What is Access? The Musings of a Recent International Traveller with Disability – Part 1

By Riana Head-Toussaint, 17 November 2016 , Comments

What is access? Or more importantly, what is wheelchair access? This is a question that I spent a lot of time musing over earlier this past year, due to my planning for and embarking on a three-month trip to Europe, from May-August.

As someone who has lived with disability my whole life, and who uses a manual wheelchair to get around; I have a very clear understanding of what wheelchair access means to me.

However, my accessibility needs may differ greatly from the next manual wheelchair user, or the next electric wheelchair user, or indeed, any other person for that matter.

Riana Head-Toussaint

When it came to planning for and embarking on that three-month Eurotrip, questions surrounding wheelchair access came up a lot. I wanted to go to the whole of the UK; six cities in Croatia; and Rome, Naples and Sicily in Italy – ie. places that I couldn’t quickly pop into to inspect ramps, toilets, doorway-widths or curb-cuts.

Of course, I did do hours of googling, and made many midnight phone calls to account for the time difference, but ultimately there was no guarantee that the places I contacted had the same idea of wheelchair-accessibility as my own. As most people with disabilities will appreciate; you can have a place tell you that it is accessible; only to find out that their understanding of what is ‘access’ is far different from your own.  

Riana Head-Toussaint

This uncertainty was also compounded by having friends and family in my ear, telling me over and over how the places I wanted to go to were extremely inaccessible; not wheelchair-friendly at all. I can’t even tell you how many times my comments that I was going to Italy or England were met with “watch out for the cobbles” or “there are so many stairs, and so many old buildings”.

Now, if I was a person who didn’t have much experience navigating different environments with my disability; comments like that would probably have me cancelling any bookings and giving up my hopes of seeing the world. But, being one who is well-practised in perseverance, I ignored my nervousness as best I could and surged forward, boarding a plane to London on 17 May 2016.

To tell you the exact details of wheelchair access in every place I went would take much longer than the space I have to write this, and so I won’t go into that level of detail (but if people want follow further information or follow-up posts, please let me know!)

Suffice to say, the trip went spectacularly. I navigated the environments I encountered; some with ease, some with difficulty, some with help, some without.

All in all, I feel that I can now confidently make several statements about travelling with a disability and navigating issues surrounding wheelchair access. These are contained in part 2 of this article!

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