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Travelling with a disability: Europe

by Bruce Mumford

Access travel tips

Bruce in Trier visiting the Roman Amphitheatre

Having returned from around two and a half months overseas with the family, I have quite a few tips I'd like to pass on to readers. Before going to Europe I wrote to various disability magazines asking for advice and received a good amount of helpful info from readers. Hopefully my ideas here will be of practical use to others with a disability who decide to travel abroad.

I've had Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for around 15 years and have gradually 'progressed' from a limp, to a walking stick, to Canadian crutches, to a walking frame and now (for traveling) to an electric wheelchair.

My wife Louise suggested going overseas nearly 2 years ago - while we could still take the family (two boys, Ashley 14 and Rohan 10) and while they still wanted to go with us! My first reaction was that we just wouldn't be able to do it. Things were difficult enough, so why make them harder? Then I thought about it and realised this trip wasn't just for me. The boys would remember it for the rest of their lives - and at least the family wanted to go with me (after my navigating I'm not sure they will again though!) and thought I could do it.

So we decided to take the plunge; a week in London and then 3 weeks touring the UK; a week in Normandy and then another in the Loire Valley; Paris for Christmas before staying with Belgian friends near Antwerp. While with them we did a tour of Bavaria, Prague and Trier, before returning to Paris and then home with a stopover in Tokyo. Lucky we decided we wouldn't have time for Ireland!

My assessment; certainly no easier than we expected - but definitely worth it!

Before going

Everyone needs to prepare for a trip, but when you've got Multiple Sclerosis you need to do a lot more.

There's injections to order; you can get a special permit to order several months supply of medication to take with you. Never try to buy it overseas. It will be enormously expensive, or may not be available.

If you suffer from incontinence (and to some extent or other most people with MS do) for men I'd strongly recommend wearing a leg-bag (available from chemists or Paraquad) as it takes away a lot of the pressure of trying to find a toilet in time. Of course accidents will still happen. Don't be embarrassed and be aware that while it's terribly traumatic for you, most of the time others don't even notice.

Unfortunately your days of just dropping into a town and grabbing somewhere to stay on the spur of the moment are over. We started booking accommodation almost a year prior and the internet is a wonderful (and cheap) tool for this.

You also need to choose a good airline and inform them of your special needs. Most airlines will take your wheelchair for free.

Get several copies of letters from your doctor and neurologist explaining your need for needles and all those pills you'll be taking. And there are lots. We virtually needed one case just for all my paraphernalia.

You'll want travel insurance; if only to cover any medical emergencies. We had to pay a little more to cover my "pre-existing condition", but it wasn't at all hard to get.

I bought a lightweight partially collapsible electric wheelchair especially for the trip. Luckily I bought it early enough ahead to iron out a few teething problems and to get used to using it (at the expense of our house, which has been gradually destroyed by my earlier miscalculations).

Bruce in his wheelchair with his son outside Karl's in Europe

Louise began cursing the wheelchair early in our trip as its rather small battery began running out of charge and I had to keep finding power points and wait for a re-charge. Some places were reluctant to let you use their power, so I found it better not to ask, but to simply whip out my battery charger and plug in. Edinburgh castle for instance, refused to let me use their power points as it was "still an operating military base". I suppose I could have been a terrorist. I certainly felt like one! The Louvre had covers over all their power points which would not permit my adapter to plug in. They had manual wheelchairs available, but you had to show your passport to get one. So while my wife walked back to our apartment for my passport I waited with my chair, re-charging it at a power point whose cover had been mysteriously been snapped off. Take plenty of power adapters too as you'll certainly lose some. They tend to get left in sockets when you pull out your charger cord! You also have to get used to a lot of sitting around waiting for your chair to re-charge. But that's OK. With MS you get used to sitting around a bit. And for us it's usually a lot safer.

To be fair, my chair really wasn't made to go halfway across London (which I tried unsuccessfully to do) and the compromise with its light weight is a battery that doesn't last all that long. What I discovered in York was that it was a much better idea to hire an electric scooter for the day - they have bigger wheels and bigger batteries. Unfortunately no other city after York (including Edinburgh, Paris and Prague) had a 'shop mobility' place where I could hire one. But it's certainly worth checking out with the local tourist office.

I was able to hire the one in York (quite cheaply) overnight - which allowed me to go out with the family on the Ghost Walking Tour around the cobbled streets of the old town. There are limits, however. I couldn't get around the medieval city walls or up the York Minster tower.

The electric chair also gave me a level of independence. I could look at what I wanted and go where I wanted; and often get lost without wanting to. In crowds, a flag would have been a good idea, as you're quite a bit lower than most pedestrians. In Belgium we got a lend of a manual wheelchair and my friend, Louise and Ashley got lots of exercise pushing me around cobbled streets and up and down gutters. At least they knew where I was, but I felt a bit less mobile and a bit like the guy in 'Little Britain' (although without his ability to occasionally jump out of the chair!).

And don't forget your disabled parking pass, if you've got one. Even though the UK and many other countries don't actually accept overseas disabled parking permits, it's unlikely a parking officer will make trouble over it. In fact, in all our time overseas we never once had any trouble using it. The only time we did have trouble was in Prague where my Belgian friend had his wheels clamped by the Czech Police for parking in a disabled spot. The concierge at the hotel explained that the police "can't read English and aren't very smart anyway", so my friend simply took a picture of an international disabled symbol and had it enlarged, laminated and put it on the car. After that we had no problems. Lesson; take a few disabled symbols with you as well (you can get them from Paraquad! If you're hiring a recent model car though, be aware that magnetic signs no longer work; as I found out there is apparently no steel in the bumpers or on the body!

Getting there

Before travelling abroad you need to choose your airline carefully and notify them well in advance of your special needs. In my experience, it's better to pay a little more for an airline that will really look after you rather than travelling with a 'budget' carrier that will not only be inconvenient, but will end up costing you more in the long run.

For example, we flew with a certain low cost Irish airline from Scotland to France. We left from 'Glasgow' (discovering that their airfield at Prestwick is actually a long way South of the city) to 'Paris' (their airfield at Beauvais is actually more than 100 kms North of Paris). Then they changed the schedule so we would not be arriving until 10:00 in the evening instead of 3:00 in the afternoon, so there was no way we could reach our hotel in Paris before midnight. And they wouldn't give a refund on the ticket we had already bought, so we had to pay for a very expensive night in Beauvais; which on our arrival the airline claimed to know nothing about. So we were left looking for a hotel at midnight in a city famed only for its lack of anything interesting except its airport which if I ever see again in this lifetime will be too soon. The next morning we missed the only bus out trying unsuccessfully to get a hire car, so had to pay for an hour's taxi ride south to Charles de Gaulle airport where they had one. The disabled assistance was laughable, or a bit scary depending on how you looked at it. Getting onto the plane was via a rickety luggage hoist and getting off was even more alarming; carried in a teetering chair down the stairs at the side of the plane.

In short, we would have saved a lot of time, money and stress by flying direct with a standard airline! And as you know, when you've got MS, stress is something you definitely need to keep as low as possible.

We flew to Europe with Japan Airlines, who were wonderful. You need to fill in a medical form a few weeks ahead, getting your doctor to outline your condition and needs while travelling. There should be no problem getting your interferon injections onto the plane; even with the 'anti-terrorism' hysteria. I must admit I was worried though, when a Japanese customs officer pulled on white gloves at Kansai airport and asked "Do you mind?" Luckily, he just wanted to inspect my shoes!

My electric wheelchair was carried free and all movements at the airport were assisted. We were then seated near toilets, with extra seats allocated when available. On the flight out we had 10 seats for the four of us - who needs first class! We were also given special attention from hostesses and given priority passage through customs with a guide from the airline pushing me through the VIP section. This part of our trip was so much easier than we expected. On arrival at Heathrow from the plane to our bus outside the airport took only 30 minutes!

If flying to Europe, I would recommend the route via Japan and over Siberia as even a Northern Winter stopover in Singapore would have been just too hot and humid for me. I remembered what it was like 20 years ago; and then I was a lot younger and didn't even have MS!

Getting about

For people with MS travel is always difficult and when you're overseas things certainly aren't going to be easier! But who wants to stay inside all day. As I discovered in London, just getting out and trying to go places, despite the difficulties can give you a real sense of excitement and independence, as well as being quite a challenge to go with all the others faced each day.

Actually, in many ways Europe is quite advanced in its catering for travellers with a disability. Most buses in London have ramps that come out to the footpath and have special areas inside for wheelchairs, so you don't even need to get out of your seat. Which is great - when they work. Unfortunately about a third don't and on one trip the bus was held up while the driver tried to get a stuck ramp back in. A bit embarrassing to have held up all those commuters, but then I'm used to being embarrassed. At least travel is free for wheelchair users.

Forget the London underground; most stations only have stairs (and lots of them). The London Dockland railway is apparently quite accessible, but we missed out on our trip because I was otherwise engaged wheeling across London trying to get a replacement charger for my almost flat electric chair.

London city has a great booklet available called 'Accessing London', written by people with disabilities and I would recommend finding something similar (usually available at the local tourism office) in any city you visit.

Bruce and family at Antwerp Station

Travel by train to Portsmouth was easy, with a special area available for wheelchair travellers and child prices for the wheelchair user and their carer. Unlike the French trains; which seem to have been designed to actively persecute travellers with disabilities. For a start the platforms are way below the carriages and so to gain access special wheelchair elevators must be organised, which take a fair bit of skill (and courage) to use. Once in, there is nowhere to go, so you are bound to clog up the vestibule; and here there is danger. For the step depressions actually begin inside the carriage. I almost decapitated myself backing up and falling into one unawares. The station we were getting off at (Antwerp; hardly a small stop) had no wheelchair elevator and no access off the platform except a long flight of stairs. Actually, I lie; on our return, I discovered there was another way, but this involved being taken a few kilometres around the back of the station and then led across several busy railway tracks. Luckily my chair's wheels didn't get stuck!

In both Paris and London we found it better to use taxis, rather than wear out my electric wheelchair trying to get across town. Taxis were cheaper than we expected and generally worked well; one notable exception being the black cab I had to get the wheelchair into myself, because the driver "had a bad back".

Our local Council Access Committee is concerned about some cracked and uneven footpaths in the Shire. They would go quite apoplectic at the condition of footpaths in most major European cities. Many different irregular surfaces, often cobblestones, often with loose segments sticking out with crazy angles often going several ways at once. Many had standard tactile strips simply whacked down before a tall gutter and seemed to be inviting blind people to suicide. Many pedestrian crossings had a dish on one side, but on crossing you would find no dish in the gutter on the opposite side of the road. I often found it easier to simply keep driving my wheelchair down the road, although this was of course even more dangerous. Another good reason for displaying a flag. Sometimes it didn't make a lot of difference, as cars would park (and drive) across footpaths. I once joined a protest march in Paris mainly because it was easier (and a lot quicker) driving my chair down the road with them.

Pedestrians were usually very helpful in getting me over gutters - even in London where they first had to surgically remove their mobile phones from the sides of their heads. And where they refused to move out of the way - Belgium comes to mind for some reason - the wheelchair makes a useful battering ram. I had to train Ashley when pushing the manual chair we had in Brugge to be less polite or we would have spent all day trying to back and fill around selfish Flems!

One thing the Belgians were good at though was accommodating visitors in wheelchair to their National Parks. At Kalmthout dunes and swamp they had a big-wheeled beach-type wheelchair available. I could have used one of these at Stonehenge which, despite rubber mats, was very boggy and almost impassable for wheelchairs in places.

If hiring a car, try to organise this well ahead from Australia. Especially if you want an automatic. To fit the family and my wheelchair we needed a station wagon, which made things even more difficult. It had to be automatic, because if my wife couldn't drive in an emergency, I could handle an auto, but never a manual. We eventually managed to get one in the United Kingdom, but not in France until we got there - and then only just. Hertz provided hand controls free in the UK, but as they were 'add-ons' they were not that easy to use and had to be laboriously detached if someone else wanted to drive.

If travelling by car make sure you take your disability parking permit, as designated parking is available at most places and is often invaluable. In the UK your Australian permit is not actually valid, but we used ours anyway and never had a problem. It was Winter mind you. The UK permit is only available to residents, but I figured they sent their convicts over here without first asking the Aborigines for the land, so we might as well use a few of their disabled parking spots.

An international disability plate (the wheelchair symbol) is also essential. In Prague our friend's car was clamped by the Czech police while parked in a disabled spot and with my permit on the dashboard. Next time we attached the disability wheelchair symbol to the window and never had any troubles after that.

Usually just being in a wheelchair is explanation enough. But if you're not in one, why not take a walking stick? It'll save learning "I've got Multiple Sclerosis" in lots of languages.

Accessible accommodation

It is important if travelling overseas to book as much of your accommodation as you can before you leave The MS Society of the United Kingdom was quite helpful and suggested a disabled tourism site on the internet. But at over $500 a night, the places they recommended looked very nice, but were a bit out of our league.

We stayed at 'Citadines' apartments in London and Paris, which were fairly expensive, but had the advantage of their own kitchen and a helpful front desk; allowing the benefits of both an apartment and a hotel and saving a lot of eating out, which gets quite expensive for a family. Speaking of which, we found food (and wine!) a lot cheaper in France than in the United Kingdom as well as being of much better quality.

Generally apartments and hotel rooms in Europe are very small; but while it does make getting around inside difficult at times, there is the advantage of always having a wall to lean on, or if you miss, not having so far to fall!

Check out the layout of the bathroom if you can, because many places have incredibly difficult showers to get into (usually over a bath) and often very slippery tile floors.

You'll get tired out just trying not to do yourself a serious injury in unfamiliar surroundings, so allow time each day to recharge your batteries. Do not make the usual tourist mistake of trying to cram too much in. With MS or any disability, you just can't afford to. You'll just tire yourself out, make mistakes (and I made plenty of those without even being tired) and enjoy nothing.

I came to appreciate the luxury of automatic doors and to get very adept at zooming in and backing out of small elevators before the doors closed. One elevator was so tiny I had to send the wheelchair up after me. Tre difficule!

Accessible toilets

I could write a book about toilets in Europe. When you've got Multiple Sclerosis they are a pretty important part of your trip.

I remember not really understanding the concerns of some members of our Access Committee about the difficulties of getting up from deeply dished toilet seats. Now I do. And I have also confronted perfectly flat ones that you can't stay on, heated ones and ones that rotate and clean themselves. The best toilet seat was a fully contoured one in a disability access toilet in Belgium. It looked like something from Darth Vader's star-cruiser, but worked like a treat.

I found the toilets in the United Kingdom hardest to use, where flush buttons don't seem to have been invented yet. Rather you have to use a lever, which often has to be pumped. The easiest to use was one in Japan which flushed itself. I don't want to think about how the sensor worked!

Disabled toilets varied widely, where they were available. Most tourist sites in the UK have them available, in France they are a little less common, but Germany is well-endowed. Like here, you often have to wait for the quite able-bodied to vacate them. Many toilets have attendants sitting outside, whom you pay. As a person with a disability however, you are not expected to pay; which in some cases was just as well.

The most unusual experience I had in a disabled toilet was at the cathedral in Prague, where a lady had set up residence and was just in the process of boiling a cup of tea at a table set with flowers, a tablecloth and a radio-cassette player. She was accommodating enough and was happy to let me in, but it felt a bit uncomfortable having a wee in someone's kitchen.


Enjoying the gardens at Kenilworth in the UK

In conclusion, although a lot of my treatise may make it seem like it's just too difficult to go overseas with a disability, nothing could be further from the truth.

Looking back at the videos, I've realised that things were even better than we thought at the time. When you get back you return with a new self-confidence, as well as a stunned and incredulous look on your face.

And anyway, what's the alternative like? I think it was Mel Brooks who said, "You're dead for a long time…"

About the author

Bruce enjoys travelling and is setting up his own consultancy service to share his knowledge, gained from personal experiences travelling abroad and in Australia, with other travellers who have a disability. He would also be happy to answer any queries you may have and can be contacted by emailing blmumford@exemail.com.au

Published: June 2006

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