A European accessibilty round-up

A few months have passed since our trip around Europe, how on earth did that happen? Time has sped by, we've caught up with friends and family, reported back our findings through Trip Advisor and we have returned to Spain for a cheeky family holiday. And so now as we both pine for sunnier climes, I thought I'd write a blogpost reflecting on our trip and our experiences of European accessibility.

Lets talk about ramps:
It's sad to report that this article called 'Seven utterly ridiculous, dangerous and useless wheelchair ramps' just about sums up my opinion. This, seems to be the hottest topic when I think about our European adventure. It's not even about the lack of ramps or accessibility, I want to talk to you about the state of them! We've seen excessively long ones, incredibly short ones, totally inaccessible ones, you name it, we've encountered it. "How can a ramp be so bad?" I hear you ask, well, let me show you a few photos to explain what I mean.

Can any wheelchair users imagine even trying out these ramps? Yes, the first one does in fact have a step at the end! Being so steep, it's dangerous to use and I doubt some wheelchairs would even make it up to the top without toppling backwards. The second has a tree growing out of the centre, and the third is made of polished stone, here was my initial opinion from my Vienna blog:

"There are three reasons why this is highly unsafe: 1) they are extremely narrow and have no side guides so in wet weather a chair could easily slip sideways, not to mention all wheelchairs differ in width, 2) the rain makes the stone slope very slippery, there should be grip provided and 3) this is actually the exit to the museum and in front of this there is a short platform and then 15 more steps, where a wheelchair could easily slip down the ramp and down the steps in the rain. So as you can appreciate, we didn't go into the museum!"

Only once during the month long trip did we find a ramp that adhered to the 1:12 wheelchair access ramp ratio, and that was in Milan. Spain was the worst culprit, whereby most access ramps were the same length as the staircase, simply filled in with concrete! Or, the ramps were afterthoughts and builders had thrown some concrete against a doorframe to give a slight ramp effect, not at all safe or by any means accessible.

My advice here, as it always is, is to be prepared. Our hotel in Brussels had some fantastic ramps called Dunslope Lightweight, which you may remember me ranting about here. We've since bought these, as they are just excellent because they only weight 300g and can be stowed on the back of my wheelchair when needed. I just wish we had these ramps sooner as they would have been perfect for our stop in Venice. Having ramps such as these would mean that I could safely access buildings which I couldn't do beforehand, so if you're thinking of travelling, I'd absolutely recommend some lightweight ramps as my telescopic ones were very heavy to take with us.

Lets talk about hotels:

Hotels were surprisingly all pretty good around Europe, I don't know if I'm just programmed to expect the worse when it comes to accessibility but genuinely, we didn't have too many hiccups along the way. Of course, I had strategically booked hotels where I'd questioned them ruthlessly about the rooms beforehand, but a few did fail to mention that their beds were incompatible with mobile hoists. I'd stress again, how important this is to push onto the hotel. We were fortunate that we knew it may be an issue and packed some blocks to put under the feet of the bed to raise them up (as I've discussed before, we prefer wooden blocks over the clinical bed raisers because it gives us more options and can accommodate different types of beds), but this may not be an option for all disabled travellers.

You may also like to ask the hotels about the bedroom flooring. Some of the luxury hotels on our trip had long pile shaggy carpet, and, however nice it felt under foot, it was far from practical when trying to manoeuvre a mobile hoist. Not was it helpful when it came to wheeling a dripping wet sling from the showering during transfers! So again, double and trip check with the hotels as to what they actually have, rather than what their websites show.

I write myself a hotel check list, of things I need to ask when booking:

1) Which floor is the accessible room situated?
2) Does the accessible room have a wet room en suite?
3) Does the bathroom have an accessible toilet or is it enclosed around a privacy wall?
4) Does the bathroom sink have any accessibility features?
5) Is there free accessible parking outside the hotel?
6) What is the fire and safety regulations in the hotel?
7) Are the lifts and doorways all standard width throughout the hotel?
8) Are the bedrooms fully equipped with amply electricity sockets?
9) Is the bed on legs or on a block on the floor?

Lets talk about public transport:

Let me start by saying, that I do not use public transport when I'm in England. Living in rural Devon means that busses take long and windy routes through the villages, so the rides are very bumpy and the bus drivers seem to throw the bus and myself around a lot, so in general, I avoid them like the plague. Furthermore, I rarely use the rail system in England as I find it frustrating to ring and book in advance to ensure a disabled space, whatever happened to spontaneous decisions?

That is not the case at all in almost all of the European cities that we visited. All of them had ample space for wheelchair seating, they had the time and patience to help disabled passengers on and off without worry, and they had a lot of information readily available in the public transport stations. Every staff member was happy to assist during our time away, and in some cases such as Barcelona where only half of the underground metro is accessible, a guide spent a good half an hour helping us plan an accessible route home.

I was extremely impressed to be able to turn up unannounced and be able to take public transport with such ease. The undergrounds especially were very easy to use, often with clear signage to show where wheelchairs would be best to wait to board the metro. I did not expect to be able to rely on taking public transport in my electric wheelchair but by the end of our trip we became very confident in assuming that places would be accessible for us, and they were!

One very quick note to make here is that "wheelchair accessible" and "step free access path" are two very different things entirely. I wasn't sure if it was poor translation but we unfortunately found out the hard way that step free access path does not always mean accessible, it just means that there isn't a step along the way. There may be, however, a huge step up into the metro, which we found out in Prague. Helpful!

Lets talk about attitudes:

This is a difficult subject to discuss as it seemed to affect David and my PAs rather than me, I suppose I'm so used to being stared at that I'm used to it by now (and I like to think it's because they're admiring my hair). As a child on family holidays to France, we'd often be stopped to 'inspect' me and pointed at in the street, I assume because it was rare to see an electric wheelchair and moreso because the person driving it was so young, so I had expect a few shifty looks during our trip around Europe, especially in some of the smaller countries where healthcare is dealt with very differently from our NHS system.

Thankfully in generally, it really wasn't as bad as I had anticipated. I expect because we had visited a lot of cities, that the tourists just didn't bat an eyelid that I was in a wheelchair as they'd seen one before and they had plenty of other things to look at instead. I did however get some fantastic glares in and around Venice, I guess it isn't every day that you see a big electric wheelchair cruising down the Grand Canal in the Vaporetto, but it was so worth it! And in actual fact, however cosmopolitan and contemporary Milan is supposed to be, the attitudes and looks that people gave me there were the worst of all the countries we visited, and I'd expect a little more compassion and friendliness from the Italians if I'm honest.

What I'm trying to say here, is that you can be anywhere in the world, even in your home town and someone somewhere will turn to look twice at your wheelchair. Yes, it's rude and it's frustrating that society isn't immediately accepting of peoples differences, but it's also part of the inquisitive mind of humans to take another look. There's no need to be cautious about going on holiday to a country which may not be so experienced in handling disabled people, and the more rural you go, the friendlier,  accepting and more helpful citizens seem to be assisting, which I wouldn't have expected at all.

So you've read the ins and outs, you've got links for all my resources and you know what you need to pack. What's stopping you? Where are you going to go next?