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HANDICAPPED TRAVEL

by..... Rtnda@aol.com

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It is more than possible to travel abroad---or in this country---even if you are handicapped. My wife uses a walker all the time but needs a wheelchair to go long distances---including from the street to the gate at airports, shopping, and certainly to museums. She also has very little stamina and when we travel takes an occasional day off to rest in the hotel, while I do something she would care less about or not be able to do. But we do go, and we both enjoy it.

Our experience is limited, but I have some thoughts that might help others:
Make all reservations well ahead of time. Tell the airline you are handicapped and will need a wheelchair at all airports. They have wheelchairs and porters to push them. There's no charge but the porters will be grateful for tips. Be sure they make it a note of your request in your reservation so that it's in their computer. If it's not there and they're busy when you arrive they may give you static. It doesn't do any harm to check a couple of days ahead to make sure your request is on record.

Arrive at the airport well ahead of the earliest time they tell you to be there. They say one hour for domestic flights, two for international. Add 30 minutes to an hour to wait for the man to come with the wheelchair and any other hassles. They will usually board handicapped passengers first and to get the advantage of that you need to be at the gate waiting when pre-boarding begins. [For some more helpful hints, ask the Department of Transportation for its booklet "New Horizons, Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability" 888-860-7244 (Order No. 2100-16)]

Airports and airlines will make serious efforts to accommodate you. As I say, they all have wheelchairs and porters. All we have seen have elevators as well as escalators.

The French National Railway has wheelchair spaces on most trains. Reserve 24 hours ahead.

Consider carefully whether you want to take your own wheelchair with you or rent one there. Apart from the hassle on the plane, we are told that wheelchairs have a nasty habit of getting banged up en route. The airlines can supply wheelchairs and porters to push them at airports. Your concierge can find one to rent for you when you arrive.

Check your hotel(s) by phone or fax to be absolutely sure the accessible room you have reserve truly is accessible---and that the hotel itself is also accessible. If you make your hotel reservation through a travel agent, call the property itself and make sure (a) that you have an accessible room blocked, not merely requested, and (b) that it actually meets your needs, whatever they are. Ask the person you talk to whether he or she has ever seen the room personally. If not, ask to speak to somebody who has. Then instead of asking questions, ask him or her to describe the room---describing what makes it handicapped accessible. If they don't mention something you need (grab bars at the toilet, for instance) ask if they're there. Be sure to ask if the hotel itself is accessible. We once had a room that was fine but found five steps getting up to the entrance of the hotel. With no handrail.

You may need to hire help. My wife needs help bathing and dressing. Your concierge will be able to find a nursing agency that can provide a nursing aide for an hour or so a day. That's what we do at home, and the same thing has worked in other cities, domestic and foreign.

Trickier is that I can't push her wheelchair with her in it for long distances because I have a bad back. So we hire a strong man to do that, at an hourly rate. Again, the concierge will do it, but it's not as routine. I always suggest that somebody on the staff---a maid or somebody---must have an unemployed brother-in-law who wouldn't mind picking up a few extra francs. That doesn't always work. Agencies have set fees. We have relied on the concierge's advice as to what to pay. And, of course, the concierge also earns a good tip for doing the digging it takes to find somebody. We figure it's money well spent. When you add up the air, hotel, restaurant and other expenses, it's not that much. Besides, it's the difference between taking the trip and not.

The plus side---in addition to making the whole thing possible---is that you have close contact with a real Parisian or whatever. Somebody who doesn't regularly deal with tourists. They have provided some memorable moments. Some of our stronger impressions, in fact, come from these men we hired to push wheelchairs.
These are always strong young men (since she weighs rather more than the ordinary person) and the most recent one, in Paris, came from an agency the Hilton uses, but he proved to be invaluable. We got into some inaccessible places as a result of having him. She was determined to see l'ƒglise du D™me to see Napoleon's tomb even though there are (as I remember) 16 steps and not even a handrail. So we left the chair at the bottom and the young man took one arm and I took the other and we hauled her up. Back into the chair instantly, of course. That happened one or two other times as well. As a local (though he's from Morocco) and as a good-looking young man, he was able to get us into some other places we'd have found impossible by ourselves. One example: SacrŽ Coeur is totally inaccessible---but he found a way in through the rectory, which has an elevator that is not for public use. Not for public use unless you have a susceptible young lady receptionist and a young man who knows how to use his charm.
And by the way...his brother drives a taxi and is available for day-long trips if Brother asks him. He took us to Chartres one day and Versailles on another and we used him for one day of just driving around Paris. A lot cheaper than hiring a car and driver. (Chartres was about 1500FFR plus tip.) Neither speaks any English. I don't want to post their names to the world but if you want to get in touch with them, e-mail me. We have had helpers in other cities who did speak some English. And once in Florence we had one who was from Cameroon. Our French, though not great, is better than our Italian so we were able to speak French with him and he dealt with the Italians.

Always check for accessible entrances. Sometimes they are far from the main visitors' entrance.
Some places in Paris are wonderfully accessible. The Louvre now is, and so is the MusŽe d'Orsay. You can't always get to the things you want to see in the Louvre by the shortest route, but almost every level is accessible by a lift of one kind or another---everything from huge elevators that can hold 20-30 people to open wheelchair lifts that a staff member has to operate for it. The folder you pick up at the front desk will give you all the locations or you can just ask the guards around the museum if you can get them to interrupt their conversations with other guards long enough. (Seriously, they're perfectly pleasant about it.
Enter the Louvre through the Pyramide, not the Carrousel. Ignore the long line. Go to the exit, to the left of the line, and a guard will let you past the rope and take you down in a delightful open hydraulic lift that is really fun to ride. You leave, of course, the same way. Incidentally, admission to the principal museums (including the Louvre, d'Orsay, Picasso and many more) is free to anybody in a wheelchair and one person pushing it. You'll save a few francs and, probably more important, save the time of standing in line at the ticket windows. Just walk in. They'll wave you right by.

Most churches are not accessible. Notre Dame and St. Eustache are, but generally the newer the building the more steps it's likely to have. They loved staircases in the 19th century. La Madeleine and SacrŽ Coeur are totally inaccessible. (Except as I noted above). Museum hours are notoriously unreliable so this time I called each place we wanted to go to be sure (1) that they were actually going to be open and (2) whether they were in fact accessible.

Same with restaurants. Ask if their toilets are accessible. Sometimes you can roll right in from the sidewalk and discover (too late) that the toilet is down a long flight of stairs without so much as a handrail.
We found most people very happy to help, with the exception of taxi drivers. A few were OK but most found it a major imposition to be asked to leave the comfort of their seats to help lift a wheelchair into the trunk.
There are Websites, guide books and organizations especially for handicapped travelers.

Among the Sites:

Access-Able Travel Source - http://www.access-able.com - has lots of help with accessible travel

A good Paris site is at http://www.geocities.com/Paris/1502/.

If you don't have it, by all means get the guide book, Paris Ile De France for Everyone. It is an excellent guide for people with all kinds of disabilities. In Paris, you can get it at the Convention and Visitors' Bureau, 127, Avenue de Champs-ƒlysŽes. 75008 Paris

FAX: 011-33-1-49 52 53 00. http://www.paris-touristoffice.com/ Email: info@paris-touristoffice.com. We find it indispensable.

Mobile en Ville (1 rue de l'Internationale, 91002 EVRY, 06 62 36 39 64 http://www.mobile-en-ville.asso.fr) publishes a little book called Paris Comme Sur des Roulettes which is an amazingly detailed atlas of the curbs and driveways of Paris, aimed mostly at roller-bladers and skateboarders, but they also promote it to people in wheelchairs. We found it charming but useless.

Groupement pour l'Insertion des personnes HandicapŽes Physiques (G.I.H.P.)(Help for the Physically Handicapped) Paris Office, 98 rue de la porte jaune, 92210 Saint-Cloud. TŽl. 01.41.83.15.15. 91002 EVRY

Comite National Francais de Liaison pour la Readaptation des Handicapes (CNFLRH)
Point Handicap,
38, boulevard Raspail,
75007 Paris
Tel.: (1)45.48.98.90 - Fax.: (1) 45.48.99,21 - Minitel: 36,15 HANDITEL

Association des Paralyses Delegation de Paris,
17, boulevard Auguste-Blanqui,
75013 Paris
Tel.: (1) 40.78.69.00 - Fax.: (1) 45.89.40.57

Union Nationale des Associations de Parents d'Enfants Inadaptes (UNAPEI) 15, rue Coysevox, 75018 Paris
Tel.: (1) 42.63.84.33 - (1) 42.63,08.45

Check your favorite search engine for others. We didn't use the last four of them.

TRAVELMED in Las Vegas can supply doctors abroad, but also oxygen and wheelchair and other services. 1 800 878-3627, 1 877 878-3627 Website: www.travelmedintl.com
E-mail: travelmed@travelmedintl.com
They claim to be able to have an English-speaking doctor in your hotel room anywhere in the world inside 30 minutes of a call to them. In Paris, your concierge can probably do it in 20.

Avoid bus tours unless you're sure you can get into and out of the buses with little or no help, and can keep up with the crowd. Our travel agent booked us on a couple on our first trip and they were very unsatisfactory. The drivers and guides had no patience for my wife. There are bus tours especially for handicapped people. We don't really like tours anyway, so havn't looked into them.

One good rule of thumb is that you can't be too prepared, but you also can't be too flexible. Plan for all contingencies, but try not to sweat it when those you didn't plan for crop up.

Go! And enjoy!

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