Traveling with a disability in Europe


Reid Davenport takes a break in Florence, Italy. He wanted to study there when he was a student at George Washington University. (Mark Abramson )
July 25, 2013

Isat in the underground train exhausted, wondering how long it would be before we got to our stop. There was no announcement coming from the overhead speakers, but a man’s voice saying “Mind the gap” rang in my ears. My friend Pat was sitting next to me, holding my collapsible wheelchair in place.

“I was right,” I said to him. “Europe is not accessible.”

I was visiting Pat and two other American friends studying in England. As we made our way to downtown London, Pat had to carry my wheelchair up and down flights of stairs at various tube stations because most of the elevators were out of service. Because there were no ramps, I was constantly forced to get up from my chair at various points to mount a step or more. And the 18-inch gap between the train cars and the platform made me wonder how British residents in electric wheelchairs manage to get around.

It was something I’d been wondering about for a while.

I’ve used an electric wheelchair since my freshman year at George Washington University. I have cerebral palsy, and although I’m ambulatory, I tire quickly. My whole body is affected by my disability, from my tight legs to my spastic shoulders to my abnormal speech. Still, I’ve lived completely independently since I entered college in 2008.

All through my college years (I graduated in May 2012), I’d planned on visiting Italy, my grandmother’s homeland, and studying there. In my junior year, I was accepted into a study abroad program in Florence.

It wasn’t until after I was accepted that I disclosed my CP, which prompted a round of phone conversations with the program concerning accommodations. I knew that Europe wasn’t as wheelchair-friendly as the United States, or at least Washington, but I’d never thought that a lack of accessibility would cause a study abroad program to discourage me from participating in it.

But the program administrators said that if I brought my electric wheelchair to Florence, they might have trouble finding a host family with an accessible home and would probably have to house me more than a mile from campus. The city’s cobblestoned sidewalks, they said, were very narrow and sometimes had no curb cuts. They suggested that I consider having either a student or an assistant push me in a lightweight manual wheelchair, which would be easier to navigate because the front wheels could pop up if there was no curb cut in the sidewalk. They also said that they were skeptical that the elevators in the program’s buildings were large enough for an electric wheelchair.

After these phone calls, it seemed as if going to Florence had the potential to become months of misery. Disappointed, I decided to stay home and watched my friends go abroad without me.

Though I knew that the lack of accessibility in Italy didn’t necessarily reflect the situation in all of Europe, I also knew from my limited travel there that accessibility is different from what it is in the United States. My experience visiting Pat revived my interest in shooting a documentary about the subject.

In April 2011, I received a $5,000 fellowship to make the movie and raised an additional $8,000 through Kickstarter. After eight months of fundraising, finding subjects to interview and planning every step (and roll) of the trip, my cameraman, Mark Abramson, and I went to Europe. We visited Dublin, Brussels, Naples, Florence and Paris, interviewing 13 Europeans with disabilities in three weeks and learning a lot about the very different accessibility situation that U.S. travelers with disabilities face in the Old World.

The Irish way

The first stop was Dublin. At the airport, Mark and I found my wheelchair, which had been stored in the luggage compartment, in two pieces. Not sure whether it had been damaged, we wearily reassembled it with the help of an airport employee. Luckily, it seemed to be working fine.

From the airport, we were supposed to be able to get on an accessible bus that would bring us close to our hotel. But the drivers told us that they needed a day’s notice to accommodate an electric wheelchair. So we settled instead on an accessible taxi, which was more expensive.

The taxi was a van that stood a good bit off the ground. To create a pathway for my chair, the driver placed two skinny metal strips from the floor of the van to the sidewalk. The wheels of my chair barely fit on these skinny strips, and it was difficult to maneuver up into the van. Fortunately, the newer accessible cabs in Dublin have a single ramp that’s safer and easier to mount.

In Ireland, I met Gavin Fannin, in his early 40s, who has chronic progressive multiple sclerosis and can no longer walk without assistance, so he uses a wheelchair to get around. “It seems that there are only certain routes and certain places you can go to when you’re in a wheelchair,” Fannin told me.

The city’s cobblestone sidewalks make it difficult for people who use manual wheelchairs to get around. And though some bars and restaurants are accessible, they generally don’t have accessible bathrooms.

Fannin’s mobility concerns, he said, are “all about what bar I can get into, what is accessible, what toilets are accessible. So usually, you know, with my friends, it’s like, all right, we’re going out tonight and they’ll ask me where we’re going,” he said. “Most of the accessible bars are not particularly good bars.”

Getting into bars isn’t the only problem. “Restaurants are marginally better. Coffee shops . . . no. There are very few coffee shops that have a bathroom that is accessible,” Fannin said. “I think in Dublin city, in the city center, there’s one cinema that’s accessible. And that has a really humiliating lift where I sit in a wheelchair and it goes very slowly up and down. And even the person operating it feels bad for me.”

After our first meeting with Fannin, it took us about an hour to get an accessible cab to our hotel. One of our cab drivers alleged that even though there are many accessible — and therefore larger — cabs in Dublin, lots of drivers use them to ferry more people instead of picking up people in wheelchairs.

The train system, on the other hand, seemed much better at accommodating people with disabilities. Unlike my experience in the London tube, I found elevators that actually functioned and gapless entries onto trains.

Parisian problems

In Paris, both our filmmaking sense of scenery and our cliched tourist instincts drew my cameraman and me to the Eiffel Tower. Initially, my wheelchair proved to be a glowing asset, as we skipped the long line to go up into one of the world’s most recognizable structures. But after we took the first elevator halfway up, we discovered that to get to the next elevator, which would take us to the top, you have to go up a set of stairs.

Yes, the top of the Eiffel Tower is inaccessible to disabled travelers.

It was disappointing, but not entirely surprising.

“Living in a wheelchair in the U.S. is much easier than in France,” said Matthieu Bonvoisin, who was a 25-year-old law student in Paris when I met him but had lived and worked in Washington. He’s currently in Washington working for the World Bank. “I think it’s different because when you walk in the street in the U.S., you don’t feel the same look. I mean, people don’t see you as different. When you enter a bus, it’s natural for people to lend you some space to park your wheelchair. In France, this is not natural.”

Bonvoisin was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition that makes his muscles weak and affects his respiration. He has never been able to walk and his hands are also affected, but when we met, he was studying American business law at the Sorbonne.

He managed this even though the entrance to the main building of that prestigious university isn’t wheelchair accessible. Bonvoisin had to circle around to an entrance at the back to get inside. But on Saturdays, that entrance is blocked by a graffiti-covered gate, even though the building and the inaccessible entrance are open. So studying or meeting classmates at the university on Saturdays wasn’t an option for him.

He told me that the vast majority of French buses and trains are likewise inaccessible. “In D.C., as you know, you can take every bus, you can enter every Metro station without any problem. Everything is accessible. Here in France, it’s not the same.”

While the Metro in Paris is accessible, workers have to deploy a portable ramp over the gap between the platform and the train for those in wheelchairs, which is yet another waiting game for travelers with disabilities. When I rode the Metro, many trains would pass before a worker was able to unlock the ramp and lay it down for my wheelchair.

Brussels breaks

My wheelchair arrived broken at the airport in Brussels. I tried and tried to turn it on, but it was completely dead. After waiting at the airport for several hours to report the damage, we left with a non-working wheelchair and uncertainty about where to turn.

For the next two days, I called the airline to demand a solution to my broken chair. Airline personnel offered only flimsy promises and then wouldn’t call back when they promised to. Fed up and worried about the movie, I asked Francois Colinet, a Brussels resident who also uses a wheelchair, whether he knew of a place where I could take it to be repaired. He recommended a wheelchair shop where it took someone about 10 minutes to fix the problem with the battery, at no charge.

Colinet, who is in his early 30s, has lived in Brussels all his life. Having been diagnosed with CP as an infant, he uses a wheelchair to get around the city. He told me that people with disabilities still face constant discrimination in Brussels. Only about a quarter of buses, trams and metro stations are accessible, he said. At the local cinema, he has to wait until a movie is shown in one of the accessible theaters before he can see it. Restaurants and bars are complicated to get into.

I experienced that when Colinet and I searched for somewhere to eat near his apartment. Colinet usually parks his wheelchair outside a restaurant and removes the key that starts it. My chair doesn’t have a key, so we needed to find an accessible establishment. It was only after passing restaurant after restaurant that we finally found a place that didn’t have a step up to enter.

Colinet said that he feels much freer when he travels to the United States to see family, because it’s a lot easier to find buildings with access ramps and accessible bathrooms. “Europe is an old continent, so we have a lot of old structures, old buildings,” he said. “And we don’t have [things] like the Americans With Disabilities Act.”

Still, he counts his blessings. People in Europe, he said, are starting to recognize that for people like him, disability is only one aspect of their lives. “Europe did wake up like 15 years ago about it,” he said.

He said he’s thankful for all the improvements that have been made because of this new consciousness. “I always say that if I was born 50 years ago, I would not even be able to go to school,” he said.

Accepting the challenge

Travelers with disabilities, as well as older people who want to spend their golden years traveling the world, certainly face an uphill battle. Still, the challenge of access isn’t insurmountable. Though I had my fair share of disruptions during my quixotic quest, it’s worth remembering that I traveled to four countries in 20 days with thousands of dollars worth of filming equipment. It’s diffi cult to imagine a trip of that nature going completely as planned, wheelchair or not.

The main impediment to a successful trip around Western Europe is public transportation, including the airlines. If you’ll be using public transportation, call ahead and find out whether handling a wheelchair requires a reservation of some sort. The safest bet for getting around a city is to call an accessible taxi, which are more prevalent in Western Europe than in Washington. But be forewarned: In some places, the meter starts as soon as you hang up the phone. By the time a cab got to our hotel in Paris and loaded me in, the meter was already at 18 euros ($23).

Planning everything — from the accessibility of specific venues to making sure that your current converter has the appropriate voltage to power your chair — is a must. Be prepared to shell out a few more euros for cabs, ask the concierges for suggestions and have resourceful local contacts in case something goes wrong.

Mostly, exercise common sense. And don’t get discouraged. But then, if you’re a person with a disability who travels all the same, you wouldn’t, would you?

Davenport, a 2012 George Washington University graduate, is pursuing a journalism career in Washington. His documentary, “Wheelchair Diaries: One Step Up,” premieres July 27 at the Awareness Festival in Los Angeles.

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