Travelling in a wheelchair is rarely easy, but it’s certainly achievable. To show you how, we’ve asked Susie from travel reviews website wheelchairworld.org to give us her top tips on travelling the globe – all from the comfort of your wheelchair.
See the mountain gorillas in Rwanda when in a wheelchair? Surely impossible! But I know that it IS possible because I have found reviews from other wheelchair users who have done it!
My name is Susie Twydell, I’m 39 years old and I have been a full-time wheelchair user for the last four years. I absolutely love travelling – before I was in a wheelchair I had visited 70 countries.
Now things are a lot more challenging and require a much more preparation. But that hasn’t stopped me – in the past four years I have visited nearly 20 countries in my wheelchair.
I now want to make a dream I have had for years a reality – seeing the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
Accessible travel reviews
Like many people, I feared being in a chair would stop my travelling dreams coming true. So I started to search for other wheelchair user’s experiences, to find out what was possible. I soon discovered that there is a wealth incredibly useful information and amazing reviews out there, both from and for wheelchair users.
Having been inspired by other wheelchair users to realise my dreams, I have spent the last few years working incredibly hard to bring as many of them together as possible on my website, wheelchairworld.org. There are now reviews for more than 90 countries!
I’ve learnt so much in the last few years, particularly with regards to what the common travel pitfalls are that can negatively impact a wheelchair user’s holiday. So, I would like to share some top tips on travelling in a wheelchair to help make your next trip that bit easier.
Preparing for your accessible holiday
Don’t believe everything you read
Use hotel search engines, such as Trivago or bookings.com, as a guide, not gospel! They may say a hotel is wheelchair accessible, but you will need to verify this by contacting the hotel directly. When a hotel listing is created, it seems to be up to the hotel to say whether or not their accommodation is actually wheelchair accessible, even when there have been reviews to the contrary, so be wary.
Check the location of the hotel
Make sure the hotel is in an accessible area. Cobblestones immediately outside the hotel are not going to ease you into the day!
Be aware of the time difference
If you are telephoning somewhere overseas, it is likely that the night staff will have the lowest level of English. To speak to someone with better English, call during the day their time.
Don’t be put off by a misunderstanding
If you speak to someone who doesn’t seem to understand your questions, or says ‘no’ without appearing to have properly understood, try calling again at a different time, or ask to speak to ‘reservations’.
Make sure your needs are covered
Wheelchair accessibility can mean a variety of different things to different people, so ensure that you have asked about adaptions for your specific needs. For example, ‘wheelchair accessible’ may mean level access only, so if you need further adaptations, such as grab rails around the toilet, make sure you get confirmation that these exist.
Ask for photos of any adaptations
Even if the person on the phone says yes, they may not have completely understood your needs. If you can get a photo of the facilities, that is the ultimate goal. I have heard many stories of someone being told something is accessible, but turning up to find issues, particularly with regards to bathrooms.
Check bathroom adaptions
Grab rails are not a universal design. I have seen toilets with permanently fixed grab rails, and ones with wall-mounted grab rails. I have even seen hotels where the builders clearly didn’t know where they needed to be installed, and so plonked them vertically on the wall directly behind the toilet!
If you need side-entry of a toilet, make sure you see the toilet itself. I have seen ones in a recess of the bathroom, so surrounded by walls on three sides. I have also seen a toilet right next to the shower cubicle.
Also, from my experience, a lot of so-called ‘wheelchair accessible bathrooms’ do not have a roll-in shower. If this is a deal breaker for you, this is definitely something to check/verify before you visit.
Once you’re on your accessible holiday
Learn some of the local lingo
If you are going somewhere overseas (or calling) where English is not their first language, I find it very useful to learn a couple of stock phrases in their language, such as ‘excuse me’, ‘sorry’, as well as disability-related ones, such as ‘wheelchair’ and ‘ramp’. It can be very helpful to have basic language for the things you’ll require – people generally do not learn, or are not familiar with, the language of accessibility! Just as is the case in the UK, people are not looking for wheelchairs and will often only move when you make your presence known!
Familiarise yourself with the transport options
Before you travel, find out which, if any, of the public transport services are wheelchair accessible. On some public transport websites, you can often find a plan of the station, or even the transport itself. These can help you determine which entrance is the designated wheelchair accessible one, for example.
However, be aware that the operation of access ramps often rely on the good grace of the transport driver/conductor. For example, I was very impressed by the vehicle plans of the trams in Basel, showing which doors were the designated wheelchair entrances.
But I then found out that the manual ramps required the driver to get out of his/her seat and come and unlock the ramp. All of the drivers that I encountered were VERY unhappy about doing this, and indicated that I should just freefall down to the street level!
I had the completely opposite experience in Japan. The bus drivers were massively helpful and seemed to take great pride in not only opening the ramp for me but also making sure that the wheelchair area on the bus was clear.
State the obvious
It may be obvious to you that you will need space for your wheelchair or a ramp, or that you cannot climb stairs/get yourself over a gate, but I cannot tell you the number of times that people have exclaimed ‘oh! I didn’t realise that this would be a problem’ when I have arrived at the foot of stairs/padlocked gate/narrow doorway.
I hope these tips have helps. You may have done many, or all, of these things before, and find little to learn from such lists of ‘tips’. I have, on occasion, thought that too. But even one small tip can make the world of difference – for example, learning that a certain city is in fact very hilly, or where the closest disabled toilet is. This is the kind of information that you will generally only get from other wheelchair users.
As well as lots of reviews from countries such as the USA, Spain and the UK, wheelchairworld.org also has reviews of countries you might not have even dreamt of travelling to as a wheelchair user, like Ethiopia!
In addition to the travel reviews, wheelchairworld.org has travel resources from the various ministries of tourism, created especially for people with disabilities. For example, it has information from Florid-able from visitflorida.com and the Danish government’s accessibility search engine godadgang.dk. I have painstakingly contacted the ministries of tourism from every country and been given links to some really useful resources.
I hope it all helps you make your dream trip a reality!