It isn’t easy to go on a fully accessible holiday when you’re in a wheelchair, says Evan Maye, but facilities are improving — at home and abroad.
IN THE 1970s, Ireland was a very different place. When the older generation heard my mother had a baby with spina bifida, they told her it would be best that I died. Pray for him to go, they said.
Obviously, I didn’t follow their advice.
Spina bifida, in layman’s terms, means the messages from my brain to my legs simply won’t send. I can’t walk. Never have. Never will.
To be honest, I’ve never counted my inability to move from the waist down as a disability. It’s just the way it’s always been. My wheelchair is my legs. It’s not something I get down about.
In my teens, however, my hearing gradually began to deteriorate. My deafness was only diagnosed in my 20s. I can hear — just about —with hearing aids. That, to be honest, has made life hard. It’s my real disability. The wheelchair I take in my stride.
Until, that is, we go on holidays.
When I was a child, up to my early teens, it was easy. My parents used mobile homes. I was light enough to carry. Plus I was fit — in my pre-hearing loss days I loved sport and won gold medals at the Junior Stoke Mandeville Games. Then I grew up, got bigger — and it got harder.
There were no holidays for quite some time. Then, when I was around 25, my parents suggested we get away. We used regular travel agents, requested wheelchair accessible rooms. And the adventures began.
We got “wheelchair accessible” rooms that simply weren’t accessible. They might have passed minimum legal requirements but what good is that if the bathroom door isn’t big enough for your wheelchair to fit through? I didn’t have the option of standing and shuffling to the toilet. Once, my father even had to take a door off the hinges so I could squeeze through.
Grown men and women in wheelchairs need wide doors and wet rooms with shower chairs — that’s a real wheelchair-accessible bathroom.
My parents and I still laugh at the time we arrived at a hotel to find the lift was too narrow for my chair. My father had to remove the wheels and support the chair with his hands, while my mum lugged the wheels up flights of stairs to meet us on the next floor. It made us giggle then, but now my parents are a little bit older and it wouldn’t be so funny.
It also happens in Irish hotels, wheelchair-accessible rooms that simply aren’t.
My advice is to get the hotel to email you a photo in advance — it’s your only guarantee.
And then there’s the flights. In an ideal world, a person in a wheelchair should be first on a plane, and last off.
Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way. Usually I am last on the plane. I am hoisted up on an Ambi-Lift, moved to a flight chair (a narrow wheelchair) on the plane, pushed to row two (row one, ideal as it might be, won’t work with health and safety) and have to manoeuvre myself on to the seat. All under the curious gazes of an entire plane. It’s a public enough ordeal when it all goes to plan — but one of my journeys wasn’t quite so smooth.
The airline insisted on seating me further back the plane — more gazes to contend with — and the man they sent to help simply wasn’t able for such a physical job.
It was a long, drawn-out process — and one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. So much so it shadowed the second week of my holiday. I was dreading the flight home.
Then there was the time when an airport wasn’t notified a wheelchair — me — was on board (usually you tick a box when you book online and, if you want, you call ahead to the airport). So they backed me down the metal steps. It was a safety hazard.
If airlines and hotels listened to people in wheelchairs, and really heard their needs, it would make for a far easier world for us.
Then, my mum came across John Geraty and his company, Accessible Holidays. From hotels that were fully adapted for wheelchairs to beaches that could facilitate the disabled, and even wheelchair taxi pickups, it has transformed our vacations. We’ve travelled with John to Tenerife, Lanzarote, Italy, and Majorca — and he’s never let us down. He can even warn us in advance if a destination is a little hilly — not easy when you’re pushing a wheelchair. We know we can relax once a booking is made with John — and we’ve never felt that ease before.
There are great options at home too. This summer, we discovered Cuisle, Ireland’s leading wheelchair-accessible resort, and the Irish Wheelchair Association’s National Holiday Centre.
It is located within the 50-acre site of Donamon Castle, just a short drive from Roscommon. It provides accessible and supported holidays and breaks to people with disabilities.
They also welcome individuals and groups without disabilities. There I had my first jacuzzi, took a wheelchair-accessible boat trip — there was even the option of fishing.
A full-time nurse was on hand if needed, there were hoists and beds that can be raised and lowered — all crucial to disabled people, depending on their requirements.
They offer full-and half-board, the food was exceptional — and the tables were the perfect height for my wheelchair.
There was entertainment by night too. Harry’s Bar offered karaoke, live music, bingo, and quizzes.
Even the gym had specialist machines for wheelchair users. It was incredible to think that all of these facilities were available right on our doorstep.
Best of all, at all times, the wonderful staff spoke directly to me, not to my parents — too often people see my wheelchair and automatically direct all conversation over my head to the people with me.
Thankfully, Ireland has come a long way when it comes to disability. It’s still not perfect — many Irish people still think it’s OK to park in wheelchair accessible spaces (do they think a regular space gives us enough room to move from the car to a wheelchair?) — but we’re getting there, thanks to organisations and people like Cuisle and John Geraty.
HOW TO GET THERE
Sample prices include one week in Tenerife in a studio for two people, €435 per person sharing. Or one week in the Canaries until Nov 6 for two people, €250 per person sharing.
Prices include wheelchair taxi pick up and exclude airfares. Accessible Holidays 01-4555675
Midweek, Monday to Thursday inclusive; half board (B&B plus dinner or lunch), €75pps per night; full board (dinner B&B plus lunch), €85pps per night. Weekend, Friday–Sunday inc. Full board (dinner b&b and lunch), €95pps per night www.cusle.com and 090 6662277
JOHN GERATY — ACCESSIBLE HOLIDAYS
In Mar 1989, I was in a bad car accident and spent one year in hospital. While at home, in 1992, I read an article about a holiday complex in Tenerife that was 100% wheelchair accessible.
After my traumatic experience, I was in need of R and R. Although I don’t use a wheelchair now, I did for six months after my accident and today I use a walking stick.
The Canaries have always been a popular holiday destination, so booking a “flight only” to Tenerife was not a problem. Today, both Aer Lingus (Dublin and Cork) and Ryanair (Dublin and Shannon) fly there.
After a few years of arranging holidays to Tenerife, I began to look for other suitable holiday destinations. In Britain, there are six million disabled people, and I got details about travel agents who only cater for them.
The travel agents had done the re-search about holiday complexes, so if they were suitable for disabled British people, then they were good enough for disabled irish people. I selected destinations with direct flights: Tenerife, Lanzarote, Majorca and Italy.
Airport transfers in an adapted taxi or minibus are important. Some disabled people are reluctant to travel as they need to hire a shower-chair or hoist (to transfer from wheelchair to bed). All this is arranged for you.
People worry that they won’t be able to get on the aeroplane. I reassure them that Aer Lingus have been flying sick and invalided people to Lourdes for years. The airport personnel provide great support to get you onto your flight (it’s their job).
It does not cost extra for disabled people. All hotels publish their room rates. They don’t have a separate section for disabled people; that would be illegal. Airlines carry medical equipment at no extra charge.
Aer Lingus has no limit on the number of disabled people they will take per flight. Ryanair will only take four. I’ve co-ordinated holidays for 500 people in 20 years.
I arrange the flights, plus accommodation, plus airport transfers, giving the disabled person a holiday package that suits them. — John Geraty
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved
More in this section