There’s nothing easy about trying to make mass public transportation accessible in older European countries. There’s no American Disability Act that ensures all vehicles of public transport be made accessible, which leaves a wheelchair-using tourist like myself feeling a little lost. That split-second feeling of entitlement (“What do you mean you didn’t make this train car specifically for someone like me?”) that comes from only ever knowing the accessibility laws of the United States was soon to be hushed from one encounter after another of inaccessible transportation (I’m looking at you, Italy). But what was so surprising and so reassuring was how the people of every country, every public transportation worker in each city, went to extreme lengths for me and my party so we could get to our destination. Old lifts were dug out of hidden corners of train stations, strangers carried my wheelchair up flights of stairs while Dusty carried me and workers continually took time to escort us through alternate routes when an aufzug (German word for elevator) was broken. Thank you, people throughout Europe, for affirming a belief in humanity that people will help.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my husband and I wanted to cross something off our bucket list. This list has grown and shrunk, been scratched with but has lasted longer than all our glassware that has been broken in our numerous moves. When we were first married, our bucket list held adrenaline-fueled, romantic dreams of holding hands mid-jump of skydiving, scuba-diving in the Great Coral Reef and riding horseback through the desert of New Mexico. Two years into our marriage, though, I was in a motorcycle accident during a rider-safety course. I was trying to get my license, but life was trying to tell me something else. I woke up a paraplegic, with my husband by my side. When he carried me home, that bucket list met us at the door tacked onto the wall with dreams that seemed to be cruelly laughing at me. We took it down and when we PCS-ed to Germany, I thought it had been lost forever.
At the beginning of our arrival here, settling in Germany seemed impossible. Whether it was trying to wheel myself over the endless cobblestones, trying to figure out the Bahn schedules or waiting on the duty bus, each step forward in “getting settled” was met with two hard kicks back.
I began to forget which things in my day I was actually doing right because of the seeming magnitude of the things that I was doing wrong. On a particularly bad day of unsuccessfully trying a German SIM card and missing the duty bus in the rain, all I wanted to do was go home to our still not-unpacked apartment. One of the last things on my to-do list was fill out paperwork for the health clinic. When I reached into our crammed file folders for my medical records, I started to cry when I saw that bucket list in my hand. It was the last thing I wanted to see in the world and I just couldn’t take feeling like a failure anymore.
Angrily, I grabbed a pencil and crossed out some of our older dreams and wrote in what I wanted, at that moment, to be able to do more than anything in the world. The list grew as I wrote “get cellphone to work” and “pass Germany driving test” around the borders when I ran out of room. The next day I was able to cross out “ride duty bus successfully alone” and that weekend “go to the commissary” was checked off. And as I crossed out each of these new dreams, I felt just as victorious and powerful as if I had been kayaking in the Bahamas and seen a shark (one of the older dreams, believe it or not). These new dreams may seem smaller, but not to me. They’re not any less rewarding, any smaller or less validating, they’re just different. As different as I am now, in my new body with my new wheelchair. And so that list has returned to its’ spot on a new wall in our new kitchen, as a reminder of not what I can’t do, but as a reminder of what I CAN do. We still look at the old dreams and instead of seeing impossibilities, those old dreams have turned into challenges we want to meet.
The first dream on that list was to someday go skiing in the Alps. So Thanksgiving, we drove down to Austria to a disability-friendly resort and with the help of an instructor, I rode a monoski with my husband by my side down the Kaunertal Glacier of the Austrian Alps. No disability takes away the ability to dream, no matter how small those dream may seem.
Thank you Europe, for teaching me there are so many different ways key cards can fail to turn on unfamiliar light switches.
Thank you Europe, for showing me such colorful styles of driving, swerving stopping and speeding on all your autobahns, side streets, coasts and bridges.
Thank you Europe, for making sure I’m always aware when I don’t have my Passport to fill out a form at the bank or pay for a travel ticket.
Thank you Europe, for teaching me how to say “backed up tummy” in six different languages.
Thank you Europe, for all your delicious, bitter, full, sweet and sometimes noxious ways to consume alcohol, where it’s for a festival, dinner, breakfast, after dinner, before heading out in the snow, coming in from the snow, going out to the beach, at the beach, meeting a new person, traveling in (x) city, coming from church, at a farm, at a lake, when it’s Monday, when it’s Friday…
Thank you Europe, for closing every grocery store, shop, gas station and restaurant to remind me it’s Sunday.
Thank you Europe, for phone services that go into international “roaming” mode when traveling just a few hours away.
Thank you Europe, for schedules that close businesses in the middle of the day, but only on certain days of the week and those days change week to week and sometimes just close for a week altogether.
Thank you Europe, for trains, buses and planes that allow me to meet all sorts of colorful characters who each have very interesting smells.
Thank you Europe, for the shared bathrooms in hostels to make sure standards stay flexible when it comes to cleanliness and personal space.
Thank you Europe, for all the interesting ways to cook and sometimes not cook sausage and potatoes.
Thank you Europe, for wine. Nothing more to be said.
Thank you Europe, for each country that boasts having the BEST chocolate, wine, beer, dancing, cheese, leather, nightlife, parks, meat dishes, shoes, pasta…
And now the real thanks
Thank you Europe, for showing me more sides of humanity that I could have known, that people respect, accept and welcome a girl in a wheelchair no matter the country, language or cultural differences. Thank you Europe, for showing me that love is the true universal language and is accepted everywhere. Thank you Europe, for the travel and learning that has allowed me to grow from a disabled girl learning how to live in an able bodied world to a disabled woman, proud and capable of conquering life no matter where.
Flying with a physical disability may be a daunting part of traveling and even more so when nothing is in your primary language, but never fear. The universality of disabilities has allowed people in chairs to fly around the world for decades now with relative ease. I began flying independent of my husband less than a year from my accident and now have flown internationally without accompaniment. Accessible traveling is in the air!
First and foremost, let the airline know that you want/need assistance when you book your ticket. They need to know you’re coming so that they can have all the moving pieces of boarding you onto the plane in place for your flight. This site has some GREAT information about your rights as a disabled passenger and what to understand about luggage, seating, etc. When you call the airline, they will ask for specs of your wheelchair; know the weight and dimensions in the metric system conversion. Ask for an aisle seat to make for an easier transfer and if possible, a seat closer to the front. The people of friendshipcircle.org have a great pre-flight checklist that has more universal tips for all types of special needs.
Some of the assistance available to a person with a disability is help carrying your bags, an escort through security and to the gate, and assurance always be in a comfortable environment. Physically disabled passengers go through a separate security check, so you won’t have to wait in the line! Make sure you have bagged and pulled out any medical supplies as well, so that there won’t be any confusion going through security.
Once you get to the gate, your airline will have already been informed that you’ll be flying by the people who helped you through security. They will be boarding you first, before everyone else, and you’ll be the last to leave. If you use a chair, you’ll have to transfer to the very skinny, not so comfortable airline chair when you board the plane and your wheelchair will be stowed underneath (so make sure there’s nothing attached to it you’ll need!). Take your seat cushion or it will come back filthy. After the flight, you’ll be escorted again to your next departure location.
**NOTE: This whole process takes extra time. You must be at your gate no later than 45 minutes before they board other passengers and expect to arrive at checked bags at least a half hour after everyone else has left the plane when you land.
Don’t fear the budget airlines! Germanwings and Ryanair have been absolutely accommodating and as comfortable of an experience as expected with a budget airline. For Germanwings, they have barrier-frei accommodations that can be booked online. Every airline, no matter the price of their tickets, has a call line and a way to make their flight accommodating for a person in a chair. And that’s what’s important.
Some of the best investments to be made for mobility disabilities for travel are in attachments and accessories. FreeWheel is a wheelchair attachment; a third wheel to lift those casters off the cobblestones that fits on the footplate and can be carried behind the back plate when not in use. It’s a lifesaver and this video was made as a shout-out.