As part of our Safer, Fairer, Better campaign, five travellers tell us about the accessibility challenges they face on the road.
A barrier-free Germany left me feeling empowered
Millennials are known to have an obsession with newness, and I’m one of them. I live in a new-build property and rave about new exhibitions and restaurant openings in my local area.
However, while a new restaurant might have an Instagrammable flower wall, what I’m actually banking on is step-free access and a spacious bathroom.
I can lift myself and my wheelchair into my car on my accessible driveway, and I expect new experiences to include people with sensory impairments by providing audio guides or portable hearing loops. There are around 14 million disabled people in the UK, and the spending power of families with at least one disabled person is estimated at £249 billion a year, a figure that appears to be ignored by the listed buildings, London Tube stations and even many venues that house pop-up festivals, such as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, providing zero access, and therefore no welcome at all to the disabled community.
A recent trip abroad, however, left me feeling empowered rather than burdensome as a wheelchair user, and highlighted the importance of access at historical and cultural sites, as well as “new build” experiences.
Germany has been hailed as the second most popular destination for Europeans for the ninth year running, benefiting from 87.7 million overnight stays in 2018. With millions of people in Europe having accessibility requirements, it’s vital that the country stays ahead of the game in terms of its barrier-free offerings, and it appears to be doing just that.
Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate area is home to Unesco World Heritage sites, and the most densely forested German area; a true walker’s paradise. With numerous thoughtful adaptations in recent years, the region has proved that culture and nature can also be inclusive for all.
First to encourage the rethinking of my accessibility anxieties was the region’s much-loved Hambach Castle. The venue boasts ample accessible parking and a modern lift that has been built within ruined walls to take disabled visitors to all floors. A huge accessible bathroom is available, as are tactile maps and impressions of the castle through the ages for visually impaired visitors. Although audio guides are available in different languages, the written parts of the current exhibition are all in German. This had already been noted as a focus for their next development.
The concept of national parks is only 50 years old in Germany, and the nearby 11,000-hectare Eifel National Park is one of 16 in the country. As well as permanent exhibits in the main centre, there are nature trails with tactile and sensory learning stations, audio guides available in multiple languages, ranger tours, including ones in sign language, induction loops and the possibility of hiring all-terrain powerchairs.
I then visited a city with a very different take on traditional access. Known as the “German Corner”, Koblenz welcomes the meeting of the Moselle and Rhine rivers. As well as being the perfect spot for accessible strolls by the riverside, Koblenz has a cable car with step-free access, slowing for wheelchair users to enter and offering a smooth trip over the river and up a cliffside to the city’s fortress.
On arrival, visitors enter a fully accessible park with a tactile map of the fortress and surrounding area. Tactile flooring is also available throughout the fully accessible and step-free tour through the fortress, which has now been repurposed and houses a restaurant, three museums and a youth hostel. If a fortress can be adapted to welcome all, there is little excuse for many venues in the UK and further afield not to follow suit.
I ended my time in Germany with not only a new appreciation of nature, but a further understanding and excitement of how I can involve myself in my environment and get invested in it once more, wheelchair user or not.
Priority seating is a flawed system
I’m 31 and have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS; also known as ME). With a range of debilitating symptoms including widespread pain, muscle weakness, extreme fatigue and cognitive impairment, CFS is best described as feeling like you permanently have mild flu.
But despite the fact that at least 250,000 people in the UK currently suffer with CFS, awareness and understanding remains quite low.
One of the many challenges of living with this condition is that it is an invisible illness, with nothing obvious to indicate to those around you that you are struggling. This can make accessing help challenging and nowhere is this more true then when you are travelling.
Sometimes – on public transport, for example – there is a priority seats scheme, designed to assist the elderly, disabled and pregnant woman in getting a seat. But it is a flawed system and not well enough enforced.
How many of us have watched people blatantly ignore a heavily pregnant woman standing on a crowded train? If such obvious needs are being ignored, what hope do those of us with invisible disabilities have of ever accessing these seats?
The anxiety and stress of having to travel not knowing if you will get the seat you so badly need is really hard. I have spent journeys sitting on the train floor, desperately trying not to cry from the pain.
A better policy for priority seating on transport, airport lounges and other crowded areas needs to be implemented, one that doesn’t rely on the good will of others or their judgment of how ‘needy’ you look.
Size really does matter
What’s the difference between Preston and Prestatyn? With Les Dawson and Bob Monkhouse no longer around to give a droll music-hall style answer, let me offer a more literal and equally cruel response. About £87.
Because that’s how much the taxi cost me to get back to my starting position of Chester bus station once I realised that, due to my visual impairment, I’d got on the wrong coach.
For as long as I can remember, my enjoyment of travelling with a severe visual impairment can be reduced to an ongoing, silent battle between me and myriad sign makers and font producers.
Everyone should take a sans serif, x 24-sized leaf out of New Zealand’s books. Here signage for train stations, street names and restaurant menus are big, clean and clear. Other places don’t do me so many favours. Electronic airport departure gate boards are the worst offenders; always pitifully small.
Their inadequacies are one of the main reasons I now carry a handheld telescope around with me when I travel; much to the displeasure of airport security in Florida who hauled me away for ‘security’ questioning a few months ago concerning the instrument and my supposed anti-American intentions.
Destination signs and numbers on buses across the UK are shoddy as well, as the good burghers of Prestatyn can perhaps still testify to if they overheard my abundant and fulsome swearing when I realised I’d alighted on the North Wales coast rather than central Lancashire.
I’m not asking much. Just make all signage across the globe a little bit bigger. Whoever said ‘size isn’t everything’ was lying in more ways than even they must have thought possible.
Disabled toilets wouldn’t go amiss
For me travel, and going on holiday, is all about the journey. My favourite part of any trip is getting to my destination and in particular having a couple of drinks on the plane at 30,000ft whilst flicking through the Lonely Planet guide of my destination.
However, as my disability – muscular dystrophy – has worsened over the years my mobility has declined. This makes enjoying a couple of airborne G&Ts a dilemma. The reason being – I just cannot use the toilet on the plane because airline seats are not made for disabled people – let alone 6ft 6” disabled people such as me. So, even getting out of my seat to get to the toilet is a no go. Even if I managed to shuffle to the front I wouldn’t be able to get into the loo. Airline toilets are cramped at the best of times and for someone with limited mobility they are less inviting than a snake pit.
So, what do I do? The only option is a catheter. It’s a fairly common piece of equipment that often used by truck drivers, pilots and blokes at festivals. But it’s not a pleasant alternative to a proper disabled toilet.
Room to improve
As a disabled traveller for the past half century, I can say that things have got a lot better. I still wince when I recall those long walks down endless corridors to get to the right gate, which was always the furthest away. Moving walkways did improve the situation, but even they could prove tricky to get on and off.
Now every major airport and airline provides Special Assistance from the moment you check in: that means a wheelchair from the desk to the aircraft, or a buggy ride. Though the fact that I get around on crutches and am visibly disabled probably helps me get the right levels of attention.
Once on board, the cabin crew have always proved obliging. My crutches have to be stored in overhead lockers, which means I rely on being noticed when I ring for attention, but I am rarely left waiting.
Improvements are still needed, though. For example, I wish Special Assistance services would provide wheelchairs that could be operated by the occupant rather than rely on a carer or airline employee. It would allow much greater freedom to seek out a sustaining coffee or roam the duty free.
Safer, Fairer, Better is Telegraph Travel’s ongoing campaign that focuses on ways in which travel can be improved for everyone, from avoiding car hire rip-offs, to safer holidays for children, ending unfair single supplements and improving accessibility in hotels.
If you have views or experiences that you think will help us with our campaigns, please email us at email@example.com using “Fairness in travel” as the subject line.