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Ask people to define Europe in one word, they will say, "Elegant," "Old," "Charming." Ask us, however, we would say, "Narrow." Everything in Europe is narrow. Doorways; bathtubs; elevators are narrow. Here is a story about our experience with European narrowness, specifically elevators, and how we turned a small room on the first floor into a lovely stay in the penthouse at a great hotel in Venice- at no extra charge.
Arrangements to stay in Venice during our first trip to Italy were made on the recommendation of a patient highly placed in the Italian Embassy. As a favor to me, she handled the initial contact with the hotel, advising me to call them directly with any questions I had, or if we had special requirements they needed to know about. I did call them and asked about the layout of the hotel. I was told we would have no trouble with the lobby or restaurant on the ground floor, and that there were elevators in the building to the guest rooms above the ground floor. "O.K.", I said, "but just to be sure, let me give you the dimensions of our wheelchair. I want to be sure we will fit". To avoid any possibility of mistake, I gave the measurements in centimeters, Using the metric system as they do in Europe, rather than in inches as we do in the States. Then I asked the clerk to go and actually measure to be sure the wheelchair would fit. He put me on "hold", and after 4 or 5 minutes (on a transatlantic call), came back and told me it would be no problem.
Months later, on the train from Rome, we arrived late and behind schedule in Venice. It was raining and no one was available to help me get from the station to the hotel. Though the distance was short, by the time we arrived, I was wet to the skin. Both of us were tired, hungry, irritable, and in no mood for anything except an easy check-in, a light bite to eat, and a warm bed. "Right this was", the bellman said as he asked us to follow him to our quarters where we could wash up first, then have something to eat.
He pushed the button, the elevator doors opened, and we discovered, to my horror, then my anger, that the doors were too narrow and we could not get in. The front desk manager suggested we stop at the bar for a drink while they tried to sort things out. We did. A few minutes later, the hotel manager and the owner came over to us and apologized most profusely. It seemed there were no hotel rooms available in the area, but they would try their best to take care of us. After a few more minutes of listening to the owner, manager, and a number of staff arguing in Italian (which we do not speak), the manager returned to us and said the best they could do would be to offer us the use of their penthouse for as long as were booked. There would be no additional charge, he said.
Fine, but the penthouse is at the top of the hotel, and we couldn't even get to the first floor! Ah, flexibility and ingenuity! I thought out this scheme to allow us to stay in the hotel:
I asked them to get me a luggage rack from one of the rooms. I placed this inside the elevator. My plan was to have my wife at the door of the elevator, and when it opened, I would transfer her from her wheelchair onto the luggage rack. Then collapse the wheelchair and bring it into the elevator and ride up to our floor. When we arrived at our floor, I would reverse the process, that is, take the wheelchair out and open it, transfer Nancy from the luggage rack into the chair, collapse the luggage rack for further use, and away we would go! Only problem was that the doors of the elevator kept opening and shutting. They would not stay open long enough for me to do what I had to do.
Using a key to lock the doors open was not possible, for whatever reason. I noticed the doors opened and closed by a beam of light. As long as there was something blocking the beam, the doors would stay open. I asked them to bring me a knife or fork from the kitchen and a dispenser of Scotch Tape. When the elevator doors opened, I Scotch taped the fork over the beam, blocking the closing mechanism, and we had solved the problem! Took the elevator straight up to the penthouse, And we had one fine time!
Venice is utterly lovely, and not to missed. It is probably one of the most difficult places to visit in a wheelchair, though, because every 50 meters or so, you will encounter a canal to be crossed. Unlike the cities in Belgium or the Netherlands, the bridges in Venice are stair-stepped, and I found it nearly impossible to go where we wanted because of them- unless we expended a great deal of energy.
Excuse my bragging, but I was extremely pleased with myself for being able to think our way out of the elevator problem. It is but one example of any number of situations where we met the unexpected and were able to solve whatever problem we encountered. Good, expectant attitude helps. Are you likely to run into this same situation? I would doubt it, but you can be assured, you will get your chances to bail out of other challenges.
Early in this book we told you we know why so few physically challenged people travel. Generally, it's because of the difficulties of trying to cope with situations you are not normally forced to face. That, and the attitude that says, "Nah, it's going to be too hard; we won't be able to do it". In other words, poking yourself into the syrup jar. Bad things happen. Would it have been better to have stayed home than to have had to find a way to get on the elevator? I don't think so. If anything, Nancy and I have gotten to the point where we look forward to such challenges- if for no other reason than it feels awfully good to sit back and enjoy knowing we did it!
Exception: Disney World-
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things get "screwed up". When this happens to someone physically challenged, you really have to scramble hard to avoid disaster. Sometimes, disaster cannot be avoided, no matter what you do.
Recently (2005), we took our children and grandchildren to Disney World in Florida over Thanksgiving week. We all get along so well and always have such great times, so this seemed a natural thing to do. The experience turned into a disabled traveler's nightmare. It was probably the most difficult, disagreeable trip we have had in all the years we have been traveling, and was the kind of thing that is exactly why disabled people don't travel. Even in the darkest reaches of Third World countries, we have not encountered as many roadblocks and so few solutions as we did in Florida, Strange, too, because there is so much else that Disney does right. To be sure we weren't being oversensitive or cantankerous, we made a point to speak to many physically challenged visitors. most of them told us that they, too, had nothing but hassles from start to finish.
And so, although this entire book is devoted to travel abroad, the sheer number of people in wheelchairs and on electric scooters made us realize we must bring these issues to your attention. We would not want one other person to go through what we did, if possible. In addition to other, physically challenged guests, we also spoke with a number of people in the Disney organization. Most of them dismissed us out of hand. Most all expressed sympathy and sorrow at our dilemma, but none, with the exception of one front desk person at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, offered anything other than explanations or excuses. Let's get specific, because you are going to run into these obstacles if you go to visit Disney:
We had reservations at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. We wanted living quarters where the family could gather around a sofa and coffee table, separate from a bedroom. when we checked in, we were told they did not have such a room in handicap format. What they gave us was a handicap accessible bedroom with a connecting bedroom that was not handicap accessible. (Savannah standard). The accessible bedroom was too small for us to turn around in if Nancy stayed in her wheelchair. I had to push the chair into the room, then back out when we wanted to leave. It had a roll in shower, but I don't think it had a cut out for the wheelchair under the sink. Nancy could take a shower, but would have to brush her teeth using the toilet as a "spittoon".
We told them we did not want to stay in that room for the 8 days we would be at Disney. It was not what we wanted, and was unsuitable for our need. There followed a lot of calling back and forth to see what the reservation had been booked for, and we were repeatedly told we had been given what we had requested. We could see we were getting nowhere, so we tried a different approach: "Let's start fresh as though we had never called," I suggested. "What we want is a handicapped accessible room with an adjoining living room, if possible. If not, then at least an accessible room large enough for us to turn around."
They gave us a wider room, also with an adjoining bedroom, but this time, when I went to check it, neither room was accessible (Savannah deluxe). Although we would now be able to turn around in the wheelchair, the beds were too high for Nancy to transfer onto them. No roll in shower, and no cut out under the sink. I told them we would not be using the adjoining bedroom. In response, as a goodwill gesture, the front desk manager discounted two night's rentals, but they failed to understand it was not an issue of money. The room could have been free- it would still be a struggle for us to stay there. All told, we spent nearly 4 hours checking in, finally settling into a room that was inadequate for our needs, but with the assurance they would continue to try and find us suitable accommodations.
About the third day into the trip, we learned they do not have handicap rooms in the wider (Savannah deluxe) configuration, nor do they have any junior or small suites in handicap configuration. To solve this problem, as we understand it, Disney needs to add handicapped accessible accommodations in more than just the standard handicap room configuration. Certainly it is not too much to ask to have a room that is large enough to turn around, with beds not requiring a step stool to get on them, a roll-in shower to bathe in, and a sink a wheelchair can get under.
One of the front desk managers, the only one who did more than express regrets, told us she would at least get them to lower the bed. Upon checking further, she learned this could not, in fact, be done, so she bought a stool and had it delivered to our room. Unfortunately, Nancy could not use the step stool, so I literally had to "throw" her onto the bed each evening. The hotel was just the first of our unfortunate encounters. Things got worse:
People go to Disney theme parks for the rides and shows. The parks can be quite crowded, and there may be a long walk getting from one ride or attraction to another. Once you get to your desired location, the wait time for the ride/attraction can reach an hour or more for each one. As any physically challenged person knows, working against physical limitations is exhausting, and disabled people usually run out of energy much before a non-challenged person will.
Disney has a system of special "passes" to help overcome these difficulties. These special pass cards permit handicap visitors to avoid the long waiting lines for the rides. But no one told us about them. Info is somewhat available in a special booklet they hand out, but who goes on vacations to read rule books? We learned of the cards after a few days while we were interviewing several other challenged guests. All who knew about the cards ( and most did not), told us they discovered the cards the same way as we did- by accident. None had been told about the cards from people within the Disney organization, but learned about them by asking other wheelchair-bound guests.
To our minds, Disney should automatically issue these cards, at a minimum, to anyone registering as physically challenged. When an elderly or frail person checks in, handicapped or not, management should at least mention the cards. Yes, we are aware there are people who will take advantage of this, just as there are people who will take advantage of handicap parking permits. But we feel it is a mistake to punish the many because of the callous indifference of the few. At least tell us about the cards when we check in. We are sure the overwhelming number of challenged people, given this information, will not use it unfairly, It would help, too, if ticket takers would explain to others waiting in line who complain about "butt-inkis" that physically challenged people are not like everyone else. We need the help those cards provide. You haven't heard all yet. Let us continue:
The fist card we received as a result of our investigation is known as a handicapped assist card. The idea is good, but for truly disabled people, it is of little use. Since it did not accomplish much for us, we spent another hour or two checking further and learned there is more than one kind of card. If you are truly disabled, we discovered what you need is a card with two arrows on it. This ia a special accessible entry (where they exist) card. It's an absurd distinction, but, hey, it's their park! The card with two arrows was much more helpful than the plain handicap assist card, and did help us avoid many of the longer waits to enter rides and attractions.
When we tried to use the new special card with the arrows to get into the Winnie the Pooh ride, however, we were told that modifications to the entrance now permitted us access, and would have to wait in line with everyone else. To avoid this situation, according to the umpteenth person with whom we spoke, we needed yet a different special card, this one with two arrows and a green dot spot on it. Honestly, folks, we couldn't possibly make this stuff up! When we went to the Magic Kingdom City Hall to get the card with the two arrows and the green spot, we were informed it is given only to terminally ill children. They have to actually see the terminally ill child, and require a letter from a doctor explaining the "terminality" of the child. Don't think you have heard the maximum of insensitivity, as we have saved the best/worst for last:
All Disney staff will tell you they are well- versed on the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act. But the interpretation varies from clerk to clerk, bus driver to bus driver, and ticket taker to ticket taker. For example: Disney has a large fleet of busses to transport guests from the hotels to the theme parks. All busses are equipped with wheelchair lifts and secure tie down stations for wheelchairs once aboard the bus. Yet even in such a fundamental thing as transferring, there is no uniformity of standards, and there is an arbitrary attitude that causes you to want to tear your hair out by the root.
On one bus, for instance, the driver brought aboard an electric scooter and a wheelchair, but made the guests in each one leave their scooter/chair and sit on the bus seats while he secured their assist vehicles. They would not be permitted back onto them until reaching their final destination. I asked him about this and he stated this was the directive according to the Americans WIth Disabilities Act, When I informed him he was mistaken, he told me those were the rules and there was nothing he or we could do about it. I asked him what would I do if my was paraplegic? He told me we wouldn't be permitted to use the bus. We would have to hire our own taxi to get around! Like we said, we couldn't possibly make this stuff up!
Let us tell one final story: On our last afternoon, we went into the City Hall building in The Magic Kingdom to get details on the card with the arrows and green spot. (This was before we learned it was only for terminally ill children.) Already at the counter, there was a young family, a mom, dad and two kids. The woman was in a wheelchair. They had a problem. They mentioned they had been saving for nearly a year for this one day at Disney World. It had cost them over three hundred dollars to get in They had been in the park for five hours and had yet to take the first ride. They were so frustrated and thwarted by the hodge-podge of Disney rules and rigidity, and especially by being told entirely different things from one person with whom they spoke to the next.
The poor woman was nearly in tears, and her husband was completely at a loss as to what he could do for her. Interceding for them, I told the front desk manager, Think what Walt Disney would say if he were here at this counter." "First, he would probably be ashamed to be affiliated with an organization responsible for causing such misery when all he ever wanted to do was to give people a 'Magical Experience'." The manager started to apologize and explain. I interrupted him. "These people don't need apologies or explanations," I chided him, "they need solutions and results." "Ask yourself, 'What would Walt do to give these people a truly 'Magical Experience'?" "Then do that for this lady and her family. Find a way to make it right for them. Walt would." His whole demeanor changed.
We don't know what the final result was, as we had to leave. We can only hope he did something to make it right for that unfortunate family...
Our family at the Magic Kingdom carousel November 2005.1
Note Nancy's new electric scooter. You can rent these at Disney parks.