Backpacking

 

I never did the whole gap year thing. At the age of 18, when most of my school friends were off backpacking around the world before starting university, I was recovering from a broken femur and spinal surgery. Instead, I went straight to uni, and then from there into full time work. It wasn’t until my late twenties, after a few trips to my parents’ apartment in Cyprus, that I finally caught “the travel bug” and found myself longing to see a bit more of the world. Finally, after saving up a little bit of money each month for a year, I decided to go on an adventure.

 

Planning the Journey

 

A friend of mine from Los Angeles had told me about a train service that ran along the West Coast of America, from Los Angeles to Seattle. And so, after a lengthy chat with an AMTRAK representative, I managed to negotiate a great deal that would see me travelling 2600 miles of Pacific coastline, stopping at San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, before heading back down to Los Angeles again. I contacted various Facebook friends and old acquaintances who lived in each of the cities and asked if I could stay with them for a few days; and booked my flights.

I was a little bit nervous about travelling solo. Although I’d be meeting and staying with people along the way, I’d never taken a trip abroad without at least one able-bodied companion to help me. I needn’t have worried. As it turned out, America is a country full of people only too happy to help someone in a wheelchair.

 

Airline

 

The first thing to note about my travels is that the staff at Virgin Atlantic are outstanding. From the moment my terrified mum dropped me off at Heathrow airport, I was looked after. The check-in staff did all the heavy lifting with my luggage and had someone escort me through security – skipping the usual queues. Once I’d boarded the plane, a member of the flight crew assured me that she would check in on me every half hour on the flight to make sure I was OK and assist if I needed to go to the bathroom or stretch my legs. I’ve flown a lot of budget airlines over the years, so this level of service was a welcome change. At LAX, I was again assisted by Virgin staff, who did not leave my side until my ride to Venice Beach arrived.

 

Getting Around LA and Going on AMTRAK

 

I was surprised at just how spread out Los Angeles is. Unlike many of the European cities I’ve visited, where everything is usually crammed into a few square miles of narrow streets; Los Angeles is made up of several areas the size of small towns, joined together by vast 5 lane highways. Although they have a metro system, many of the stations are inaccessible to wheelchair users, which meant that I was forced to use taxis for most of my journeys around the city.

I was staying in Venice Beach – a place best known for its golden beaches and large population of artists, musicians and other free-spirited types. I felt immediately at home. Along the beach itself, there is the Venice Boardwalk. This is a long path that runs from Marina Del Rey in the South, to Santa Monica in the North. The path is wide and flat and perfect for pushing a wheelchair along. Every few hundred meters, there are accessible paths that are meant for wheelchair users to be able to get closer to the sea and enjoy the beach itself. It’s a nice touch that I’ve yet to see anywhere else.

After a few days in sunny Los Angeles, where I visited (among other things) Santa Monica Pier – the end of Route 66, MacArthur Park and the Grammy Museum – well worth a visit if you’re a music fan; I hopped on a train that would take me to San Francisco. The staff at AMTRAK were fantastic from the moment I arrived. I was helped with my luggage and, once on the train, a member of staff made sure I was looked after for the 14-hour train ride North.

 

Touring San Francisco

 

San Francisco is vastly different from Los Angeles. The short trip over the Bay Bridge at night revealed a skyline dominated by skyscrapers, and once in the city, I was met with narrow streets and the steepest hills I have ever seen. I was staying at a tourist hotspot called Fisherman’s Wharf, which was thankfully at the bottom of the hills, so I didn’t need to negotiate pushing my wheelchair up the 45-degree slopes to get anywhere. Of all the cities I visited on my travels, San Francisco was by far my favorite. I took a morning cruise around the bay, where the fog was so thick, I couldn’t see the Golden Gate Bridge until I was directly underneath it. I also took a trip to Alcatraz – an experience that was both fascinating and haunting. On the boat over to “the rock”, the guides give you a brief history of the island and how it came to be a penitentiary; but nothing quite prepares you for how isolated you feel once you get to the island. The tour of the prison itself was completely accessible for wheelchairs, although I’d recommend to anyone going that they take the trolley up the steep hill to the entrance – it’s no fun push for a wheelchair! Tourists can move through the buildings at their own pace, and there were audio tours offered as part of the trip. On the day that I visited Alcatraz, a former inmate happened to be doing a book-signing in the gift shop. Being able to talk with him briefly about his life in the prison made the whole experience even more poignant.

On my last day in the city, I decided to do the one thing I’d been dreaming of doing for years. I “wheeled” the Golden Gate Bridge. I cheated a little and got a taxi to the Visitor’s center, since it was up a rather steep hill, and I didn’t want to tire myself out before I’d even reached the bridge! From here I set off along the pedestrian path that runs along the right-hand side of the bridge. Conveniently, there were several spots along the way for resting and taking photographs of Alcatraz, the city skyline and the lush green hills of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. My only recommendations to people crossing the bridge on foot were 1) bring headphones and music – you’re essentially walking along the side of a motorway and it gets very noisy; and 2) wrap up warm – San Francisco’s bizarre microclimates are at their most unpredictable along the bridge, and it’s quite chilly in those thick fogs.

 

Visiting Friends In Portland

 

For the next leg of the journey, I had to take a 17-hour train ride North to Portland, Oregon. Once again, the AMTRAK staff were extremely accommodating; although I made the mistake of not booking a sleeper cabin, so I was forced to try and curl up along across some empty seats in my carriage to get some rest. My spine has yet to forgive me for this! For this part of the journey, the train moved inland; and I was treated to some incredible scenery outside my window – vast pine forests, snow-capped hills and crystal-clear lakes. The train ride passed by in no time as I played an hours-long game of “spot Bigfoot” with the family next to me.

In Portland, I met up with my good friend Shannon, who also has OI. We’ve been “Facebook friends” for nearly ten years, and it was wonderful to meet her in person. She took me on a tour of the city that included Voodoo Donuts, Powell’s Book Store – a cavernous, 3 floor building that sold everything from the latest releases, to first edition and signed prints of some of literature’s most celebrated pieces; and the Shriner’s Hospital. Shriner’s is one of America’s main hospitals for the treatment of OI – their equivalent of our Children’s Centres for Excellence. Shannon, who has volunteered at the hospital for many years, introduced me to some of the doctors, nurses and physiotherapists; and we had a lively discussion about the pros and cons of the NHS, compared to America’s insurance-based healthcare system.

 

Attractions and Visiting Friends in Seattle

 

After Portland, I once again headed north, for a (relatively) short journey up to Seattle. This was the city I’d most been looking forward to visiting, since so many of my musical heroes were born here. My first stop was the Museum of Pop Culture – a must see for anyone who is interested in film, TV or music. I got to see everything from the swords used in the Lord of the Rings films, to Kurt Cobain’s personal diaries and Jimi Hendrix’s guitars. After this, I took a wander around the city. Seattle is built on several hills and can be quite tricky to navigate in a wheelchair; however, they do have an excellent (and cheap) public transport system which is mostly accessible.

On my second day in the city, I met with my friend Anita – another wheelchair user. Knowing that I am absolutely terrified of heights, she convinced me to go up to the top of the Space Needle. After the initial wave of panic that swept over me at being nearly 200m above ground subsided, I was treated to yet more breathtaking views – this time of the city and the surrounding snow-capped mountains. I distracted myself from the uneasy feeling of being so high up by taking as many pictures as I could. To round off the day, Anita took me back to her parents’ house, where I was treated to a wonderful home-cooked meal – a welcome change from the endless fast food I’d been consuming on my travels so far!

After a few days in Seattle, it was time to head back South to Los Angeles. The 1,300 mile-journey would take two days, so I made sure I had plenty of snacks (although there is a dining car on the train), and some good books to keep me occupied. In the end, I needn’t have worried. Just a few hours into the journey, I struck up a conversation with an artist from Wisconsin, and we spent the remainder of the journey chatting and sharing photography tips.

 

Hollywood

 

Back in Los Angeles, I had one final item to tick off the bucket list: Hollywood. I got up early on the Friday before I flew home and took a short cab ride from Venice to the Chinese Theatre. As expected, Hollywood Boulevard was packed with tourists. I wheeled up and down each side of the walk of fame, trying to spot the stars for some of my favorite actors. I then took the obligatory tour of Hollywood Hills and the homes of the stars. Unless you’re massively into celebrity culture (which I’m not), I wouldn’t recommend paying the $50 fee for this tour. We drove through the long, winding roads, stopping every so often outside some gates, only to be told that somewhere behind those gates lived Katy Perry or Brad Pitt. The only part of this tour worth noting was getting to see the famous Hollywood sign up close and getting some photo-worthy views of the huge expanse of Los Angeles below us.

From Hollywood Boulevard I wheeled down to Sunset Boulevard – a strip of clubs, bars and music venues that had been the start of so many famous bands, from the Doors to Motley Crue and Guns’n’Roses. Over a beer in the Viper Room (Johnny Depp’s club on the Sunset Strip), I got chatting to a wealthy comic book collector named Roy. Before I knew it, I was being treated to a night on the town with some Hollywood locals!

 

Catching a Tan

I spent my last day in Los Angeles on the beach in Venice, catching a tan and buying the last few souvenirs for my friends back home. It gave me a chance to reflect on what an amazing journey I’d been on. I’d travelled 2,600 miles of coastline, through three states, and visited four very different cities. Everywhere I’d been to, I’d been met with friendly faces and a warm welcome. Perhaps more interestingly, I hadn’t been to a single place where I felt like my wheelchair was a burden. In the few places I ended up that didn’t have wheelchair access staff would, without question, lift me and / or my wheelchair up whatever steps there were. It contrasted deeply with some of the experiences I’ve had back here in the UK, where so many venues would simply refuse me entry because of my wheelchair.

I boarded the plane back to Heathrow with a mixture of joy and sadness. Joy that I’d had such an amazing experience. Sadness that it had to end. I made a promise to myself that I’d be back soon to see more of this wonderful country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Abroad

 

Last year I took a family holiday to the south of Spain. It was a large group and we decided to book a nice villa rather than a hotel.

Delighted to have been asked to come and join my extended family, whom I’d recently got back in contact with after years of separation, I couldn’t shake off the feelings of anxiety and trepidation about the trip.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled a lot as a young girl and I love to explore new countries however, as I’ve gotten older and my body has become less mobile (and let’s face it, I’ve become much heavier to be lifted up and down stairs), I’ve lost my passion for jet-setting somewhat. There is always so much to plan, and being outside of the comfort of my own adapted flat… Going abroad is often a minefield: from worrying about my wheelchair being lost in transit; not being able to access the toilet on flights; or simply paying through my teeth for holiday insurance. All of this even before I reach my destination.

 

Accessible Accommodation

 

After a lengthy conversation with my cousin who was planning the trip, she reassured me that she would find a villa to cater for my needs and to stop worrying. Lo and behold she found a website with accessible villas. I put my scepticism aside and tried to start to look forward to our family holiday.

My concerns were not however unfounded, upon arriving I was met with a few steps into the property and a makeshift plank of wood that was supposed to be a ramp. Inside the villa wasn’t much better; the so called ‘wet-room’ was far from ideal with a small drop down seat, no arms, and so small I could barely get one bum cheek on it. The sinks and mirrors were far too high for me to reach and although we were told the villa was situated close enough for us to walk into town it was almost impossible with a wheelchair as pavements seemed to be non-existent.

We found ourselves very isolated in a villa that was not fit for purpose.

Although it was so lovely spending time with my family, I could see their collective frustration as we came up against one barrier after another. I felt myself feeling like a burden and kept apologising for things that were actually out of my control.

 

Air B&B

 

Once back in London I questioned why going on holiday was such an ordeal if you have a disability. Something must be done to improve this. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when the BBS asked me to represent them at a roundtable discussion they had been invited to attend at Airbnb.

They strive to be accessible to everyone, they have introduced 27 new accessibility filters to make it easier for people to find homes which fit their needs, as well as enabling hosts to market their home’s accessible features.

These new features allow hosts to designate whether their listing includes features like step-free access and wider doorways and even specialist equipment like a mobile hoist or electric profiling bed. Personally for me, the most important thing is that they will be accompanied by photos so you can see exactly what is being offered and not just trust the description outlined by the host as we all know from experience what may seem like a ‘little step’ for one person is a mountain for others!

 

Accessible Experiences

 

At the meeting I attended for the Brittle Bone Society – they told us they are “committed to making their community more accessible” when it comes to finding accessible properties but they have also launched accessible experiences – experiences are activities designed and led by passionate locals that go beyond typical tours or classes to immerse guests in each host’s unique world. This should hopefully encourage as many entrepreneurs with a disability as possible to host an accessible experience.

For me this was really exciting, particularly after my Spanish experience, it’s fine to have accessible accommodation but a holiday is much more than sitting in a villa or hotel.

 

Moving forward

 

One area I found interesting was the whole issue of accessible housing being for the most part owned by housing associations such as Peabody or Habinteg to name a few. As far as I am aware you are not allowed, particularly if you are in receipt of housing benefit or any form of income related benefits, to advertise a room for visitors.

It would be amazing if all parties could come together and look at the holistic benefits of being able to rent out accessible properties, even if this means a percentage of the money gained from renting out your property on a site goes back to your local council.

 

Final thought

 

I never want to regret anything in life and I’d like to think that I do adhere to this life mantra as much as possible however, I must admit when it comes to travelling I do let the fear of the unknown take over and I have undoubtably missed out on travelling adventures because of this.

I’m delighted about this type of change, so that I never have to feel anxious about travelling, or worse still feel like a burden to those accompanying me on my travels.

 

Disclaimer

 

BBS do not endorse any commercial site listed in this article and the views are those of the author.

 

For more information on accessible Airbnb

 

Other companies are heading in this direction, and you can now look for accessible accommodation from a whole range of providers:

Handicover

Disabledholidays

Limitlesstravel

A number of people have taken on the task of reviewing the accessible features of different places, so you know exactly what to expect when you’re away:

Euansguide

Meincluded 

AccessAble

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello BBS Community!

Transport Experience

 

I’ve been asked to write a blog around public transport, and any advice I can offer to those that aren’t so confident in taking it, as well as useful bits of technology that better help me to navigate around London and beyond.

I would like to say that I have it all sussed after many years living and working around London, but I’m writing this blog after a week of delayed and terminated trains, overhead wires coming down, broken disabled toilets, and missing platform staff with ramps, so the first thing to say is – as much as there are things along the way I have learnt to make travel easier, it’s still by no means perfect and it’s important to try and stay calm when things outside of your control have transpired against you.

Trains

 

Most trains I take aren’t able to be planned too far in advance, so I don’t generally book assistance through the national passenger assistance. I use apps like national rail and Citymapper to plan my route and then on arrival at train stations I make sure I find someone who can organise a ramp to go down for me to board the train, and disembark at the other end. On boarding the train, I reiterate where I’m headed (yes, they do sometimes get the station wrong), and then on arrival at my destination, I make sure to enlist the help of fellow passengers should there be no one ready and waiting to get me off. To ensure that the train doesn’t depart before I’m off I usually get one person to hold the door and another to go down the platform and try and find someone that looks like they work there. If that fails there usually is a passenger alarm switch for disabled passengers if you’ve been put on the appropriate coach.

Buses

 

To my knowledge, all buses in London are now accessible, and provide a great way to accessibly get to places that trains or the underground can’t get to so easily.

There has been a reasonable amount of press coverage of the wheelchair spaces on buses and who should have priority if a pushchair is already in the space when you board. I usually find that most passengers and drivers are quite human about the whole situation, and if they can get everyone on at the same time they will. If they can’t, having the patience to wait for the next bus can be important as there only is the one space!

Usually the next bus is better!

I use google maps to plan my bus routes, and to see when the next bus is due, but this doesn’t seem to be an exact science – and after waiting a long time, two buses still come at once!

Underground

 

Although the London Underground isn’t something that most people reading this will have access to, it’s something that slowly but surely is becoming slightly more accessible and so I find myself riding now and again – and still feeling like I don’t belong there! Around 25% of London’s stations are now accessible, but a large proportion of those are on the newer lines that are quite far out the city centre. It can be very difficult to find a route that gets you to where you want to be in central London, and I often find that getting as ‘near as possible’ on the tube and then switching to bus or taxi is the only way to make use of the tube a lot of the time.

Taxis

 

For many years, taxis were an essential tool for me getting to work in Hammersmith as there wasn’t really any other accessible route from St Pancreas. I was lucky enough that these could be funded through Access to Work, and I would use apps like Gett and MyTaxi (now Free Now) to book a taxi in real time, with very little hassle.

All black cabs in London have to be wheelchair accessible, and the penalties for not taking someone because of their disability can be severe. I’ve not experienced the same level of service outside of London however, with it seeming to be a real lottery if a particular area has accessible taxis – often trying to exhaust every possible cab number to be found on google before conceding there aren’t any, which shockingly is sometimes the case! If you are travelling somewhere new, it can be important to check there are accessible taxis before finalising plans.

Wheel Power

 

A few months ago, I had the realisation that in my electric wheelchair I was roughly double the speed of most people walking, and so I should take advantage of that when going from A to B, if there weren’t other straightforward routes available. It’s a lovely way to see the surroundings and no doubt means that I get more interesting interactions on the way – as well as not costing any more than a bit of electricity to charge the chair up! I use google maps again to plan my walking (wheeling!) routes – but still have to be mindful that it may try and take me up or down a staircase now and again!

In Summary

 

I love living and working in London, and although travel can be daunting at times, I wouldn’t change it for anything. My independence is so precious.

On the whole people are kind and extremely helpful, so my greatest advice if you are unsure what to do or where to go is to forget any technology and just ask for help! People are usually all too happy to be of assistance.

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