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AYL Travel Tips – Accessibility Abroad

Oct 09, 2019

* This post is kindly sponsored by the companies listed at the end of this post, but all opinions are my own. *

One of my previous blog posts highlights the importance of choosing your travel dates; picking your destination; making an agenda; finding suitable accommodation and researching suitable transport links. However, many of you got in touch after reading that post to ask how I navigate destinations that aren’t particularly easy to access, so I thought it might useful to discuss this topic in more detail! We all know that many parts of the world have a reputation for not being very accessible, due to the fact so many buildings, areas and public spaces were not designed to accommodate guests with disabilities. Whilst there will always be challenges surrounding accessibility, I have learnt first hand that the more research you do, the more accessible and successful your trip will be. Obviously you need to consider your own situation when choosing which attractions to visit, which hotels to stay in, which restaurants to dine in, as well as which things you might want to avoid! For example, I am sure many of you will have heard that "Venice is not wheelchair accessible" or "Paris has poor accessibility." Yet accessible gondolas do exist in Venice, climbing hills in Paris is entirely possible, and you don't have to take the "donkey path" up the cliffs when visiting the Greek Island of Santorini!

As mentioned above, booking your trip in advance ensures that you have plenty of time to refine your travel plans! Something that is particularly important if you are planning to travel in peak seasons because many hotels only have one or two accessible rooms. You also need to clarify that the lovely accessible hotel you found isn’t in a ridiculously inaccessible part of town, so make sure you always research the area surrounding your hotel. I typically use Google Maps' Street View to do this, as it gives you a great insight into the lay of the land; before emailing the hotel with any questions I have.

Once you have done this, you can focus on planning the most accessible routes, attractions and even dining options to ensure you don’t waste time struggling to find something suitable upon arrival! There'll likely be numerous ways to get to your preferred attractions, as some routes may have wheelchair ramps, smooth pavements, and flat terrain; where as others may have steep hills, cobblestones, and flights of stairs. So make sure to look into the accessibility of the local paths/sidewalks, bus routes, subway stations, as well as the location of accessible building entrances before your trip. Despite the endless online resources, we have access to nowadays, I always contact the venue directly to ensure the information I have gathered is correct! For anyone looking to take part in a pre-organised tour, consider asking if the route is flat, smooth and accessible; if you will be expected to keep up with able-bodied members; or if they have previous experience in assisting guests with disabilities!

Sadly sometimes no amount of research is enough to cover every eventuality, so always ensure you have a backup plan! For me this includes preparing for every eventuality, traveling with someone who can assist me/advocate for me, remaining as flexible as possible and learning to accept that little mishaps don’t have to ruin my trip! I have had to deal with the anti-tip bar on my wheelchair snapping on Brooklyn Bridge, my wheelchair breaks dropping off on a boat in Orlando and getting stranded in Paris due to an unexpected snowstorm! Because of this, I always pack extra supplies, a puncture repair kit, allen keys and tape! Although sadly as much as we try, some things are just not safe/possible/accessible for guests with disabilities! I‘ve been turned away many times when traveling abroad, visiting other parts of the UK, or even when exploring my home town in the North East. But I have finally learnt to accept these outcomes and instead begin searching for a suitable alternative; so never give up!

It is amazing how creative you become when you have no option but to transfer in a narrow space, use a highly inaccessible bathroom or to get into a building with poor wheelchair access. For example, many people are willing to help if you ask, which is something I had to do when the only lift in a train station was broken prior to one of the England Rugby World Cup games at Twickenham Stadium; I have discreetly catheterised into a bottle in the most random places and administered injections in very unhygienic environments. Hopefully one day the access will improve, but in the meantime, there is a world out there to be discovered, so you’ve gotta do what you gotta do to enjoy your travels! Just try to have an open mind and a sense of humour, because it definitely  makes the whole experience easier!

Obviously your individual needs play a big part in the process of planning a trip, handling unexpected bumps in the roads and navigating a foreign country. But for me I find travelling with a lightweight manual wheelchair is particularly useful, because someone can always tip my chair back and bump me up or down a steep kerb etc. However, I understand this not always possible for those people travelling alone, or for those of you that require a powered wheelchair/mobility scooter; therefore, I recommend taking a small, lightweight and portable Featherlight Ramp from Secret Access. I actually met someone using a mobility scooter in Paris, who had one of these ramps to ensure her small wheels didn’t get stuck in the gap between the platform and train when riding the subway. The ramp itself was so easy to use that she could transport it on the back of her scooter, before quickly lifting it off/up with just one finger! Secret Access strive to provide the best/bespoke access solutions to any accessibility related problems, not just those requiring a portable solution for their travels; so I recommend getting in touch with the team for more information, but don’t forget to tell them we sent you!

I would also highly recommend a set of Loopwheels to any manual wheelchair users looking for a way to ensure you can comfortably navigate your chosen destination! These vibration reducing wheels have been specially designed to help wheelchair users get around with ease, meaning the integral suspension would allow you to comfortably tackle uneven surfaces during your travels. I can honestly say that I would not have been able to enjoy rolling down the cobblestones on Main Street USA in Disneyland Paris, the broken pathways in New Yorks Central Park and some of the beautiful walkways that surround the open waters in Vermont. This is because my wheelchair creates such strong vibrations when going over the even the tiniest of bumps, which in turn instantly flares my pain and fatigue levels. Loopwheels also offer a ‘try before you buy scheme’  that allows potential customers to trial a set of wheels for 21 days, before committing to purchasing an expensive item that could otherwise end up gathering dust if you didn’t get on with them! But don’t forget that there are lots of other ways to ensure you can safely and comfortably get around; for example, attaching an all terrain FreeWheel to your wheelchair, or hiring a Mobility Scooter! Although I know the process of finding a suitable device can feel very overwhelming at times, which is why I would recommend contacting a durable medical equipment supplier such as Epical Solutions for some advice before embarking on your trip!

To summarise, traveling abroad isn’t about being cooped up in your hotel all day. It’s also about not letting your disability or impairment prevent you from seeing the sights and wonders of the world. Of course, what’s feasible will depend on your condition, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to take part in snow sports, visit the pyramids of Egypt or discover Peru’s Machu Picchu. Remember you don’t even have to get on a plane to make lifelong memories, as there are so many amazing destinations in the UK that you can discover. So please share your favourite destinations in the comments below or via our social media pages, as it may inspire someone else to plan an adventure of their own!

Thank you to the following companies for sponsoring this collection of blog posts! I will be sharing more information on each of the sponsors at the end of the series, but in the meantime you can click on the links below to learn more about their products and services: