Visiting Rome with a Wheelchair User

Rome, like Venice,  is a city known to be notoriously difficult for people in wheelchairs to visit. I am writing this post as the partner of a wheelchair user, to share some of our experiences of this beautiful and fascinating city.

Of course, before we went we did our research which confirmed, from lots of comments on Trip Advisor and the like, that we would find Rome difficult, but also that it was worth the effort, so we spent some time planning how to reduce this effort.

Questions we tried to answer before we went.

We know that Manchester Airport, where we flew from, is good with people in wheelchairs, but what about Rome airport? We spent a lot of time trying to organise an accessible taxi (i.e. one with a ramp or lift) to take us from the airport to the hotel. In the end, after hours spent on the phone and online, we gave up. Instead we decided to take the train from the airport to the city centre. We didn’t pre-book, but just turned up on the platform. It was so easy and a fraction of the cost of taking a taxi.

Right up to the day before leaving we kept changing our minds about which wheelchair to take – should it be the fold-up one that would go in a taxi and was light to push, or should it be a heavier unfolding wheelchair with a bike attachment (tracker – as in photo)? Ultimately we decided on the tracker (the best decision we made), which wasn’t damaged on the outgoing or return flight, to which a good-sized rucksack would attach on the front, and which we discovered would not only go up steep curves, but also over big cobbles.

We couldn’t get in a taxi with this wheelchair, but we could get on the train and we just squeezed onto the hop-on/hop off bus, where passengers were very tolerant in edging past us.

On choosing a hotel, we followed the rules we always follow. The hotel must be central, so that as much as possible it is within walking distance of the main sites. The bedroom must be big enough for a wheelchair and the bathroom must be wheelchair friendly. We booked the Ariston Hotel, near the train and bus station. This worked really well as we were able to walk to and from the station in less than five minutes and to all the key sites, although we did get the bus to Vatican City (we walked back though!). The Ariston was not perfect, but we have no complaints. It was not as spacious as it appears on their website photos. In particular the corridors were very narrow, the lift was tiny, the bar was up some steps, and our bathroom was right on the edge of being wheelchair friendly. But by moving a bit of furniture around and doing quite a lot of lifting in the absence of well-positioned grab-rails in the bathroom, we managed. The hotel staff were very friendly and helpful and the breakfast was extremely good and certainly enough to set you up for the day. The other good thing about the hotel was that it was very near a lot of good restaurants.

Getting about in Rome

There is no doubt that Rome is difficult for a wheelchair user. Many kerbs are very high and do not have ramps. Most surfaces are cobbled, which along with gravel is a wheelchair-user’s nightmare, and some sites and restaurants are inaccessible. But despite this there’s plenty to see and do. This was our first time in Rome, so we took the approach I will describe below, an approach which depends on being reasonably fit.

We decided to walk/ride and observe from the outside rather than try to get into sites such as museums, although we did get into St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, the Pantheon and Santa Maria Maggiore.

 

The Santa Maria Maggiore and the Pantheon were free, but for those sites which charge, such as those in Vatican City, the good news is that not only do disabled visitors and their carers go in free but also don’t have to queue, being taken by a different route to the front!

It was very hot whilst we were in Rome – 30 degrees or above on most days. Although we walked/rode about 10 miles a day, we made an effort to stay on the shady side of the street and drink plenty of water – common sense really.

We tried to avoid hugely crowded areas,  or only stay for a very short time, e.g. Trevi Fountain. In my opinion and that of my partner, The Sistine Chapel is really not worth it for a wheelchair user. As an able-bodied standing person you are shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of others. For a wheelchair user this means you are pushed up against hordes of people at below waist height – not pleasant. In this hugely over-crowded space I got no sense of the beauty of The Sistine Chapel and even more annoying was the voice over the tannoy shouting at us to be silent! (I found when I worked in schools that if you want silence, you whisper!). So, either book a special tour for just a small group to visit the Sistine Chapel, or give it a miss and buy some photos.

It is possible to avoid the crowds though. We did this by roaming through the back streets and visiting sites such as the Circus Maximus. The video makes it sound noisy, but I wasn’t aware of the noise at the time, or at least didn’t find it troubling.

 

The most important lesson for us was …

You either need three wheels or four big wheels (a sturdy scooter), ideally assisted by battery power. A regular wheelchair with small front casters must be a nightmare – extremely hard work for whoever is pushing (we did see some). Even if you tip the chair backwards, so that it is only travelling on the two back wheels (which is the only way to get across cobbles without rattling the wheelchair occupant right out of the chair), there are so many difficult surfaces in Rome that this could not be sustained for very long.

The system we use is a Batec – expensive, but so worth it.

We only scraped the surface of Rome, in the four and a half days we were there, despite being out for about seven hours each day. I would love to return and see more. Hopefully we will be able to do this. If you are a wheelchair user, don’t be put off by the bad press Rome gets in relation to access. It is definitely possible with a bit of fore-thought. The people are very helpful and I got the impression that the city is doing its best to improve access, but, unsurprisingly for such an ancient city, there remains a lot to do. You don’t need to plan out every detail or even to go very far. There is something beautiful to see on just about every corner in central Rome.  It is such a special place to visit.

For more photos of what we managed to see in Rome – see https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157695420925550

And for a similar post on visiting Venice – see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/visiting-venice-with-a-wheelchair-user/  We used the fold-up light-weight wheelchair when visiting Venice. Here are some photos – https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157649650530148

Hand Cycling around Bali


Map of Bali

At the beginning of this month I joined a group of hand cyclists who were raising money for REGAIN  by cycling 320 km around Bali.

Photo by Liz Pardey, Volunteer at Bali Sports Foundation

(click on the photo to see it more clearly)

REGAIN is a charity that aims to support British men and women who have become tetraplegic as a result of a sports injury.  The charity provides many different types of support, but one of its activities is to arrange events which will help to improve the independence of people who have been seriously disabled by a sporting injury. In this case the event was hand-cycling around Bali. REGAIN organised this in conjunction with the Bali Sports Foundation – so we were joined by 7 disabled Indonesian riders. The route was organised by the Bali Sports Foundation.

Whilst I joined this ride in support of REGAIN, I was impressed by the Bali Sports Foundation and the work they are doing to promote sport for the disabled. It was wonderful to witness the stoicism and enthusiasm of the Bali cyclists.

Source of video: Bali Sports Foundation

14 people went to Bali from the UK including four tetraplegics and their carers. It’s interesting to reflect on how facilities for the disabled have improved. 50 years ago, which is when my husband (one of the four tetraplegics) suffered his spinal injury, an event such as this would have been impossible. How things have changed. Whilst facilities for the disabled could still be improved, some places needing more improvement than others, the intrepid tetraplegic can now get out and about as never before, taking on challenges that are daunting for the able-bodied, never mind those with a spinal injury.

Speaking from the perspective of an able-bodied partner of a disabled hand-cyclist, one of the wonderful things about a trip like this is how much you learn, not only about the country you are visiting, but even more from the people you meet and the experiences you share.

The Bali ride was definitely a challenge. Not only did we cycle 320 kms over four days, quite often in heavy traffic, but we also did this in 100 degrees heat. I have never taken in so much daily water; neither have I ever purposely ridden a bike soaking wet to the skin, which was the only way to keep cool. Keeping hydrated was essential for the tetraplegics who easily over-heated. I learned that a spray bottle is useful for cooling down tetraplegics without soaking them too much, but for myself, I simply poured ice cold water all over me! And of course, whilst you might want the best of suntans, Factor 50+ is a must.

Photo by Liz Pardey, Volunteer at Bali Sports Foundation

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about joining a REGAIN event is the friends you make and the amount of support you get, both from the able-bodied riders, but also from the tetraplegics who are always on hand with advice as to the best way of managing such a challenging ride (and life in general). The four tetraplegics on our trip, Dom, Tim, Piers and John, are inspiring, truly amazing people, all of whom meet life head on with humour and courage. And this account would be incomplete without a shout out to Dom, Tim and Piers’ amazing carers/partners, Daniela, Sarah and Erika, who are all equally inspiring.

If you are a hand cyclist looking for a new challenge, maybe these photos will be of interest.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/albums/72157680913131863

You can also have a look at  Liz Pardey’s photos:

https://1drv.ms/f/s!AnfMHZJyMQ0kkn44ueMTtQ1ayI4F. Liz is a volunteer with the Bali Sports Foundation and helped to organise the event.

Visiting Venice with a wheelchair user

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Visiting Venice is an experience I wouldn’t have missed; travelling with a wheelchair user made it all the more interesting.

I hope that this post might help other wheelchair users who visit Venice – a city that is so worth a visit, if only once. However it’s worth remembering that just as each person visiting Venice will have a different perspective from their individual unique position, so too will a disabled traveller. Each wheelchair user will have different needs and different mobility issues. This post is being written from the following perspectives:

  1. From the travelling companion of the wheelchair user – not the wheelchair user himself.
  2. Considering a wheelchair user who can get out of the chair and stand up, with the support of another person, a stick, or wall, or whatever is close at hand. This wheelchair user can also walk a few steps with this support and even climb some steps. If the steps are too high or steep then his feet may need lifting. So ideally this wheelchair user needs to avoid more that one step.
  3. Considering a wheelchair user who needs a disabled bathroom and bedroom with hand rails, strong furniture that can be pulled up on, no rugs/mats or slippy floors, space to move around in, in a wheelchair, and a chair with arms.

Venice, we knew before we even set out, is not wheelchair friendly. That must be why in four days we could count the number of wheelchair users we saw in a massively crowded city on the fingers of one hand and some of those were people with broken legs, or the elderly, who simply couldn’t walk far – not necessarily people whose lives were governed by their wheelchair – although who can judge from simple observation.

So here’s what I learned.

Ideally your hotel should be in a position where there is no bridge (with steps) to cross to get into it. Ours could only be reached by crossing a bridge with steps, whichever direction we approached it from. When booking in advance, we couldn’t find a more accessible hotel, with a room available. But all over the world we have always encountered people more than willing to help. In total we crossed the bridge 8 times (leaving the hotel in the morning and only returning in the evening) and only had to climb the steps twice. On every other occasion a group of kindly volunteer tourists lifted the chair plus occupant over the bridge. Thank goodness for a light wheelchair user who watches his weight!

Your hotel should have access with no steps (when we got over the bridge, there were no more steps to get into the hotel!), a lift (yes), they should be expecting you in a wheelchair (no – they claimed to have no knowledge of this although we had a copy of the prior email communication) and they should have the promised walk in shower available (no – the hotel didn’t have any walk in showers, only showers over baths – impossible for our wheelchair user). But the hotel did provide a big room with plenty for space for moving around in a wheelchair.

Normally, it’s ideal for wheelchair users to be centrally located, so that you can walk from your hotel to see the sights and not have to pay for taxis, which are not only expensive, but also require a lot of effort to get into and out of. In Venice centrally located means Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), which is mobbed by tourists, making moving around in a wheelchair difficult. It would probably be easier to be less centrally located. There are quieter areas which are easy to reach by Vaporetto (water bus) –  and there is always help around to get a wheelchair onto and off the Vaporetto.

You don’t need to do a massive amount of research before hand to be able to find your way round Venice, but a couple of good maps will be a real help.

  • First you need the Accessible Venice Map. On it’s own this map is not enough, but it is very useful for showing which Vaporetto stops can be used by people in wheelchairs.
  • This Vaporetto map needs to be combined with a tourist map, which shows exactly where the canals are. It’s no good stepping off an accessible Vaporetto only to find that you can’t go anywhere because you are immediately confronted by a stepped bridge over a canal. Paper tourist maps (which is what we used) are easy to get from your hotel or tourist information when you arrive in Venice.
  • Even the two maps together will not show you where there are ‘steps’. Some streets which have no canal bridges, still have steps. For example, our maps seemed to indicate that we could walk/ride from Rialto to Piazza San Marco with only one canal bridge to cross, but in fact there were lots of steps at the end of streets which prohibited us from doing this.

There are plenty of quieter spaces to visit in Venice where you can still get a real sense of the place. These are the places we visited and found were wheelchair accessible.

Piazza San Marco – this is not quiet. It is mobbed with tourists, but even so, not to be missed. Even the crowds can’t detract from the beauty of Venice. If it rains (we experienced 3 thunder storms in Venice) then the square is flooded – not easy for wheelchair users. The Basilica is accessible in part, if you go to the back entrance, but you still need to get up some steps – so we needed help with this. Thanks again to kind tourists. The Palazzo Ducale is more accessible. We avoided the queues by getting there as it opened on Sunday morning.

Arsenale and Giardini are both accessible by Vaporetto and quieter, being residential areas. There are plenty of streets to walk/ride in these areas without crossing canal bridges and at Giardini is the La Biennale di Venezia exhibition site which is accessible to wheelchair users. We saw a wonderful architecture exhibition.

Rialto on the Canal Grande is accessible by Vaporetto, but is not wheelchair friendly once you get there. The streets are very narrow, there are lots of tourist markets and the place is very crowded. We didn’t stay long.

Campo San Tomà also on the Canal Grande is accessible by Vaporetto and is a lovely, tranquil place to explore, although the churches etc. were not accessible. In fact few of the churches, museums or galleries were accessible, but that’s not a problem if you are happy just to wander and soak in the atmosphere. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some of the eating places are not easily accessible.

Accademia was our final stop along the Canal Grande – accessible by Vaporetto. We were there on a Monday afternoon when the museum was closed  but according to their website this museum is wheelchair accessible. The good thing about this stop is that you can walk right across to Zattere on the other side where you can get a different Vaporetto to return to Piazza San Marco (where we started from) or elsewhere.

Getting to and from Venice.

We arrived by train from Vienna and then got a Vaporetto to Piazza San Marco which is where our hotel (the one with no bridge-free access!) was located. The main thing to remember here is to only take the luggage that you can physically carry – as you will most likely have to manage this yourself and walk some distance with it. In our case this consisted of a full sized rucksack which I carried on my back, a small rucksack for the back of the wheelchair and a hand luggage sized suitcase which we put on the wheelchair user’s knees. It would have been impossible with anything more.

We left Venice by the airport Vaporetto which takes one hour twenty minutes from Piazza San Marco. There is plenty of help getting onto this Vaporetto, but when you arrive at the airport there is a 7 minute walk to the airport. Another reason to travel light.

So Venice is not for the faint-hearted wheelchair user – but it is possible, and it really is one of those once in a lifetime must see places. It is stunningly beautiful and it is possible to see a lot in three days without too much hassle or rush.

See also Venice for the Disabled – a site which provides less personal and more comprehensive advice and there are other websites which provide information, but we found that we just had to go and work it out as we went along. I’m not sure that a lot more prior planning would have helped – but that is a very personal perspective.

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