Since I had been an art and art history major in both high school and in college, it had long been a dream to see the treasures of Italy. I found that little information was available about traveling as a disabled person in England, Italy and Greece, and using a Eurostar High Speed TVG train in France. I have kept a personal journal of our adventures in hopes that it will benefit others wishing to make a similar trip.
Although I am able to walk modest straight distances, long flights of stairs, either up or down, are very difficult for me. I can manage an escalator, as long as I have both hands free. In this narrative I was either accompanied by my husband, a family member, or good friend, but I still found some obstacles that could have interfered with our travels.
To make it possible for John to manage, we limited our luggage to four cases and the wheelchair. This model chair did not have a step bar, which made it difficult to get up and down uneven surfaces, but it had a compact built in padded seat which made it easy to take on the airplanes. We had to pack clothes for use in warm autumn temperatures or freezing winter climes-for nearly six weeks-for casual attire to formal cruise wear. Faced with this challenge, I believe we were very successful. We purchased a large "duffel style" canvas case with wheels and a retractable pull handle. The next case purchased was a multi-zippered expanding canvas "Pullman style" case which could be slipped over the first case's pull-out handle. We then added two carry-on bags-one a soft nylon "backpack style" and the other a "handbag style" which could be slung across the shoulders. This enabled John to manage all the luggage at one time while pushing me in the chair!
Working with our local travel agent, we planned the highly personal aspects of our trip to combine with a standard tour group in Italy. Our tour also included a week's cruise of the Greek Islands. Since my husband is British, we arranged our trip to start and conclude in England, to make the most of visiting with friends and family members. Our air carrier throughout was British Air.
Good news-the crew of the 747 plane stored my chair on board. It is a very long flight from San Francisco to London and the regular seating does not allow for any excess leg or arm space. Met with gracious assistance from the flight crew and was seated very close to the bathroom for easy access. The entire 10 hour flight was Non Smoking.
The two hour British Air flight was a smoking one and was unpleasant on this smaller plane. They were not able to take my chair on board, so it had to go into a storage area. It was slightly scraped on the arm rest (the only time this happened on my entire trip). Our hotel in Rome had elevators so small that I feared I would not be able to enter with my chair-fortunately John and I found that we could just barely fit in. The city streets are swarming with traffic which only recognizes a red light as advisory! There are some well marked curb-cuts, but often when you reached the other side of the street, there was no corresponding one to exit, necessitating a fast "lift up" before large buses bearing down on us could hit us. The bustling city of Rome hosts the smallest nation in the United Nations within its borders, the Vatican. The Vatican is completely accessible for wheelchairs, and you may experience some unique areas which are not open to anyone else. We were even able to eat in the cafe which required having a guard take us outside and down a hill to another accessible entrance.
Visiting the Colosseum proved to be another story. While the Colosseum entrance and viewing point is accessible, the streets one is forced to traverse to arrive at the Colosseum entrance because the tour bus is not allowed to stop any closer, are not. We were confronted with very steep curbs to get up and over. There are no curb-cuts to assist wheelchairs.
A truly magic city! The trip by coach from Rome to Florence was a long one and since the tour group we were on was NOT a special one for people with disabilities, all the rest stops were made at inaccessible stations. I did however see other stops along the way which displayed the international symbol of the person in the wheelchair. Perhaps these would have been better? While the city traffic is terrible, no car traffic is allowed in the old city. The streets are very narrow and the sidewalks even narrower with lots of curbs to get up and down. Forced to climb stairs to see the second floor of the Bargello Museum (elevator out-of-order) and Donatello's David.
On board the cruise ship we were made to feel right at home by our English-language hostesses, Karen and Elda. This giant, four year old first class ship measures 220 meters in length, 31 meters in width, and 55 meters in its height. It has a crew of 600, and almost everyone of them spoke at least five languages: Italian, French, German, Spanish, and English. The ship has a capacity of 1600 passengers, though our passenger list total was about 1400.
The ship is completely accessible, and has several specially fitted cabins just for disabled passengers. I was not able to see these cabins since they were occupied, but the bathrooms are supposed to be larger and suited to disabled needs, but unfortunately the main cabin part is apparently rather narrow and dark. I found both the crew and the passengers very helpful and curious at all times when I was using the elevators or just going around the ship. (The elevators are larger than the ones we encountered elsewhere making it easier for the chair to be accommodated.)
The only time I had concern about the efficiency of the ship, was
with the passenger and crew fire drill procedure. My cabin was on Deck 6
and we were instructed to make our way (not using the elevators of course)
to the staging point on Deck 9 while wearing our life jackets. I slowly
ascended the stairs to the designated point (my effort took five minutes)
but I could only do this while the stairs remained free of heavy traffic. I
arranged with a very helpful assist from the English-language hostess,
Karen, to speak with the crew's Hotel Director about my concerns for a
safer emergency drill routine. He was most gracious and understanding. To
both Karen's and my surprise there is a special procedure for people with
disabilities, it just wasn't well known. He promised that this procedure
would be printed in the next informational brochure found in each cabin to
reassure disabled passengers that should an emergency arise, the crew is
aware of their special needs.
Good News-we found the elevators especially designated for use by disabled patrons in the enormous train station in Milan. Bad News-all the service buttons on the panel had been taped over to discourage able-bodied patrons using these elevators. By pressing everything lumpy thing that seemed to contain a button underneath, we were rewarded with a distinctly unhappy official voice over an intercom speaking only in Italian. He did not understand our attempt to explain in English that I was in a wheelchair and needed to use an elevator. Finally after much delays and persistent attempts to explain, the official came down in the elevator to see who was causing so much fuss, and immediately became very helpful when he saw us. He found someone (a high-placed official) who spoke English and who helped us find the right platform for our TGV high speed train to France. He rolled my chair up into a metal "box," locked my wheels, and closed and locked me in with the fourth metal side of the box. He then mounted his seat and drove me automatic lawn mower style to our train carriage where he lowered an electric ramp that could be adjusted to the height of the train, and out I rolled to my seat. This service was proudly provided and no gratuity would be accepted.
The First Class carriages have a special area where one regular seat has been removed to make space for a wheelchair. I do not know if this is available for the Second Class carriages. If the carriage is not crowded, you can move, if you wish, to another seat once the train is underway. Unfortunately, once we arrived at our first destination in France, we had to manage for ourselves. (There seems to be no communication between these two countries. This is not the case with France and England. When we left Paris for London on the TGV, they assured us that someone would be there to provide us with a ramp to get off the train.)
Traveling on the TGV was easy because the trains are very new and have restrooms designed to handle disabled passengers. The real problem we experienced training through France was being able to board on and off the trains. On our last phase of the trip we had to make our way from the suburbs to the station in Paris. It was decided to take the Metro (the underground subway) because it stops at that EuroStar TGV station. The Metro was not a good choice really because even though we were accompanied by a friend, we found it too difficult. Boarding the trains has to be done quickly, the aisles are narrow, and there was little room for luggage or our folded wheelchair.
When we got to the correct station, the only elevator was out of order. We had to manage four escalators, and with so many seedy characters around we felt we had to protect the luggage and wheelchair. It took some planning between John and our friend to arrange who would go with me and who would stay with the items. When we got to the EuroStar area, we were faced with lots of steep stairs. However, after finding some officials, we were then helped to the correct escalator. At this point, two very strong officials were ready to carry me and the wheelchair up the escalator. This was not necessary because I can manage getting on and off by myself.
This was a first-time experience for me to travel abroad in a wheelchair. Overall, I found people very willing to help and very caring. The only problem areas we met were in our lack of knowing just what to expect, or knowing how to engage an onsite operation already setup to assist disabled travelers. With advanced knowledge of the areas and facilities, traveling in England, Italy, and France should be an enjoyable experience. The cruise of the Greek Islands was really a highlight of our trip.
I further recommend that the disabled traveler and companion do not rely on English and learn one important phase, "I am in a wheelchair and need assistance" in the language of each of the countries they plan to visit.
I contracted Polio in 1950. After a slow but remarkably overall recovery, leaving me with only a slight weakness on the left side of my body and some complications in my torso, I have maintained an active social life and routine exercise until 1983. I married John in 1963 and had a son in 1964. In 1983 I began to experience the symptoms of what I was later to learn was Post-polio Syndrome, or the late effects of Polio. Presently, I am aided by braces on both of my legs, crutches, and more recently a wheelchair, so I may continue a comfortable activity level.
Editors note: This article was edited for content. Rosalie and John asked that their personal information be withheld.
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