Thursday, July 19, 2012

There's no ADA in Europe, and getting around in a wheelchair is tough; bring help

    We just returned from a Princess Mediterranean cruise with my dad, and I must say I’ve come to appreciate the Americans with Disabilities Act a little more. This isn’t to say that I don’t think it doesn’t go a bit too far at times, because it does, but traveling with someone who is disabled in Europe shows what a different world it is.
    In cities sometimes there are curb cuts, sometimes not. Sometimes doors open easily, sometimes not. In many places it appears to be impossible for someone with a mobility disability to do many of the things that we now take for granted in the United States.
    My father really isn’t disabled in the traditional sense. He’s just old and broke down. He’s 88, almost 89, and while he can make his way around the house with care, he certainly doesn’t trust himself on uneven pavement. And he just isn’t up to distances over a few feet at a time.
    On our trip Dad had the benefit of three sons who could lift and carry his transportation chair. Plus Jinny was along. She’s likely stronger than me, although I hate to admit it. She’s never beaten me up, though, although I’m sure she’s thought of it.
    We certainly planned for difficulties. We booked private tours in many of our port stops instead of just doing things on our own. It added greatly to the expense, but for someone with a disability, it was well worth it, and really is the only option in some cases.

    Some brief observations on touring the Mediterranean with a disability:
1. If you can get a wheelchair with big wheels, do so, the bigger the better. It will smooth out the cobblestones and rough pavement.
2. If you can bring help, bring them, the more the better.
3. If you can afford private tours and guides, they are worth it and sometimes a necessity.
4. Plan in advance as much as possible!

    We were fortunate that my dad is able to get up and walk a bit if needed. And he’s light – I’m guessing he only weighs 140 pounds. So we could easily lift and carry his transportation chair.

Here are our port stops and some general notes.

Venice: Our hotel in Venice was a bit off St. Mark’s Square, which was no problem once my dad got to St. Marks. My brother chose to get there in a water taxi, which was very difficult for my dad to use. He literally had to be stuffed into one of them. I would want to do some research, but I think the land bus to Piazzle Roma and then the ACTV vaparetto to St. Mark’s might have been the better option.

Athens: We booked a tour through Nikos Loukas travel. We were promised a 12-seat van and ended up in a luxury 16-seater. I should note that he charged a flat fee, so if we had added some friends it wouldn't have increased our price. It made for a very easy trip and we rate the company very highly. Getting up to the top of the Acropolis wasn’t the easiest thing, and required going up a rather scary elevator (see video), but we’ve done worse. My dad was able to see most everything.

Ephesus: My dad probably should have stayed on the ship. He went and entered through the exit with my brother, who has bad ankles from an accident and wasn’t up to the long walk. He saw the amphitheatre and a bit more, but ended up waiting in hot weather for us to return. He couldn’t see the Basilica of St. John. There really is very little way for someone in a wheelchair to see Ephesus. It’s a shame they don’t sell sedan chairs, because we could have handled that!

Istanbul: We did this on our own and had very little problem. My dad said the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia with no problem although he couldn’t go upstairs in the latter (and apparently no one in a wheelchair can).

Mykonos: Not much to this port, a waste of time really. My dad had no problem going ashore to a restaurant for lunch.

Naples: Dad was looking forward to seeing Pompeii for the first time, and let’s just say it was tough. This is a place not designed for the disabled, although perhaps a bit more homework would have helped. Also, his transportation chair didn’t have the biggest of wheels; perhaps bigger wheels would have helped.

As you can see from the video above, we did quite a bit of carrying of my dad in Pompeii. The stones we were stepping on in the video are raised stones that were used to cross the streets when the were flooded, which was done regularly to wash away the animal manure and other debris.

There were areas where there were smooth sidewalks, but then other areas hand only rough cobbles which required carrying the chair short distances. We also had to carry my dad's chair down a flight of about 60 or so setps. My dad’s transportation chair actually broke to the point of being unusable in Pompeii. We got back to the ship, and were able to buy another in Naples before reboarding.

Rome: We used tour service to take us to the city and drive us around. With a disabled person, there really is not much other option and we rate this company highly. For the Vatican we also paid 150 euros for a guide, Francesca, who was great. This was the best money spent on the trip. She knew exactly which guards to talk to to get us permission to use the right elevators, and had we been without a guide we would have been in bad shape. The handicapped access points are not well marked. Once we used an elevator that the guards are quite picky about for some reason, but our guide was on friendly terms with the guards so we got to take a shortcut.

Livorno: We made an easy day of it and hired a taxi to take us to Pisa. We were going to go perhaps to Volterra, but we overstayed in Pisa so ended up going on to Lucca. We had a great time and Dad didn’t get too worn out. No problem here, although there were some sights in Lucca that he couldn't have seen, but he really didn't want to.

One other note. There are a few people who just can’t stand the thought of waiting 10 seconds for a wheelchair. I can understand being impatient, but in some cases it’s ridiculous. There were numerous instances of folks cutting us off as we maneuvered about, but one was the worst. In Pompeii we were carrying my dad’s chair down about 80 steep steps. There were people in front of us, so we couldn’t go any faster, but after a while we sat the chair down for about 15 seconds to catch our breath and then started down again. This one woman was muttering that she had to catch up with her group and was attempting to get by us on the side, even though there was absolutely no room to do so as we were taking up the whole staircase carrying the wheelchair. It’s not like we were delaying these people any length of time, but you would think that any person would consider a 30- to 45-second delay in order for an old man to be carried down some steps in a wheelchair to be acceptable. But as far as some people are concerned, you would be wrong. Certainly my experience has taught me to be a little more patient of those who need a little more time.

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