By Susan Sygall and the staff from Mobility International USA
More and more people with disabilities are heading to Europe, and more of us are looking for the Back Door routes. We, like so many of our nondisabled peers, want to get off the tourist track and experience the real France, Italy, or Portugal. Yes, that includes those of us who use wheelchairs. I've been traveling the "Rick Steves way" since about 1973 — and here are some of my best tips.
I use a lightweight manual wheelchair with pop-off tires. I take a backpack that fits on the back of my chair and store my daypack underneath my chair in a net bag. Since I usually travel alone, if I can't carry it myself, I don't take it. I keep a bungee cord with me for the times I can't get my chair into a car and need to strap it in the trunk or when I need to secure it on a train. I always insist on keeping my own wheelchair up to the airline gate, where I then check it at the gate. When I have a connecting flight, I again insist that I use my own chair.
Bathrooms are often a hassle, so I have learned to use creative ways to transfer into narrow spaces. To be blatantly honest, when there are no accessible bathrooms in sight, I have found ways to pee discreetly just about anywhere (outside the Eiffel Tower or on a glacier in a national park). You gotta do what you gotta do, and hopefully one day the access will improve, but in the meantime there is a world out there to be discovered. Bring along an extra pair of pants and a great sense of humor.
I always try to learn some of the language of the country I'm in, because it cuts through the barriers when people stare at you (and they will) and also comes in handy when you need assistance in going up a curb or a flight of steps. Don't accept other people's notions of what is possible — I have climbed Masada in Israel and made it to the top of the Acropolis in Greece.
If a museum lacks elevators for visitors, be sure to ask about freight elevators. Almost all have them somewhere, and that can be your ticket to seeing a world-class treasure.
I always get information about disability groups in the places I am going. See the resources listed at the end of this article for a number of helpful organizations. They have the best access information, and many times they'll become your new traveling partners and friends. They can show you the best spots. Remember that you are part of a global family of people with disabilities.
It can be useful to contact tourism offices and local transit providers before you travel. Some even include information on their websites about accessibility for people with disabilities.
Each person with a disability has unique needs and interests. Many of my friends use power wheelchairs, are blind or deaf, or have other disabilities — they all have their own travel tips. People who have difficulty walking long distances might want to think about taking a lightweight wheelchair or borrowing one when needed — many places in Europe have mobility scooter rentals, and bike shops are excellent for tire repairs if you get a flat. Whether you travel alone, with friends, or with an assistant, you're in for a great adventure.
Don't confuse being flexible and having a positive attitude with settling for less than your rights. I expect equal access and constantly let people know about the possibility of providing access through ramps or other modifications. When I believe my rights have been violated, I do whatever is necessary to remedy the situation, so that the next traveler or disabled person in that country won't have the same frustrations.
Keep in mind that accessibility can mean different things in different countries. In some countries, people rely more on human-support systems than on physical or technological solutions. People may tell you their building is accessible because they're willing to lift you and your wheelchair over the steps at the entryway. Be open to trying new ways of doing things, but also ask questions to make sure you are comfortable with the access provided.
Hopefully more books will include accessibility information, which will allow everyone to see Europe "through the Back Door." Let's work toward making that door accessible so we can all be there together.
Tips for Travelers with Disabilities
If you don't travel much, speak to someone with a similar disability who has traveled before. Consult with your travel agent, hotel, airline, and others to understand the services available for your trip, or contact disability organizations overseas at your destination (list available at www.miusa.org).
Tours: If you'd rather not go it alone, several groups run accessible tours to Europe, including:
• Accessible Journeys: Wheelchair trips to Britain, France, and Holland (tel. 800-846-4537)
• Flying Wheels Travel: Escorted tours to Great Britain and France, plus custom itineraries (tel. 877-451-5006)
• Accessible Europe: Collection of European travel agents and tour operators who specialize in disabled travel
• Sage Traveling: Organization helping people with disabilities plan their European vacations and providing accessibility reviews of European destinations.
Medical Issues: If needed, see your physician before your trip to identify your health-care needs during the trip. You may want to carry medical-alert information and a letter from your health-care provider describing your medical condition, medications, potential complications, and other pertinent medical information. Carry sufficient prescription medication to last your entire trip. For more on health issues, see Tips for Healthy, Happy Travels.
Medical treatment and hospital care abroad can be expensive. Buying short-term health insurance and emergency assistance policies is a good idea. Read the policies' definitions of pre-existing conditions to make sure any needs you have are covered.
Travelers' Rights: Know your rights as a traveler with a disability. If, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you feel you have been discriminated against (such as not being allowed on a US tour company's trip to Europe because of your disability), call the US Department of Justice ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 or 800-541-0383 TTY, or visit www.ada.gov. The US Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division (ACPD) handles complaints regarding the Air Carrier Access Act, and has a toll-free Disability Hotline (tel. 800-778-4838 or 800-455-9880 TTY).
Traveling with Service Animals: Allow plenty of time to obtain the necessary documents if you plan to travel with your service animal. It can take weeks or months to obtain the necessary documentation, and guide dogs must meet health standards to avoid quarantines. Refer to Mobility International's helpful tip sheet. Assistance Dogs Europe and the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners can provide overseas contacts.
Exchange Opportunities: If you are interested in studying, teaching, researching, or volunteering abroad, contact the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE) at Mobility International USA for free information and referrals. Whether you're considering traveling abroad to learn a new language, or looking for a way to make your experience more meaningful by volunteering, the NCDE has resources to answer many of your questions.
Visually Impaired: The book Sites Unseen: Traveling the World Without Sight (available in Braille and other formats) helps make travel to Europe accessible. Blind author Wendy David talks about her personal experience traveling in the US and Europe, giving tips on riding public transportation, navigating around town, and figuring out currency.