For those who rely on a wheelchair, traversing the Great Wall of China or zip lining in Costa Rica might seem impossible. But at least two Houstonians, Lex Frieden and John Sage, are living proof that it’s not. Both decided long ago that their limited mobility would not be a barrier to their dreams of world travel, and both of them can boast itineraries that most people would envy.
“If I can get there, I can pretty much figure out how to get around,” said Frieden, a disabilities advocate who’s been called a chief architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Frieden, a quadriplegic who lost most of his mobility in a car crash in 1967, has received a tribal greeting from Maoris in the jungles of New Zealand, visited Kuwait right after the Iraq War, and explored the Great Wall 20 years ago, before a wheelchair lift was installed.
And Sage, who was injured in a skiing accident at the age of 22, has strapped himself – wheelchair and all – onto a zip line and gone sailing through the rainforest canopy. He’s kayaked in Provence, toured Topkapi Palace and the ruins of Ephesus and visited the favelas in Brazil – and he proposed to his wife, Tiffany, on the Greek island of Santorini.
“It’s natural to feel anxious, particularly for individuals who are trying to get accustomed to a disability they haven’t had,” says Frieden, a professor at The University of Texas at Houston and program director at TIRR Memorial Houston. But with the ADA in the United States, and now a United Nations resolution on the rights of disabled people, traveling is more accessible than ever.
Sage, formerly an engineer. eventually became a professional travel advisor, and now he organizes trips for people with disabilities of all kinds, mainly in Europe.
But what Frieden, Sage and others have learned applies to many travelers. Whether you are a person with disabilities, a senior with limited mobility or a family with small children, this advice can make all the difference.
On choosing a destination
Build up practice, confidence and strength at wheelchair-friendly destinations before venturing to the harder ones. “There’s no reason to start with Istanbul, for example, which is really tough,” said Sage. “There are plenty of great options like London, Berlin and Barcelona that you could start with.”
Most U.S. destinations are handicap-accessible thanks to the ADA – but there’s still a lot of variance. Many have webpages discussing services for special-needs travelers.
Look for cities that are flat, offer accessible buses and don’t have a lot of cobblestones.
On planning ahead
“Don’t start with the idea, ‘We’ll figure it out once we get there,’” said Sage. He learned this the hard way when he went to Munich for the first time and was foiled two days in a row in palace tours. The first day, he discovered that a reservation was needed for wheelchair assistance. The second palace offered reservations only on certain days.
Double-check everything you read with a phone call or an e-mail. One example is the frequently cited but now nonexistent stairlifts on five important bridges in Venice. Due to saltwater and high maintenance costs, they were taken out of service. Sage keeps a website with information for disabled travelers – sagetraveling.com – and a reader alerted him to the change.
Booking hotels at least four months in advance is important for accessible rooms, which tend to go quickly in the mid-priced hotels.
Accessibility extends beyond the hotel’s lobby. Make sure it’s in a wheelchair-friendly neighborhood. One painful lesson for one of Sage’s clients came, again, in Venice, where the hotel was indeed accessible, but it was surrounded by inaccessible bridges. It ended up costing about 100 euros just to leave the hotel.
For prescriptions, bring a letter from your doctor specifying what you need it for. Frieden almost got left behind on a Caribbean cruise because the transit authorities refused to allow him to take a fluid for a bladder condition. He called the supervisor, who finally decided it didn’t pose a threat.
Pack a tool kit for repairs and bring spares – inner tubes, chargers, etc. Sage spent a week on his own in Normandy when he was 25. He learned two lessons: First, always bring a spare inner tube. And second, in France, pharmacists will come and change your wheelchair flat.
Learn key accessibility phrases. “It’s important to know the basic words for toilet, restaurant, hotel, public transit, in the language of whatever country you are going to,” says Frieden. “You can’t simply say, ‘Is your doorway wide enough for a wheelchair?’ You have to know the width of your chair, and you have to be able to say, ‘Is your doorway 39 centimeters wide?’”
But language conveys more than information. “The more language you try to learn, the more the native people will respect you. That builds relationships.”
Sagetraveling.com has accessibility phrases in French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Czech.
Don’t assume a cruise will be accessible just because it’s on a cruise line you know. A lot depends on the ports. In Naples, Sage explains, you can get off the cruise ship and you’re in the middle of the city. But getting to Rome or Florence involves a complicated obstacle course of public transportation to make it from nearby port cities to the destination and back and not miss your ship.
On fellow travelers
For traveling companions, remember it’s their vacation too, said Frieden. “We don’t need to be protected all the time. Maybe I don’t want to jump on the zip line, but I might enjoy watching and taking photos while they are.”
On favorite destinations
Sage: Santorini in the Greek islands, with its dramatic volcano and legends of Atlantis, is his all-time favorite, which is why he chose to propose to his wife there – but it wasn’t easy. Sage had to go around for the four days leading up to the trip with a diamond ring hidden in his wheelchair pouch. “I said, what’s going to happen if they make me take it out at security? I guess I’ll get engaged at the Houston airport!” Fortunately, they did not, and the spectacular sunset made for a storybook proposal.
For accessibility, he loves Berlin, with the Brandenburg Gate, the remnants of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie; and Barcelona, with its gothic quarter, accessible beaches, Picasso museum, Barcelona cathedral and driving tour to Gaudi-architecture sites.
Frieden: Paris is tough, but it’s still one of his favorites. An easier option is Dresden, often compared to Paris. “It has wonderful history, beautiful monuments, and it’s off the beaten tourist track so it’s not as expensive.” Also, because of the terrible bombing during World War II, much of the city had to be rebuilt, so ramps and other accommodations were added.
His picks for the most accessible cities in the U.S.: Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco, for their transit systems, museums and historic places; San Francisco is challenging because of the hills, but you can make an appointment through its paratransit system and get virtually anywhere. He also loves Honolulu, where you can navigate the bus system all over Oahu.
Australia’s integrated public transit system is like a dream for the disabled, who can easily navigate cities like Sydney and Brisbane but also head out into the countryside or choose from miles of accessible beaches.
On challenges – and kindness
Sage: He spent a week alone in Normandy about three years after his accident, when he was just learning French. “I knew it wouldn’t be comfortable, but I was 25 and ready to conquer the world,” he said. He got to the train station in Bayeux and discovered there was no ramp. Some high school students lifted him down and back up another flight of stairs. The language barrier was tough – he remembers taking the train to Rouen, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. He waited for the name to come over the loudspeaker but all he kept hearing was a man making a sound as if he were clearing his throat. Finally he realized – that’s how Rouen is pronounced in France!
Frieden: He got stuck in Amsterdam en route to Sweden at the time of an air controllers strike, which coincided, unfortunately, with the coronation of the new Dutch queen, and there was not a room to be had – much less an accessible one. He pulled out a Dutch phone book and started calling social-service agencies until he found one with an English-speaking social worker. He was lucky; she had parents who owned a bed and breakfast, and they were kind enough to vacate their own room on the ground floor.
Even so, there were six stairs to enter the house. He would park himself in front of the stairs and gaze wistfully upwards until some kind Dutch people would stop and carry him up.
Frieden’s long-term strategy is to help others every chance he gets.
“There’s something to be said for karma,” he says.
Sage Traveling: John Sage has put together a wealth of information particularly focused on European travel but useful for travel in general. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter and explore by city or topic: www.sagetraveling.com
Trip Advisor’s Traveling with Disabilities Forum: Travelers discus everything from mobility scooters to disabled toilets to specific destinations. Accessible hotel checklist is particularly useful. http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowForum-g1-i12336-Traveling_With_Disabilities.html
The Guardian’s Traveling with Disabilities page: News, views and comments on a variety of relevant topics. http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/travellingwithdisabilities
Independent Living Institute’s resource list: Based in Sweden but applicable worldwide. http://www.independentliving.org/links/links-travel-and-leisure.html
Access-Able Travel Source: The creation of Bill and Carol Randall; Carol has MS and uses a wheelchair. The site began with the couple’s travel experience and grew into a multifaceted resource with tons of information. http://access-able.com/
Rx: Freedom to Travel language series: A series of instructional CDs and phrasebooks in 10 languages designed to prepare travelers with health and/or mobility issues. http://freedom2t.com/
Able to Travel: A program of the United Spinal Association offering travel tips, travelogues and a wide range of services. www.abletotravel.org
ADA Technical Assistance Department: Primarily for service providers who need help becoming ADA Compliant: 1-800-949-4232.