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A Guide for Travelers with Limited Mobilit

By: Dr. Ken Plattner
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A Guide for Travelers with Limited Mobility

After more than two decades working as a therapist for older persons and persons with physical disabilities, it has always disturbed me when such people are excluded from the mainstream. So, like any good activist, I decided in 2000 that my way to address the issue was to write a travel guidebook for those with limited mobility.

Not one publishing house showed any interest. Then something wonderful happened . I saw travel guru, Rick Steves, on TV talking fast like Rick Steves talks and so passionate that he could hardly contain himself. He expounded his "back door" philosophy about how anyone could get around in Europe like a local. When his Rick Steves Europe program was over, I noticed that it was sponsored by Bread for the World.

Bread for the World . I could hardly believe it! This is a well-known service organization with a strong mission to improve the planet, particularly around issues of hunger. Could Rick Steves, the travel evangelist, be interested in my mission too? I was determined to meet him.

This was a complex six-month process, calling, writing, and trying to connect with his organization. When I finally did meet him, we liked each other immediately. We agreed to write a book together with the catchy working title, "Rolling Through the Back Door", combining Rick's travel philosophy and my interest in disabled persons and slow walkers. He declared without hesitation, "It's the right thing to do So let's do it!" This great idea proved to be slow sledding.

The original focus of the book was on wheelchair riders, and our thought was that slow walkers might be interested too. The wheelchair riders mutinied. It turns out that people in wheelchairs are often invited through the back door. They wanted to come in the "front door", so we changed the name to be more inclusive. Our publisher, Avalon Travel Publishing, ultimately coined the name, Easy Access Europe.

At the same time, it was becoming clear that our audience was much bigger than we had first imagined. We realized that we needed to put together a guidebook that would accommodate several levels of physical mobility. For instance, we found that travelers who are slow walkers are a HUGE population, generally have financial means, plenty of time, and often have a heart for adventure and challenge. Once again we went back to the drawing board to find a way to address the multiple issues of accessibility.

The resulting product became a path-breaking guidebook which covers four levels of personal mobility. For the book to be effective, the reader must realistically determine his/her own particular mobility level:

Level 1 - Persons with severe disability, confined to a wheelchair, and in need of assistance at all times.

Level 2 - Persons with moderate disability, confined generally to a wheelchair or scooter, and able to take a few steps if necessary (possibly needing some assistance).

Level 3 - Independent persons with minimal disability, but who tire after walking a couple of blocks.

Level 4 - Independent persons who can do anything a 25 year old can do, but have to do it a lot slower (most of our readers fall into this category).

We also measured each venue for HEART. Places that showed unusual sensitivity and kind-hearted acceptance and warmth were given special recognition by labeling with a small heart in the margin of the book, each one earmarked and rated for accessibility. We created a rating system that shows at-a-glance what any traveler can expect in terms of accessibility from each venue.
Because our book is dedicated to travelers who move slower than other travelers, we chose five sites in the heart of Europe for this initial pilot book. We decided that if it is successful, then we might expand to other places, and perhaps even make it into a series. So we started with five metropolitan sites - London, Paris, Bruges, Amsterdam and Germany's Rhine River Valley - and set out to discover their most accessible attributes.

What we found when we arrived to do our research was both magnificent and horrific in terms of accessibility. London, for instance, couldn't try hard enough to accommodate people with limited mobility. Everywhere we went Londoners showed sensitivity and interest in accommodation and tried to make their places of business accessible and welcoming. EVERY taxi in London is accessible, and civility mandates that cab drivers offer to help passengers with limited mobility (not drive around the block to avoid them!).

Germany, on the other hand, takes a more hard-line attitude to disability issues. If a place was damaged or destroyed during the war, then it was likely rebuilt with an eye to accessibility. If it remained in tact, then historicity and preservation have tended to take precedence over special needs. It is rare to see wheelchairs in German establishments. The Rhine Valley provided our biggest challenge to find warm accessible sites and venues to feature in the guidebook.

Bruges in Belgium was our most accessible destination. Many older folks retire there, and the city goes out of its way to welcome and accommodate those with limited mobility. It was not bombed during the war so the 14th century ambiance with canals, lace and architecture is striking and beautiful, yet preservation of historical structures has not compromised accessibility. This city is a little out of the way, but definitely worth the trip.

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