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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Historic architecture creates accessibility challenges for some Colonial Williamsburg visitors

This map highlights areas in the historic area that are accessible to visitors with disabilities. (WYDaily/Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)
This map highlights areas in the historic area that are accessible to visitors with disabilities. (WYDaily/Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)

Colonial Williamsburg is one of the staples of the local community, but not everyone in the community has the same access to it.

“We take so for granted when you’re able to get up and walk to wherever you want to go,” said Pam McGregor, executive director of The Arc of Greater Williamsburg. “But anyplace present a problem, even the cobblestones.”

The Arc of Greater Williamsburg is an organization that works with people who have developmental disabilities. McGregor often works with individuals who have limited mobility and she said that while Colonial Williamsburg has made improvements in the past 15 years, there is always more to be done.

For Tyler Watson, a 26-year-old Williamsburg resident with cerebral palsy, the limits to accessibility have prevented him from going to Colonial Williamsburg as often as he did when he was younger.

“When he was younger it wasn’t a big deal to navigate his wheelchair or pick him up and carry him into places,” said Mel Watson, Tyler Watson’s father. “But he has gotten bigger and so is his wheelchair and it presents a really big challenge in Colonial Williamsburg.”

Watson said the close-knit buildings and lack of ramps are part of the reason his son has difficulty in the area. He recognizes though that older buildings, such as the ones in Colonial Williamsburg, might be difficult to fit into the Americans with Disabilities Act’s requirements for accessibility.

But that doesn’t mean that Colonial Williamsburg hasn’t tried.

The foundation has been able to build ramps on the side of Shields Tavern, Chowning’s Taverns, and, Tyler Watson’s personal favorite, the King’s Arms Tavern. Additionally, they have nine wheelchair accessible bathrooms. In recent years, McGregor also noticed the area has flattened part of the curbs in certain places for greater ease of mobility.

Overall, Mel Watson said there is still a lot of accessibility challenges that might present themselves with historic areas.

“We recognize that 18th-century architecture may present difficulties for those with physical disabilities and are working hard to ensure guests with disabilities have a wonderful and inclusive experience,” said Joe Straw, spokesman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

But it’s the small things that pose a challenge, McGregor said. For example, when there is an outdoor concert on the grass, people with limited mobility can struggle just to move across an area.

“We all know it rains a lot here and that means mud,” she said. “But everyone knows it would be difficult to ride a bike through the mud and it’s the same for a wheelchair.”

It can also be difficult just to get through a door, McGregor added, because wheelchairs are often large and very technical.

Straw said the foundation makes accessibility information readily available to guests through interpreters and informational packets. The area provides special parking needs and other accommodations.

But even with that visitors in wheelchairs, like Tyler Watson, are still having to pick and choose where they can fit in.

“From a cultural perspective, it’s part of the community they live in,” Mel Watson said. “(People with disabilities) should be comfortable going there and seeing whatever it is they want to see.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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