Advice, tips, resources, and tours for disabled, handicapped, and physically challenged travelers who want to take a European vacation
Even folks in a wheelchair are able to appreciate many of the amazing ancient sights of Europe, like this church in Ravenna, Italy.
Though they've been making enormous strides in the past twenty years, Europe certainly won't win any medals for accessibility.
This really is not their fault. When the ancient Romans, medieval masons, and great Renaissance architects were designing their buildings, they weren’t exactly thinking of wheelchair ramps, sturdy handrails, or easy risers on those tight spiral stone staircases inside belltowers. But don’t let any disability stop you from traveling.
All the big cities have made an effort to accommodate people with disabilities over the past few years, at the very least putting in, wherever possible, ramps at museum and church entrances .
Even Venice, a seemingly impossible warren of narrow alleys interrupted every few blocks by one of hundreds upon hundreds of little footbridges that arch up steeply and over the myriad canals that divide the city up into 118 tiny islands, has made life easier for the mobility impaired. The city has installed wheelchair lifts on a key set of those little bridges that allow access to all the major sights and, indeed nearly half the entire city (the city’s tourism map shows which streets, and bridges, are accessible via this network—though locals report to me that the elevators don't always work, at least they're trying).
Hotels have also come a long way in the past decade. The vast majority of hotels rated three-stars and above now have at least a few handicap-friendly rooms easily accessible on the first floor.
Sections on European trains, buses, and other public transport are set aside for wheelchairs.
And don’t think you’ll miss out on the attractions of Europe for lack of a sense. For example, the sight-impaired can tour the historical musical instruments section of the Kunshistroichesmuseum in Vienna where, when you get near each display case, your wireless headphones pick up a signal and starts playing a selection of music from that instrument (www.khm.at). Madrid even has a tactile museum designed for the blind .
While ASL is understood by even fewer people over there than in the U.S., mutes might want to pick up a nifty set of laminated “phrase sheets” with tiny cartoons of everything related to travel—from chickens to banks to train stations—so you can just point to a pictogram to get your message across.
There is also no end of organizations dedicated to helping you plan and execute your trip, doling out specific advice before you go, and providing opportunities to travel. The most important are listed below
It also might make sense to join a guided tour that caters to travelers with disabilities . These outfits (listed below) are very adept at taking care of the details, know all the hotels with handicap-accessible rooms, have vans and buses wheelchair-ready, and other specialized services for the physically challenged.
Resources for handicapped and disabled travelers
The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH), 347 Fifth Ave. Suite 610, New York, NY 10016 (212-447-7284, fax 212-725-8253, www.sath.org). SATH membership runs $49 a year ($29 for students and seniors 63 and older) and gets you access to a vast network of connections in the travel industry. They provide information sheets on travel destinations and referrals to tour operators that specialize in travelers with disabilities (I’ve got some leads for you there, too, listed below).
Mobility International, 132 E. Broadway, Suite 343 Eugene, Oregon USA 97401 (541-343-1284 Voice/TTY, fax 541-343-6812, www.miusa.org). This worldwide organization promotes international disability rights, hosts international exchanges, and provides reference sheets on travel destinations for people with disabilities. Its books and videos have resources on everything from biking trips to exchange programs. It also has plenty of free, downloadable info on its site.
Gimp on the Go (www.gimponthego.com) - Can't say I am terribly comfortable with the name, but can't deny that the site is chock full of tips and resources for handicapped travelers.
Travelin' Talk Directory, P.O. Box 3534, Clarksville, TN 37043 (931-552-6670; fax 931-552-1182, www.travelintalk.net). Their "Emerging Horizons" newsletter comes free when you join ($19.95 for lifetime membership).
Moss Rehab Hospital, 60 East Township Line Rd., Elkins Park, PA 19027 (215-456-9600 or 215-456-9602 TTY, www.mossresourcenet.org). This Philadelphia-based organization (actually, they're now in suburban Elkins Park, which is weird because that's next to the town where I grew up) has been providing advice and referrals to travelers with disabilities for years.
American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001 (800-232-5463 or 212-502-7600, www.afb.org). They can fill you in on travel for the sight-impaired in general, as well as give you advice on how to get your seeing-eye dog past the normal quarantines in foreign countries.
American Academy of Otolaryngology, 1650 Diagonal Road, Alexandria, VA 22314 (703-836-4444 or 703-519-1585 TTY, www.entnet.org). Travelers with a hearing impairment should contact these folks.
Tours for handicapped and disabled travelers
Accessible Journeys (800-846-4537, www.accessiblejourneys.com) - Since 1985, offering to arrange independent tours all over the world for physically challenged travelers, plus group tours and cruises all around the globe (including to Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and Britain).
Flying Wheels Travel (877-451-5006, www.flyingwheelstravel.com) - One of the best and longest-established operators, offering various escorted tours and cruises, as well as private tours in minivans with lifts.
Accessible Europe (www.accessibleurope.com) - Tours and city breaks from a company run by Massimo Micotti, an Italian operator of handicapped tours since 1993.