Freedom of movement is a cornerstone of the EU. However, for the 80 million people with disabilities living in Europe their freedom to travel and move is dependent on the accessibility of the places they visit and the transport they use. To better understand their situation, Sara Piludu investigates what it means to travel with a disability. 

“How were your summer holidays?” – a frequent question during these early days of autumn. And the most common answer would be a more or less short report about one’s holiday, in many cases spent elsewhere than at home. An estimated three in five Europeans go on trips every year. But who stays home and who travels is not up to chance: age, nationality, socioeconomic status and, notably, accessibility needs determine whose movement is actually free in the EU. While traveling and vacationing as a means to relax seem to have become a certainty for many people, traveling for people with disabilities often requires compromises and detailed planning. Many experiences, events, and attractions are not accessible, transport information is often not available, and staff is improperly trained.  

These issues affect people with different disabilities, ranging from people with motor impairments as well as sensory or speech impairments, people who have cognitive or developmental impairments and individuals who have long-term health problems and other “invisible” conditions. Since different impairments result in different needs, it is impossible to talk about people with a disability as a homogenous group: This article focuses mostly on the challenges people with mobility impairments face when they travel and the different ways they overcome them.

Photo courtesy of Leanne and Niek (takeitleasie)

Disability rights activists across Europe have campaigned for more accessible travel options. Through their social media accounts and websites they often provide information on transportation, accessible places to go as well as service quality and share news on political decisions that affect them. Patrick and Michelle Touchot, for example, manage an account named ACCESSIBLE POUR TOUS on Twitter and Facebook. Their goal is to fight for the proper implementation of the French law n° 2005-102: It ensures access to public places, services, equality and participation for people with disabilities in France. They post and repost relevant content and often show pictures of people with mobility impairments in any situation one could imagine: dancing, kissing or simply posing and smiling for the camera.

From a tour through Scandinavia, skiing in the Austrian Alps to checking out beaches in Italy  – traveling is simply a lot of fun for Leanne and Niek. They want to encourage others to travel, too, by showing that everything is possible.

Other bloggers and influencers are more focused on the aspect of traveling to other countries: Meet the highschool sweethearts Leanne and Niek from the Netherlands, both 26 years old, who frequently tour through Europe and inspire others on their Instagram channel takeitleasie. Leasie is an abbreviation for the dutch word ‘dwarslaesie’ which means paraplegia. Niek survived cancer three times and uses a wheelchair since a metastasis damaged nerves in his spinal cord, with Leanne always at his side. People were surprised, the couple explains, as they decided to take long trips together and even managed to find sponsors in order to equip their car so Niek can drive it using his hands. From a tour through Scandinavia, skiing in the Austrian Alps to checking out beaches in Italy and the Netherlands – traveling is simply a lot of fun for the couple and they want to encourage others to travel, too, by showing that everything is possible.

Photo courtesy of Leanne and Niek (takeitleasie)

In many cases tough, inspiration is not enough to overcome challenges – it takes proper information and to a certain extent, naming and shaming. Another successful initiative is Wheelmap, a comprehensive worldwide map for finding and rating wheelchair accessible places created by the German NGO SOZIALHELDEN. Users can find and add places to the map – and rate their wheelchair accessibility by using a traffic light system. According to SOZIALHELDEN more than 300 new entries are added daily: The service is therefore absolutely reliant on its community and people’s motivation to share and rate accessibility experiences. Wheelmap is available both online and via an app in 32 languages with more than 900.000 public spaces. Raúl Krauthausen, founder of SOZIALHELDEN says: “We want to become better known throughout Germany – and also internationally – and thereby enable more wheelchair users to lead an active and varied life”. From September 27 (World Tourism Day) until December 3 (International Day of persons with disabilities) the NGO is promoting a campaign named #TravelAble, raising awareness of the need for making travel more accessible for everyone. Wheelchair user or not, everyone can become a “TravelEnabler” by rating the accessibility of their surroundings or nearby tourist attractions on the Wheelmap or by hosting a mapping event. 

Speaking of useful information: More and more holiday and travel online services like booking.com or Expedia add search filters for accessibility, making it easier to find a suitable place to spend the holidays – especially for people with mobility impairments. Then again: Making sure the hotel or apartment one’s staying in is barrier-free is not enough for a good holiday experience, the accessibility of potential excursions and attractions is just as crucial. Travel agencies specialized in accessible holiday tours, for example, advertise possible destinations on social media using popular hashtags such as #disabledtravel, #wheelchairtravel or #accessibletravel. 

Some of Europe’s most accessible cities are also popular travel destinations: Göteborg in Sweden, and cities like Berlin and Milan.

According to the EU’s Accessible City Award, some of Europe’s most accessible cities are also popular travel destinations: Among last year’s winners and nominees are well-known cities such as Göteborg in Sweden, Ljubljana in Slovenia and, of course, bigger cities like Berlin and Milan. Soon, more cities should follow their example. Since June 2019, the European Accessibility Act requires member states to transcribe certain accessibility standards into national law within the next three years. For example, it will become binding to offer real time information and accessible self-service for air, bus, rail and waterborne passenger transport services. However, the framework explicitly excludes urban, suburban and regional transport. There, providers are only required to to put up self-service terminals. As criticized by the European Disability Forum and other interest groups, however, it will not be binding to set up those terminals in an area or a building that actually is physically accessible.

Urban planning, architecture, tech-design, and legislation often overlook aspects that affect people with disabilities. This happens especially when they are neither involved nor listened to in the decision-making process. These mistakes put at risk the actual quality of life and the right to move freely of over 80 million Europeans with disabilities or some other impairment. That is almost a fifth of the EU’s population. Yet, they too often have to face unnecessary barriers in everyday life: Not someone’s disability or walking aid is an impairment – the missing elevator in a subway station, the five stairs leading up to a tourist attraction, the restsrooms too small for a wheelchair – they are the impairments.

Accessible tourism in Berlin | Andi Weiland © visitBerlin (Gesellschaftsbilder.de) | Licence: Free for editorial use

Cover image: Yomex Owo (Unsplash), Unsplash Licence

  • retro

    Should have become a chef, works in PR and marketing instead, now on parental leave, grew up in Italy and Germany, studied Political Sciences, interested in social and environmental politics, (in)equality, technology, rejects racism, eurocentrism and sexism, in love with good food, hygge, dolce vita and her hubby.

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