If you want to go on holiday in a wheelchair you encounter all kinds of things. Not everyone tends to understand the needs of a disabled person or his/her carer. Quite often you have to improvise, adapt to want you find, use the possibilities. Usually the devil is in the detail.
One of the first times we tried out staying in a hotel after my husband became wheelchairbound, we traveled to Rouen in France. This is not too far from home, so we could hotfoot it back if things went wrong. We stayed in a budgethotel of the B&B-chain. We quite liked the facilities in the ‘disabled room’. Simple but adequate, certainly if you are only planning on staying a night or two. Later, in other hotels of the same chain, we sometimes ran into problems or just little annoyances. You start asking yourself: have I become more critical now we have seen other options, or are these hotels so much worse?
Returning home from holiday this year we returned to this hotel in Rouen, after having stayed in a B&B-hotel in Angers on the way down.
It answered my question: it is just tiny details that can make the difference. I hope the pictures illustrate my point. Just by way of an example: the toilet in the bathroom in Rouen is positioned at an angle compared to Angers. This means no manoeuvring the wheelchair between the transfer to and from the toilet and then going to the washbasin. It makes such a big difference for me as carer helping with the transfer!
It sometimes feels as if designers only push an empty wheel chair through a room to assess whether a place is accessible (if they even do that). They don’t seem to realise that when there is a person in that chair he or she needs more room. That person tends to have legs that stick out. Also, someone in a wheelchair can usually not manage an acute right angle, they need more room to manoeuvre. Building regulations are sometimes inadequate. Ensuring that a door is wide enough doesn’t help if you have to get u p a few steps to get to that door. I have heard stories that sometimes holiday accommodations in France have been labelled wheelchair accessible because the doors are wide enough, but then you find that the bedroom and bathroom are on the first floor. Going somewhere always means a thorough preparation and make sure you ask all the questions of the specific things you need. Photographs on a website do not always answer all your questions. If you cannot get to a very nicely adapted bathroom that doesn’t help! And of course, no two people need the same adaptations. What is accessible for us can be inadequate to someone else.
Not just accommodation is important. When you go on holiday you might like to see the sights. And there again, not every tourist authority understands what wheelchair accessibility entails. When I get to a unknown town or city I will usually start at the tourist information centre, ask for a map and information about accessibility. Sometimes with great success, sometimes not (like one time I couldn’t even take my husband into the building because you had to get up stairs to get to the entrance). This year we had two completely opposite experiences. Fortunately it is not always this extreme.
In Clermont-Ferrand the route of the proposed walk around the historical centre was só steep downhill that I had to abandon it. I could hardly hold on to the wheelchair, and knew I had to get back up the hill too. Later a friend told me that at the other side of the hill there was a lift to the lower part of town, but that was not mentioned at the tourist information centre.
In Angers however, we got a map with a special route for the disabled. This map also showed where along the route there were disabled parking spots, where the public disabled toilets were situated, where along the route you could find benches, so the person pushing the wheelchair can rest, and information about the accessibility of tourist attractions along the route. The map shows in different colours how steep the route is and what less steep alternatives are, where there are busy crossings, etc.
To top it off, for the whole route there is a path of flat marble paving in the middle of cobbled pavements, with a special stone indication the route. So it is possible! Really wonderful!
The rest of our holiday this year was a blend of old trusted places with new experiences. First we went back to holidayparc l’Accolade on the Ile d’Oléron for two weeks. It gave us both the possibility to rest and enjoy the familiar features and facilities. It gave me the respite of letting others provide part of the necessary care.
One day a volunteer joined us on an excursion to help with pushing the wheelchair. So it was more of a holiday for me too. The last week we went to a new holiday home for us in the Auvergne, called Les Gicons. It is on a farm in a very quiet location. Some of the outbuildings of the old farm have been transformed into simple and rustic holiday homes, of which two are wheelchair accessible. They don’t have all the facilities, but are quite accessible with some flexibility. Here I had to provide all the necessary care myself, but after the respite break of the first two weeks that was no problem. You get the added privacy in return.
Accessibility at some of the tourist attractions we visited were very good, like the Vulcania-parc and the little mountain train to the top of Puy de Dome. Another day, at the gardens of Champs de Bataille I had to look for quite a long time for someone to open the gate completely, because I couldn’t get the wheelchair through the little door in the gate. Pushing the wheelchair through the gravel paths wasn’t very easy either, and the castle itself was not accessible at all even if it has recently been renovated. And at some of the country houses we visited in England we saw it is quite possible to arrange wheelchair accessibility to older properties.
All in all I can safely say that tourism in a wheelchair depends a lot on your own expectations, wishes, and preparation. If you are happy with a basic level of accessibility and flexible enough to find solutions to the problems you encounter, holiday does not have to be a problem. And sometimes others can surprise you with the solutions they have come up with so you really can enjoy your holiday too. However, if you expect a higher level of adaptations it might mean that you have to look harder, prepare better, and of course prepare to be disappointed. It certainly isn’t impossible! Sometimes you just have to work harder because other can’t imagine what you might need.