stand-out establishment or two may be more helpful. This does not mean that you shouldn’t explore places on your own. Washington is a city full of eclectic culinary delights, and you’re bound to find good eats in whichever area you go.

Georgetown is known for it’s historic neighborhoods, high powered residents, distinct boutiques and diverse dining opportunities. Among the disabled community it is also known for its lack of subway access, crowded streets, incredibly uneven sidewalks, and many inaccessible buildings. Still, if you are determined to tour this Washington neighborhood, it can be done. The corner of Wisconsin Ave. and M St. serves as Georgetown’s commercial center, with lots of shopping and dining stretching down both streets.

Just past M St., off of Wisconsin Ave, is the legendary jazz club, Blues Alley (202) 337-4141. A one inch step and one tight turn mark the entrance of one of the country’s most prestigious jazz venues. Wynton Marsalis, Ahmad Jamal, and Dizzy Gillespie have all been regular performers in this intimate, acoustically impressive space. The food, top notch Creole, is somewhat pricey, and the dim lighting, tightly packed tables, and inaccessible bathrooms, may prevent this from being your first choice for an evening out. However, if you’re a true fan of blues and jazz, bring along some fortitude and determination for a genuinely uplifting musical and dining experience.

Not far from Georgetown, though much better for disabled access, is Dupont Circle. Largely known as D.C.’s gay neighborhood, it actually houses many of the city’s better restaurants and bars and caters to a young, diverse crowd. Two fun spots to try here are Levante’s (1320 19th St. (202) 293-3244) a hip, delicious Middle Eastern restaurant, and the Brickskeller (1523 22nd St. (202) 293-1885) which offers surprisingly good bar food and the city’s largest selection of beers (over 700) from around the world. The Brickskeller’s main entrance is up a flight of stairs, but if alerted, the wait staff will gladly open a side door on the bottom floor, which provides wheelchair access if you don’t mind a tight squeeze getting past the first few tables.

If you would rather dine in the heart of downtown, DC Coast (1401 K St. 202-216-5988) and Old Ebbitt Grill (675 15th St. 202-347-4801) are two solid choices. You will be paying downtown prices, but the food and decor at DC Coast are first rate. Seafood prepared with an Asian influence is as impressive as the restaurant’s turn-of-the-century architecture and furnishings. Being Washington’s hottest new restaurant, reservations are a must if you hope to get in.

From newest to one of the oldest, Old Ebbitt Grill, established in 1856, is still a favorite among Washingtonians. Only two blocks from the White House, Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Harding and Teddy Roosevelt all frequented here. In addition to its history, the primarily American fare will not disappoint. You absolutely can’t go wrong ordering an Ebbitt burger or stopping by for Sunday brunch.

Finally, just over the Maryland border, a twelve minute subway ride from downtown Washington, is Bethesda. You would be hard pressed to find a more concentrated collection of incredibly good restaurants anywhere in the country. Roughly 100 of them populate the fifteen block area of this township’s commercial district. The food is often as good as anything you will find in D.C., but the prices are strictly suburban.

For Italian, try Pines of Rome (4709 Hampden Lane / 301-657-8775), with wheelchair access via a ramped side door. However, being an older establishment, bathroom facilities do not meet ADA standards. What this “hole-in-the-wall,” lacks in atmosphere, it more than makes up for in consistently mouth watering, southern Italian fare at rock bottom prices.

Feel like Asian? Tara Thai (4848 Bethesda Avenue / 301-657-0488), may serve the best Thai food in the entire metropolitan area, and the restaurant’s under water decor brings a unique atmosphere to your dining experience.

Rio Grande Cafe (4919 Fairmont Avenue / 301-656-2981), a favorite with President Bush while he was in office, is a huge space with Tex-Mex that could cure a homesick cowboy.

In addition to these choices, you will also find great Indian, Afghani, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Creole, American, French, Chinese, and Spanish restaurants on virtually every block. For foodies visiting the D.C. area, Bethesda is a must.

 

The more you get to know the city the more you will find that Washington has all the amenities of other big urban centers, but on a scale that is very human, very manageable. Take your time and plan your activities so that you can enjoy each one without worrying about having to get the next stop on your list.

Be sure to take advantage of the numerous free activities, and exceptional public transit system. You can stretch your traveling dollar pretty far in D.C. if you so choose. Lastly, don’t get discouraged if things don’t go exactly as planned. Out of service elevators, bumpy sidewalks, and less than perfect access to establishments all crop up here, as they do everywhere. Washingtonians can be a friendly bunch, used to lots of out of towners, so never hesitate to ask for a hand or advice on how to accomplish whatever it is you were hoping to do.

For me, as I settled in back home, and began to reflect on just what an incredibly unique and special city Washington is, my phone started to ring. Before I knew it appointments were being made, plans for the following week’s business were being laid out, and life as usual started to encroach upon my artificially created “tourist” status. It wasn’t even 24 hours before I was on some important task, rushing past, without a thought, the same downtown sights that I had been so enraptured by the day before; taking the city for granted again.

I’ve got to admit, some part of me envies all of you who don’t live here.