Tuesday, July 31, 2018

What It Is Like Traveling In A Wheelchair

Navagating a crowd in my motorized wheelchair Skagen, Denmark

I thought I would write about disabled traveling.   It is off topic (advertising), but I wanted to share my adventure because many people asked me how I did.  Our Denmark and Norway cruise was perfect for anyone, but especially for disabled travelers like me now. I just returned from a three week trip abroad with my wife, Amye.

As most of you know, my life was changed in a nano-second when a taxi struck me in October of 2015.  But I cannot let the changes to my life affect my ability to do the most I can and enjoy life.  I thought I would write about it, for those who are interested.

At first, after the accident, I was completely paralyzed from my neck down.  By the time I left the hospital after six months, I had regained the use of my upper body, but I remain in a wheelchair because the use of my legs remains limited.  I can walk short distances with the use of a walker and climb a few stairs as long as there are railings or strong people to help me up.

While I am working full time, after many months, I decided that my wife and I could use a break and a vacation.  We looked for vacations which would be fun, exciting and doable for both of us.  I still require a lot of help, even getting bathed and dressed, since my feet don’t work well.  I realized that cruises would be a good means of travel. So we took a cruise last year and another one this year.  In fact, we only returned from Denmark and Norway last week.  Cruises are a wonderful and easy way to travel for someone with limited mobility.  And they can be gorgeous.

Typical Norway sight from the ship

The airlines, mostly, are helpful, allowing us to bring my motorized chair directly to the plane entrance and then using my walker to get on the plane, while Amye has to disassemble and assemble the chair.  When the walker doesn’t fit on the plane, as is often the case, I have to use my arms and the airline seats to maneuver myself to my seat.  Not easy, but doable. Some airlines make it easy to get seats near the doors, others do not.  However, once we arrive at our destination, the wheelchair is generally waiting on the gangway.  I have learned to wait to be the last passenger off while Amye assembles it.

To make things easier for Amye, I arrange for airport pick ups.  I have also learned to send luggage ahead so that it is waiting for us at our hotels or on the ship and Amye only has to deal with carry-on.  (Operating the chair, it is difficult for me to carry a bag or be of much help to Amye).

Maneuvering at destinations is another thing all together.  Most cities do not have the extensive system of sidewalk cuts that exist in New York.  Often there is a cut to get off the sidewalk and cross the street, but once there,  we have discovered that there are many, many crosswalks where the other side has no access to the sidewalk because there is a six or eight inch curb which cannot be navigated by the wheelchair.  This requires me to always bring the walker (Amye figured out how to attach it to the back of the chair), so we have to stop, often in heavy traffic, get the walker off my chair, have me stand up and then take the step up to the sidewalk; Amye then usually asks a passerby to help get the chair up.  On top of that, in many foreign cities, streets and sidewalks are cobbled, which are lovely, but which makes using a wheelchair less than comfortable.  I choose to be occasionally uncomfortable.

Cobblestone sidewalk: beautiful to look at, tough to ride on.

 In many foreign cities, Copenhagen, for one, building entrances and restaurants are either several steps up or down and there are few wheelchair ramps.  I figured out how to get in and, for those of you who know me, I never was unable to get a great meal.

When not walking, Taxi’s in most foreign cities are accessible and drivers very willing to help me in and out.  They also help Amye fold and unfold the chair. Imagine that in New York or Chicago.  In Copenhagen, drivers are actually all trained to help disabled people.  We discovered that people everywhere are, for the most part, surprisingly and pleasantly helpful, especially helping me to get into and out of cabs, buses and the like.

But we determined that, despite the discomfort, the effort justified the results – good sightseeing, great meals.

Most nights, caviar before dinner on the ship

Just a gorgeous and yummy dessert

Then the cruise itself.  I cannot speak for any cruise line except for Seabourn.  They are formidable. I saw several disabled passengers who were actually carried onboard the ship by the crew.  In my case, I chose to walk up and down the gangway – they always had people to help me.  Getting up the stairs to get on the ship requires a lot of work, but the exercise is good.  The stairway below took about seven or eight minutes for me to get up or down (only 21 steps), but I was determined to take advantage of the shore excursions in almost every location.

Amye on the gangway which I am about to climb

Once on the ship, Seabourn offers a number of larger, accessible rooms at no extra charge.  They are  convenient and very suitable for wheelchair travelers, including wide doors and easy access showers.

Our wheelchair accessible cabin, wide enough for easy movement

Navigating on the ship is easy as the hallways are wide and there are elevators, all large enough for me and the wheelchair, as well as other passengers.  Almost all doorways within the ship are automatic, making getting out to the pool, the spa and other areas easy.

Surprisingly, we were initially interested in taking a European or Asian river cruise.  However, believe it or not, I could not find a single appropriate and fully wheelchair accessible river cruise ship anywhere in the world, making it impossible for us to do one of these very desirable trips.

One thing I have discovered, is that travel agents still have much sway with the cruise lines.  Ours, who has been a friend for thirty years, is indispensable. She knows my preferences in travel and was able to get me exactly what I needed on two Seabourn cruises.  Once on these ships, getting around is easy.  Every floor is serviced by large elevators, hallways are wide and the dining venues, including the casino and bars and theaters have ample room for a wheelchair.  If needed, there was always a crew member to help me, but that need was rare.  There are also gorgeous stairways between decks, which, unfortunately, were not for me.

Seabourn has an accessibility department which is helpful in determining which shore excursions are doable.  Often buses used for sightseeing and transfers have hugely big steps making on and off quite difficult. Somehow I managed, but again, almost everywhere we went, there were helpful volunteers if I needed them. 

Some ports are accessible only by tender, which is fine as long as the see is calm. 
The tenders actually hold about forty people; big step from the ship, but I managed.
I only missed one port, which was a short stop anyway.  Some ports are just too steep or rocky for easy access, but we were able to do almost everything we wanted.

There are certain cities where we just cannot go.  I am told they are too rough in terms of cobblestones and bad sidewalks. 

But Amye and I are determined to travel and enjoy life.  A couple of pictures are worth a thousand words.  These few views make all the effort worthwhile.

View of Trollfjord,  which we sailed down, at some points only thirty feet wider than the ship;
which is a little over 90 feet wide, amazing seamanship and jaw dropping beauty

Norway Coastline; drop dead gorgeous every day

View just outside of Flam, Norway during a shore excursion

A beautiful, peaceful village as seen from a train in Norway

Seabourn Ovation, Seabourn's newest ship, anchored off shore in Olden, Norway.
Only 600 passengers, which is a perfect number.
Traveling in a wheelchair has its challenges, but the end justifies the means.  I am thankful that I could make this trip and look forward to other adventures.

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