After 5 months of studying in Spain and travelling Europe while here, I reflect on my experience as a paraplegic and accessibility in this part of the world. I've realised it's hard to package up and summarise this neatly. It has occurred to me now that this is because my experience has been one of opposite extremes; one day, you are cutting a queue and getting free or discounted entry into a monument, and the next day you have to humiliatingly drag your paralysed body up the stairs of the coach bus to get home; it's having to pay for a taxi or a bus to get up a cobblestoned hill, but then happily rolling all the way down it. At the same time, your travel companions look for somewhere shady and comfy to sit to rest their sore feet. The best way I can summarise it is that it is constantly coming across frustrating and unnecessary structural barriers, and then with some creativity and help from others, managing to overcome them.
“Like much of living with a disability, it can feel quite isolating to have a shared experience with people while feeling alone in your access needs and having to think through three times as many logistics to get through the day.”
People of all abilities travel to get out of their comfort zone and widen their experiences. Still, for people with disabilities, our comfort zone is not just psychological but also a zone of health and safety where we know we can access everything we need, including healthcare. Travelling with a disability can be a reckoning of what you are willing to risk or sacrifice to experience things that are not entirely accessible. For example, the inter-city buses in Spain have a poor system of accessibility, where you have to call in advance to request an adapted bus. Still, you will be put on hold and charged steep rates for every minute of the phone call. Even then, the adapted bus may or may not be there on the day of your journey, the ascending platform to enter the bus may or may not be working that day, and the bus driver may or may not be happy to help you. For a budget traveller such as myself, that meant countless times dragging my paralysed body up the bus's stairs. Doing that puts me at risk of injury is humiliating. I am only willing to experience this to make the most of seeing this beautiful country and travel with my friends on a student budget. I shouldn't have to make this decision.
With its bigger population, you may expect Europe to be more ahead of the curve regarding access. Unfortunately, the rich history of its cities that makes them so beautiful and appealing hinders their accessibility. Finding accessible housing can be tricky in New Zealand. I thought it might be easier in a city so primarily made up of apartments, only to discover that they are old buildings with such narrow doorways that my regular-sized manual wheelchair couldn't fit into certain rooms of almost every apartment I went to. I managed, only after taking the door off the doorframe to our kitchen and moving my pushrims in to make my wheelchair slightly narrower. Monuments, including ancient churches and cultural sites, have largely done a lot to be accessible and usually offer a discounted rate for disabilities or sometimes even free entrance.
The absolute best surprise for me living in Southern Spain has been the accessibility of the beaches. Every single beach I have been to (except for a very rural one) has had multiple permanent concrete paths onto the sand, and along the beach, beach showers with a seat, accessible bathrooms and, in summer, beach wheelchairs for free use. This brought me so much joy, and I hope New Zealand will have equally accessible beaches in the future.
“There is still a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of improving accessibility, which gives me hope for the access and inclusion movement.”
Many of the worst access problems I have faced over my 6 months in Europe would have been easily prevented or can be improved. For example, if hostels and Airbnb did a better job of registering their properties as accessible and if they specified which rooms are and are not accessible, this would have saved me some risky experiences in inaccessible rooms in hostels that popped up under the "wheelchair friendly" filter, even though they weren't really accessible or they only had certain accessible rooms, that weren't specified online.
Thankfully for those travelling on a slightly bigger budget than myself, hotels and booking.com are generally better equipped. Public transport and accessible housing are an issue of policy. Still, I am confident that governments are moving towards creating accessible services. I hope my complaints might be used to justify improving company processes, such as requesting an adapted inter-city bus. The within city busses in my student city mostly had automatic ramps, which would have been great except for that they were poorly maintained and, on several occasions, wouldn't withdraw back into the bus, meaning everyone had to get off the bus. They had to call a mechanic to put the ramp back in so the bus could be back in action. Some drivers hesitated to use the ramps, knowing that this was a risk, and only some buses had backup manually operated ramps. Again, I see this as low-hanging fruit - the investment in an accessible fleet of inner-city buses indicates a political will to improve accessibility; they need better maintenance processes. Regarding collective action from within the disabled community, making formal complaints, leaving detailed reviews of places with photos, writing articles, and sharing our experiences online are all really helpful and immediate ways to make travelling more accessible and inclusive.
Travelling and living overseas, for everyone, heightens the emotional experiences of life; higher highs and sometimes lower lows. Disabled people already know all about riding the highs and lows, and we have all the skills to cope; we already know how to speak up for our access needs and self-advocate, we know how to deal with disappointments and health problems, we know how to use humour to cope, we're resilient and adaptive. I don't want to discourage anyone from the joys and delights of travelling. Still, I want to acknowledge how disappointing it is that, at times, the infrastructure doesn't allow us to enjoy the same experiences as our non-disabled friends and family.
Living with a disability can be isolating, but my experience has only reinforced that even on the other side of the world, people are always willing to help if you let them. When infrastructure fails us, other people step up to fill the gaps. Travelling is an incredible experience and opportunity for growth that we all deserve to access in whatever way feels best for us. My vision for the future of tourism is an inclusive one.