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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 August 2007, 14:30 GMT 15:30 UK
Ticket, passport, wheelchair...
By Clive Gilbert
BBC News

Despite a new European law to prevent airlines from discriminating against disabled people, planning a holiday can be a fraught exercise for a wheelchair user.

A question which simultaneously evokes pangs of excitement and trepidation is "where are we going for our holidays?"

Woman in wheelchair
Everyday difficulties can be compounded on holiday
The answer for most families is often a careful balance between their dreams of exotic palm tree-lined beaches and the realities of a holiday budget that may stretch little further than the newly-formed lake that is the British countryside.

For disabled people with mobility difficulties, there is a plethora of questions and practical considerations which need to be addressed before the suntan lotion and beach towels can be brought down from the loft.

Transport and accommodation have to be thoroughly researched to ensure that everyday tasks can be adequately performed.

These questions can vary wildly from one condition to the next. A blind person may be able to sit on an ordinary airplane seat whereas someone with more severe mobility impairment might require supportive adjustments to be made. Many would have to consider alternative forms of travel altogether.

Hotels have to be carefully vetted as the advertisements listed by holiday companies have been shown to be wrongly labelled as accessible to all.

DISABLED TRAVELLERS' CHECKLIST
Buy travel insurance, which includes repatriation
Always declare any pre-existing medical condition to the insurers
Check that your accommodation has no access problems and whether good lifts are available
Check the suitability of staircases and bathroom equipment
Take special care with food and water hygiene, and avoid mosquito and other insect or animal bites
Source: UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Pragmatism and graft work are vital to the success of the holiday. However, these conditions also tend to limit the aspirations of many disabled people as they decide where to go and how to get there.

According to the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), disabled people travel a third less often than the average citizen.

As a wheelchair user myself, I regularly have to contend with the limited accessibility of public transport even on British trains and buses. Taxi firms that cater for wheelchair users are few and far between.

Under new European Union rules introduced in July, airlines and holiday companies can no longer refuse to fly people because of their disability.

Campaigners such as the European Disability Forum widely welcomed the move, but questions have been raised about pilots refusing to fly if the number of disabled people on board raises health and safety issues.

Ryanair has provoked criticism for having a quota restricting the number of disabled passengers to the number of flight attendants because, it says, it must be mindful of the safety of all customers.

Cobbled stones

In 2005 the policy led to the removal of a group of nine blind and partially sighted passengers, sparking uproar from disability rights groups and calls for a boycott of the airline.

Disability Rights Commission spokesperson Natalie Salmon says: "DRC is not aware that other airlines have quotas as such. Each flight and each passenger are dealt with on their own merits".

Ryanair's quota policy simply does not stand up
Natalie Salmon
Disability Rights Commission

As disabled travellers are usually accompanied by a carer or family member, Ryanair's policy does not make sense, she adds.

However, some wheelchair users are restricted to their own specially-adapted vehicles that make flying impossible.

When they reach their destination, mobility problems are likely to be a major consideration. Medieval towns with their cobble-stoned streets may be a magnet for most tourists, but they can create a difficult ride for wheelchair users.

I have had many punctured tyres during visits to French towns, resulting in several thorough tests of one's knowledge of the native language.

Sinking in sand

The same applies to beaches, where wheelchairs tend to sink into the sand under the weight of their occupants. On such occasions, ramps - usually intended to help boaters carry their vessels down to the shoreline - can make a great difference.

Beach
Beaches can be a problem for wheelchairs
The DRC has recommended Sweden as a holiday destination which boasts a good reputation for disability issues.

Also, the Amsterdam tram system has been found to be accessible to users of reduced mobility, although some parts of the city may be more difficult to navigate.

In the wake of the Olympic Games, parts of Barcelona's transport infrastructure have become more wheelchair-friendly.

Once all these diverse and complex matters have been factored-in and resolved, the only thing which would surpass the satisfaction of successfully scaling the mountain of issues is the smooth running of the holiday itself.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Going on holiday as I am about to do too the Lake District in a wheelchair for me is an exciting adventure that is going to have its ups and downs like any holiday. A wheelchair though should not be seen as a barrier but a way of life for some people who like everyone else needs holidays but, the Discrimination Act is something quite different in my eyes. I see it as a feel good Law for the able bodied and all though has brought about change in society still needs a lot of adjustments to be made. But lets not be bitter about the able-bodied persons crusade to aid the disabled and lets take the changes in Law in our stride together and learn from one another, and perhaps see the disabled persons quest with pride rather than one of stigmatism?
Angus Brown, Aberdeen, Scotland.

I've travelled quite a bit with a wheelchair and found airlines and railway companies very accommodating. Baggage is another thing altogether - three lost wheelchairs, three occasions of serious damage to a chair, ages waiting for the chair to emerge via a 'special system' for wheelchairs. Baggage is a lottery.
John Mackness, Lancaster, UK

Your article is very true, especially here in the UK. I have to use a small electric scooter to get anywhere; thereby hangs the start of the problem!
L Leven, UK

I'm 6'1" tall with very long legs... If airlines don't give a damn about my simple needs when it comes to leg room, they won't give a damn about any minority group... that includes disabled people. And it's all very well moaning about cobbled streets in French towns, but that's part of their charm; people go to these places to feel as if they have stepped away from the 21st century... If you start sticking metal bars and ramps everywhere, those kind of places will instantly loose their charm. I'm all for accessibility, but perhaps changes need to come from somewhere else... The wheelchair industry perhaps?
Andrew Manning, Poole, UK

Airlines in particular have got a long way to go. I normally avoid air travel but when booking my honeymoon to Iceland I had no choice! I explained my requirement (to be able to stretch my legs out fully in front of me) to both Iceland Air and Iceland Express and was told that unless I paid for seven seats to be taken out so I went in on a stretcher, they couldn't accommodate me. This left BA, who said they were sure they could help, and gave the impression that if necessary I would be upgraded, but that they would deal with my needs. Therefore, I booked with them. On the day I found I had been pre-allocated a seat in the centre of the plane, in the middle of three seats, which I absolutely could not use. The reason they gave is that it had moveable arm-rests(!) So I explained again and in the end was given a seat at the very back, next to the loo, which had the minimal legroom but where I would be less obtrusive if I wanted to stand and stretch... Unfortunately I need to change positions every few minutes and cannot stand for long, and this was a three hour flight! It was agony. When I rang to complain I was told "sorry, we never should have taken you". It seems that from now on, my holidays are restricted to places to which I can drive - and that's not acceptable.
Flash Bristow, London, UK

My daughter suffered a spinal injury 13 years ago at the age of 6. Planning holidays is a nightmare. Imagine 'phoning businesses who would normally be desparate for your money to ask :- Can I ride on one of your buses/taxis/trains? How far in advance do I have to book? Can I access your premises?Even your nightclub? Can I have a meal/drink/and access the toilets? Spontaneity is impossible. My daughter doesn't want any special treatment, she would just like the same opportunities to travel as anyone else, safe in the knowledge that she can be accommodated. She's just had a long weekend in Dublin - the typical minimum wait for a disabled taxi in the City centre was over an hour-and that was during the day!
Tim Fox, Bristol

I just made my first wheelchair assisted trip alone in May. I was more than willing to offer a reasonable amount of understanding to the people charged with getting me from point A to point B in the airport but four situations were unacceptable. One didn't turn up at all and I missed my flight as a result. Another was a complete [censored] muttering derogatory things under his breath about me. And yet another charged with getting me from one gate to the next brought me within six gates of the destination, but on the wrong floor and informed me the escalator was out of service and I was only 1 floor away from where I needed to be before he zipped off in his cart. I've never wanted to attempt to use my walking stick as a javelin until that moment. The airlines do take the mickey as well. Everything looks great on paper, but every single flight I'd been put in a reserved bulkhead seat and only once, on my shortest flight ironically, did I actually get that seat. It certainly has it's ups and downs, but no one really understands how difficult it is to be at their mercy - and that is the only reason they manage to get away with it. Just like everything else, WE DON'T HAVE ANY OTHER CHOICE.
Willow, Leeds, W Yorks

I lost my legs in a railroad accident in 1957. In a wheelchair I went back to the UK in a cargo vessel throught the Canal, built a home, raised two kids, came back to Canada and earned my living all that time.I should add I wrote the rules for providing for the disabled in B.C. and it was the basis for the requirements in the National Building Code. The UK is far behind us in these provisions which is a shame. It should be noted that one rule I had to follow was that these provisions could not cost an arm and a leg to any city,or building owner which made it that many owners of existing building, which were not required to comply, did so of their own free will. I should add that during all my travels I have found airlines,ships and train companies employees nothing but helpful.
James Moore, Victoria. B.C. Canada

I am a Parkinson's sufferer and I've not been able to go further than Southend on a day's out-ing with my friends from the Parkinson society of Enfied. The only time that I can travel safely on an airplane is when my family and I go to Mauritius by British Airways. The crew are great from the moment that we present ourselves atthe desk to the very time that we leave the plane. The stewards would leave no stone unturned in order to make my trip as smooth as possible. They would even provide me with a special wheelchair to take to and from thetoilet,which is only a few feet from we would be.
Raj Virasami, London

I've travelled quite a bit with a wheelchair and found airlines and railway companies very accommodating. Baggage is another thing altogether - three lost wheelchairs, three occasions of serious damage to a chair, ages waiting for the chair to emerge via a 'special system' for wheelchairs. Baggage is a lottery.
John Mackness, Lancaster, UK





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