I’m an accessible travel writer, which means it’s my job to personally investigate and report the wheelchair accessibility of the places I visit. I’ve been a professional writer in other areas for 14 years, but my “training” for the accessibility part is personal experience as a wheelchair user. There are several other writers just like me, and while we each have our own specialties and writing styles, we’re all pretty much doing the same thing. However, I’ve had the misfortune of coming across blog posts or Internet articles written by non-wheelchair users with little or no travel writing experience about supposedly wheelchair accessible destinations. This angers me to no end, so I thought I’d jot down some tips for wheelchair users about how to find the most reliable information online regarding a destination’s wheelchair accessibility.
1. Find a blog post by a wheelchair user who’s been there. Of course if you’re reading this, you already know that I’m one of these bloggers! But even a basic Google search will turn up some great blog posts by my colleagues and fellow wheelchair users who have been to different places all over the world. Absolutely nothing beats actually seeing the accessibility, or lack thereof, of a destination with your own eyes. I’ve been disappointed in some cases based on what I’ve read online, and very pleasantly surprised in many others. For example, I was expecting Havana to be near impossible when I visited this past April, based solely on a handful of travel forums and a magazine article from three years ago. It was so much easier than I thought it would be, and I never even had to use the portable ramp I brought with me. Please be aware, if you aren’t already, that no two wheelchair users have the same level of disability or the same mobility equipment. What works for me at a destination with regards to accessibility may not work for you. Also, please don’t expect a wheelchair user to write about accessibility for someone with a sight or hearing impairment; it’s just not authentic. A power wheelchair user (like me) can also only speculate about the experience a manual chair user might have. If my blog post about Munich doesn’t answer your questions, either send me an email or keep searching for perhaps another wheelchair travel blogger who has a disability closer to yours. Definitely leave the question in the comment box if you need more specifics than we are providing, or just send us an email! We’re happy to help and share our personal accessible travel experiences.
2. Join an accessible travel Facebook group. I have found several different accessible travel related groups on Facebook, and they are so incredibly helpful! Some specialize more in Europe (Accessible Travel Club), one that I started with my friend Cory Lee focuses on the United States and Canada (Accessible Travel USA/Canada), and yet others are based out of Australia. You can find accessible travel groups that specialize in cruising, and even some that specialize in accessible cruising on a particular cruise line (Royal Caribbean Accessible Cruising). These are great places to ask for personal experiences at specific hotels or in specific cities. With thousands of members as resources, you’re bound to find someone who has been where you need to go.
3. Read books or articles by other accessible travel experts. While I prefer to get my accessible travel information from actual wheelchair users, there are some exceptions. For example, my friend and colleague Candy Harrington has been writing about accessible travel for 25 years, and standard travel for 20 years before that. She’s probably the most well-known expert on accessible travel in US national parks and Western states — and she doesn’t use a wheelchair. There are also several blogs and articles about accessible travel that have been written by caregivers or family members of wheelchair users, and even though they’re not the ones in the hot seat, they go through all the same trials and tribulations with regards to travel as the actual wheelchair user.
4. Use the right words in Google searches. What you get out of a Google search is only as good as what you put into it. Using a search engine is the best way to kick off your investigation into the accessibility of your destination, so make sure you’re looking for the right thing. Definitely use the terms wheelchair and accessible, but don’t exclude the words disabled or handicapped, as different countries sometimes use different terms than here in the United States. The most common searchable terms that will probably get you close to where you want to go are tour, ramp, entrance, lift, and elevator.
5. Do a search for wheelchair accessibility on the location’s website. Even if I have personally visited a museum or castle or other point of interest, I always go to the destination’s website for the most accurate accessibility information. More often than not, the website will tell you if there are elevators, accessible restrooms, wheelchairs available for use or for rent, and the location of the accessible entrance. If it’s a historic building, usually the website will let you know what floors are accessible, and what accommodations have been made for parts of the museum or site that are not accessible to wheelchair users. When in doubt, or if you need more specific information than is provided on the website, make sure you send the location an email (better if there might be a language barrier) or call them directly. If there is a specific place that you really really want to see, it never hurts to contact them anyway to make sure accessibility information is up-to-date on the website. For example, when I visited Amsterdam a few years ago, I had no idea that at the time, the Rijksmuseum prohibited visitors from using electric scooters. I found out that about a year ago, they lifted the restriction through someone in one of my Facebook groups. Neither of those tidbits of information were available on the Museum’s website.
6. Ask questions relevant to your disability and/or mobility equipment. As I mentioned in my first point, no two people have the same level of disability or the same mobility equipment. If somebody on a travel forum or in a Facebook group or in a blog post is talking about using an electric lift and you think you and/or your wheelchair might be heavier, make sure you find out what the weight limit is on the lift, if possible. If you are using a bariatric scooter and aren’t sure if it will fit through the doorway of a cruise ship cabin, and that information isn’t available on the cruise line website, make sure you call the cruise line and find out the specifications. Be very specific with your questions in Facebook groups and message boards or forums. Otherwise, you may get a ton of answers that are not remotely relevant to what you need to know.
7. Send an email to an accessible tour operator at your destination. In the three years I’ve been traveling as a wheelchair user, I have probably used at least two dozen accessible tour operators all of the world. The vast majority of them are not wheelchair users themselves, but they are experts with regards to the accessibility in the locations where they provide tours and vacation packages. When booking a tour with an accessibility specialist, they will likely ask you several questions about your size, the size and type of mobility equipment you use, what your physical needs are, and what you need to be comfortable in transportation and in a hotel room. If you have questions about the services they provide or the accessibility of the destination where they operate, don’t hesitate to ask them questions. It’s in their best interest to be honest and accurate with you, as they don’t want you to have a challenging or otherwise negative experience using their services. For example, I recently booked a day tour to a game reserve a couple of hours outside of Cape Town, South Africa. I needed to make sure that I would have access to an accessible bathroom at some point during the day, and that I would be able to keep cool since heat is very bad for my MS symptoms. My tour operator was able to easily answer these questions and address my concerns.
Are you ready to embark upon a wheelchair accessible travel adventure? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so we can start planning!