What it’s like to travel the world as a wheelchair user

Jun 22 2020, 8:53 pm

Travel plans have been put on hold for people worldwide due to COVID-19. Bianca (Bibi) Riedmann and her boyfriend hoped to take a road trip through the US and Canada this summer, starting in California, passing through BC and Alberta along the way.

The couple lives in Lochau, Vorarlberg, in the westernmost province of Austria. Postponing the trip for a year would be an easy option for some, but for 32-year-old Riedmann, this period could mean a small loss of one of her remaining physical abilities.

At 16, she began showing symptoms of juvenile amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), before being diagnosed at 18. ALS causes the motor neurons to degenerate and stop sending messages to the muscles. Patients gradually lose their strength and the ability to speak, eat, move, and breathe. There is no cure for this terminal illness, and approximately 80% of people die within two to five years of being diagnosed.

“Only 10% survive longer than 10 years, only 1% is younger than 25 years old. I belong to both categories,” Riedmann tells Daily Hive. In contrast to most ALS sufferers, whose speech deteriorates very early, Riedmann’s speaking ability hasn’t been affected yet. She has been using a wheelchair for more than a decade as her legs were affected first.

In 2017, Riedmann started an Instagram account, @bibi_wheelchair_traveller, to tell her story, raise awareness of travel accessibility and ALS, and share her thoughts on disease and disability. We asked the travel enthusiast about her favourite destinations and experiences.

Where it all began

San Francisco/Bianca Riedmann

“My very first flight was at the age of four,” says Riedmann. “I flew with my family to Portugal.” Since then, she has visited the US four times, exploring California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon, New York, Florida, and Georgia. She has also checked the Dominican Republic, Monaco, Croatia, Greece, and many other European cities off her list.

“Travelling is important for my boyfriend and me — to see as much of the world as possible despite all the limitations due to my disability,” says Riedmann. “We think a regular change of scenery is important for mental health, no matter how hard the preparations can sometimes be.”

Accessible destinations

Accessibility means comfort for everyone, Riedmann explains, not just for those who are disabled or temporarily disabled. “The creation of an accessible environment also triggers contracts for the construction industry and secures domestic jobs. The money is so well invested.”

Of all the countries Riedmann has visited, three emerged as the most accessible. In the US specifically, this includes Grand Canyon National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Portland, and Los Angeles.

“Nowhere else in the world do I have the feeling of being able to move around and participate so freely and unrestrictedly, to see so many things without obstacles, and not constantly worry about where the next accessible toilet can be found,” she says.

Yellowstone National Park/Bianca Riedmann

The Spanish island of Tenerife is another place Riedmann recommends for its incredibly wheelchair-accessible promenade. She and her boyfriend covered 12 kilometres from their hotel in the north of Costa Adeje to the wheelchair accessible beach, Playa de las Vistas, in the south of the island and back. “The only thing we’ve heard that doesn’t work for wheelchair users on this island is riding the public buses, they all have stairs to get on and no hoist lifts.”

Switzerland is also highly accessible, Riedmann says. Anyone planning a visit to the European destination can find wheelchair-accessible routes at schweizmobil.ch, a website that details wheelchair hikes and walks, trail conditions, wheelchair-accessible toilets along the routes, and rest areas.

Travel challenges

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve/Bianca Riedmann

Planning is the most difficult aspect of travelling with a wheelchair, Riedmann explains. Before booking flights and scheduling trips, she researches locations, estimates the amount of time needed for sightseeing and connecting transportation, and looks to see if hotels in the targeted destination area have suitable rooms.

“Since I can’t lift myself out of my wheelchair, can’t take any steps or stand, and therefore need help to go to the toilet as well as to shower, do the morning and evening rituals, and go to bed, we always need a completely wheelchair and handicapped-accessible room with a roll-in shower,” says Riedmann.

There are, however, common accessibility issues among major destinations. Riedmann says many hotels will advertise that they are pet-friendly but have no information about accessibility on their website. “For every single hotel that does not offer any public information, I have to write an e-mail and ask — and hope that somebody will answer.”

Roll-in shower/Bianca Riedmann

Toilets on airplanes are notoriously small; we all know this. Riedmann says the entire process, from calling a flight attendant to bring down the onboard wheelchair and getting back to her seat afterwards, can take up to 30 minutes. “Has anyone else but me ever wondered why there’s a wheelchair symbol on the doors of the smallest airplane toilets?” she asks.

In terms of dining out, Riedmann notes that a lack of wheelchair-accessible tables in restaurants is a common issue. “A wheelchair-accessible table must be accessible for a conventional wheelchair with armrests, and enable the wheelchair user to sit close enough, front and straight at the table.”

Post-pandemic planning

Capitol Reef National Park/Bianca Riedmann

Looking to the future, Riedmann imagines the value of travel will be appreciated more after the pandemic. She hopes that it doesn’t become too difficult to book flights and hotel rooms, cross borders, or visit national parks. For wheelchair users or people with a disability, she says there are already a lot of things to consider and prepare before travelling.

“There are probably always things you can’t do as a wheelchair user, but if you focus on the things you can do, there won’t be so much disappointment and frustration,” she says. “Up until now, I have always found the effort of travelling more than rewarding!”

Riedmann says travel has become much more important to her since her ALS diagnosis. “When you simply don’t have so much time left, you want to see something in the world, experience as much as possible, seize every opportunity, and enjoy the moments.”

Catriona HughesCatriona Hughes

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