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Why we should be proud of our disabilities

 

A few days ago, someone commented on my instagram photos thus: 'You make the people feel strong in many ways by your conviction and strength in seeing life despite having a disability'. What was expressed with all good intention annoyed me. Why does my photography of birds, flowers and portraits elicit inspiration? What is strong about images showing me in different places? And what is the fuss about conviction? Does this comment allude to the fact that I'm not hiding my disability? That I'm ‘brave enough to go out in daylight’? The latter comment indeed happened to me two years ago when a lady in her 40s came up and said, 'how brave, well done!' I was actually looking into a shop window and am still pondering over what could have been so brave about shopping. 

Positive prejudice – as shown in the statements of inspiration, braveness etc. – is actually not positive. Because it generalises people, cements categories (that is, to be seen primarily through the lens of disability) and thus fosters new categories which can easily develop into stigmatization. What has my wheelchair (obviously perceived as the symbol of disability) to do with my photography? After all, other categories, such as my perceived whiteness, gender, class or academic status could also be applied to my textual production (as an author I consider photography inherently textual). But this rarely happens.

The gravest problem with the above quote, however, is the contrast being drawn between "strong/positive life" and "disability". As so often, this contrast is established with the word despite. I adore you despite your disability; I am really impressed how you're mastering all this despite your disability...you’re cool/beautiful/intelligent/active etc. despite your disability. One could add tons of other examples for this well-known line of argument. This contrast between a positive self and an unfortunate condition seems symptomatic for perceiving people with disabilities. Yet would anyone say to a Black person, ‘great that you're so smart despite you being Black?’ I doubt so, unless it is done by the Ku-Klux-Klan.

What I try to set against this argument is not a simple replacement of despite with because ofThis would be equally reductionist and I'm neither clever/dumb, good/bad, nor handsome/ugly etc. because of my disability. Instead I propose to use an active concept of pride. But in a sense there is an immanent contradiction between my critique of categorization and a concept of pride that relies on the category of disability perforce. I don't think it's effective to portray myself simply without the category in order to liberate myself from it. This, if taken as a consequential rule, would be an expression of shamefulness and would mean hiding something supposedly deficient. Instead, what I suggest is to be proud of disabilities in order to overcome stigmatizing categories. Hence to use categories in order to get rid off them. 

To be sure, pride can be a disgusting utterance if it carries hegemonic claims. National pride, white pride etc. are excluding and harmful concepts. But these are different forms of pride from the one I'm referring to. Disability pride is neither harmful nor hegemonic. It is also more than having come to grips with a situation. It exceeds the state of having accepted a status quo and it celebrates the very status not as a rigid category but as part of a dynamic and positive whole. To be proud of my disability means to not treat it as alien or worthy of judgment but to treat it as positive: I love life, I participate in life, I like wheelchair racing, I like adventures etc. etc. Using a wheelchair is fun and exciting and not principally frustrating – and never a pity. I perceive my disability as a basic human condition that should not be stripped off its dignity and its many pleasures and opportunities it has to offer. 

In this sense, I understand disability pride as an antinormative project. A project that makes visible the processes of ableist privilege (also called ableism) that organize the world along the needs of non-disabled people and that systematically exclude people with disabilities from participation in life. Prejudice is part of the many ways how ableism can form. This includes, inter alia, paternalism (i.e., to know what is best for people with disabilities); mercy and charity; victimization; negation of agency, self-determination, the ambition to cure etc. And here it becomes where I feel the urge to set notions of pride against prejudice. Not to exclude, reduce, identify or include, but to reclaim my humanity, self-determination and sovereignty.

I hope this clarifies some things. Some, certainly not all, photos can be read as echoing pride. This is not always intended. Not every text is political. But authors can hardly influence, let alone control, their recipients' interpretations. So let's have an eye on the tag #disabilitypride and see what happens.

Nice, Côte d’Azur

In May 2016, I visited the beautiful city of Nice that is nestled between snow covered mountains and the azure coloured waters of the Mediterranean. The city boasts of arts museums, stunning architecture and a warm Mediterranean charm. Nice isn't a cheap destination (expect a main course costing no less than 16 Euros, with drinks approximately 5-8 Euros for a regular glass of wine). The city is, in many respects, posh and comparable to Munich or Innsbruck: people are generally neatly dressed and it's less frequent to encounter "alternative" people as in Berlin or Barcelona. Having said that, locals are friendly yet polishing your French is not of disadvantage. People generally don't stare, true, but they tend to not "see" a wheelchair user. Often, they just walk and don't step aside. 

I'd encourage wheelchair users to visit the city, but it's a little less accessible than, say, Barcelona or Vienna. Perhaps similar to Berlin. First of all, there are no cobblestones and it's a pleasure to drive on sidewalks. This applies especially to the Promenade des Anglais and the city centre (which is not too big and public transport isn't really necessary on a sunny day). Yet not all kerbs are lowered (see Image 1).

An educated guess is that approx. 85-90% of the kerbs in the CBD are lowered (lowered kerbs, however, are usually nearby and the detour via the other side of the road won't take longer than a few mins.). There are a few really hilly areas with steep old roads. I tried a few (see Image 2) for fun, but you won't miss out anything if you don't go up!

There is an elevator at Colline du Cheataeu (next to the Hotel Suisse Nice) which is for free and will take you up to the fort. The path, however, is a bit steep and there are broad grids and I got stuck in one of them, since I wanted to take a picture of a sea gull and had nothing better to do than not looking at the ground...:-) This is a bit tricky but manageable (my camera fell down and I started to swear but took nice photos in the end).

Getting to and from the airport. I took bus 23 which is fully accessible. As with other busses, wheelchair symbols clearly indicate the waiting area for wheelchair users. (See Image 3). The ramps operate automatically, so you don't need to wave or say anything to the driver. (See Image 4). It takes approx. 50 seconds for the ramps to activate after pushing the blue wheelchair button, so don't panic not to get aboard. Other busses, as I've seen, are also accessible. This applies to public busses which cost around 1.50 EUR for a single trip. There is also a faster airport shuttle which, according to airport personnel, is also accessible but is more expensive and was on strike on the day I arrived. Anyhow, it's easy to get into the busses, since the ramps are not steep. There is enough space for two wheelchairs in a bus, with priority given to wheelchairs over prams. I drove the way back by foot, since the airport is just 6kms away from the city centre and the ride along the coast (take the bicycle track!) is pleasant and I had enough time, since my flight left late. 

Public transport within the city. I didn't take busses, but as far as I've seen, the same system of automatic ramps is in use as in the event of airport busses (which are public as well). So this shouldn't pose any difficulty. There are platforms within the inner city, so it's no problem to get in and out. The same applies to the tram (see Image 5). It's really super easy to board tram trains, but don't use the front and rear exits. All middle doors lead to special wheelchair places. 

Beaches. There are two "accessible" beaches which reflect rather 1980s understanding of accessibility than post millennia ones: Carras Plage and Plage du Rhul, the latter close to the city centre, the former closer to the airport (see Image 6). They are called handiplages (lit. ‘handicapped beaches’). It's possible to get down from the Promenade des Anglais to the beach. But it's impossible to get to the water itself, for the height between the concrete platform and the sandy/stony beach area is too high to get back on your own (there are no rails to hold on). I found a concrete way that leads to rocks close to the water at Carras; this is the closest one can get to the water without any help.
 

Public toilets. Well, they are rare. I've just encountered two public toilets (Image 7) in the middle of nowhere (one at Jardin Thiole which wasn't working and the other at a police station in between the airport and Carras beach which was 'hors services’ as well). These toilets are for free but of little practical use. There are free toilets for wheelchair users at the Nicetoile shopping centre in the CBD, 30 Avenue Jean Médecin. In the public park Jardin Albert 1ier which starts at the Promenades and goes right to the Contemporary Arts Museum, there are two toilets for wheelchair users, which cost 0.5 € p.p. The first toilet is at the south end, the other at the upper end (a bit hidden behind a wooden construction). 

Dining out and drinks. I was mainly outside at terraces and gardens because of the good weather. There are not many restaurants and bars without any gaps and even less with wheelchair toilets, as far as I could observe. This situation is in no way comparable to Barcelona, for one. Posh hotels in the city centre, however, do have toilets and it's possible to ask if it's OK to use their toilets. I'd use a few words starting in French to show politeness. For example, something along the lines of, "permettez moi d'utiliser votre toilettes s'il vous plait?" And a "merci bien" is always a nice gesture. I found nice bars and a lovely lesbian restaurant – also open for men - at Rue Bonaparte. It's a bit off the beaten track, but still pricy. It's the French Riviera after all!

 

Je souhaite un séjour passionnant!

 

Barcelona

Barcelona sin barreras

In April 2016, I visited the capital of Cataluña and was not only impressed by the excellent food, great weather and lovely people but also by the high standard of accessibility for manual wheelchair users. There are abundant restaurants and bars that have either ramps or no steps at all, with many having fully accessible toilets. I can only encourage anyone in a wheelchair to visit this great city and enjoy its beaches, nightlife, museums, parks and vibrant culture. Here are some practical tips.

Image 1. Special ramps for wheelchair users in metro stations (the wheelchair symbol indicates the front section of the train where to enter). This way it's possible to surpass the high gaps between the train and the platform.


Getting to and from the airport. I took the airport train (use the elevator from the arrivals hall to the first floor and follow the train signs; everything is fully accessible). The train (R2) itself goes via Sants Station (Sants Estació) from where you can easily connect to suburban trains and the metro. Don’t alight at Passeig de Gracias, even if it is closer to the centre, since it hasn’t any elevator. The train has two or three wheelchair doors without gaps. I recommend waiting in the middle of the platform but it’s clearly signposted throughout (the doors are lower). The train has a fully accessible wheelchair toilet, but the journey won’t take longer than 25 mins. Alternatively, there are busses running to Placa Catalunya (called ‘Aerobus’) that are accessible as well. I didn’t try the metro, since it costs more from the airport than the train. The journey by train is 0.99 € if you take a 10 travels pass. So next to nothing.

The city by metro. Lifts are in excellent maintenance: there is no special app for broken lifts, but I saw just one broken lift in 10 days (and I travelled a lot given that my hotel was a bit outside). Many metro stations are accessible. The purple line (L5) is fully accessible. At other lines, special concrete ramps have been installed at the beginning of the trains, so that wheelchair users can easily get into the trains. Look out for the wheelchair symbol at each station. Wait there because this is the place where you can enter without any gaps. Some stations are not accessible due to the lack of lifts. Try to get a metro map because non-accessible stations are clearly indicated by the lack of a wheelchair symbol (it’s also signposted in the trains and stations). Here is a copy of the map with accessible stations enlisted: http://static.donquijote.org/images/travel/maps/spain/metro-barcelona.jpg. 

The following stations are not accessible (this is subject to change):

 

  1. L1: Plaça de Sants, Espanya, Urquinaona and Clot;
  2. L3: Espanya and Vallcarca;
  3. L4: Maragall, Verdaguer, Urquinaona, Jaume I, Ciutadella-Vila Olímpica and Poblenou;
  4. L5: Virrei Amat, Maragall, Verdaguer and Plaça de Sants.

 

The city by foot. The city itself is highly accessible (all streets are easy to pass without any gaps), although the hilly areas (especially Parc Guell) can be tricky. In this case, I recommend taking the bus or a taxi and driving the park downhill. However, the main part of Barcelona, i.e. the city centre, the old quarters, is easy to pass through. Despite its hilly areas, Barcelona is great to get around in a wheelchair. No cobblestones and if so, there are special asphalt tracks for wheelchair users with clear symbols embedded (as shown in the following image). This applies in particular to the harbour area near Barceloneta.

Drinks and food. Restaurants and bars are, generally speaking, far more spacious than in Berlin or Vienna. There is often enough space to get through without anybody being required to jump up out of his or her seat. I recommend restaurants and bars in the El Raval and the University area, which are more off the beaten track and cheaper and of higher quality than the Gotico and Barceloneta areas, for one. You can relax in front of the Contemporary Arts Museum and observe the city life, skaters and many funky people while enjoying some tapas and a nice glass of wine or two. Many bars are accessible and even if you don’t consume anything, just ask if they have an accessible toilet and bar tenders will offer one, or recommend a nearby place that has one.

Toilets. There are hardly any public toilets and the Euro Key is not used. But many bars, hotels and restaurants have accessible toilets. Ask for 'baños adaptados' or 'aseos para silla de ruedas'. Public toilets can be found at most shopping centres (e.g., at Placa España; Corte Ingles @ Placa Catalunya; the mall at the lower end of the Ramblas in the harbour area etc.). 

People are very kind without being obtrusive. Usually, they won’t take lifts if there’s a passenger in a wheelchair, or they will let you go first. No matter how full a metro train is, people always let you in and find some space. I didn’t see anyone staring or asking stupid questions. I never thought that taking a crowded metro could be fun! Honestly. There’s always some nice person to chat with or to make some sort of drama out of nothing! 

Bienvinguts and enjoy! 

Image 3. Preferred use: People wth luggage, bicyclists and lazy people don't go first.

Policies and suggestions


This is a non-commercial site and I won't recommend any bars, cafés, or hotels, since I do not have the resources to maintain a database. Such information can change rapidly and enlisting at random just a few places that I visited wouldn't be of any help, I think. However, I am happy to suggest a few general things and to furnish you with any further information if requested. All my experiences are restricted to the EU case and especially to German booking sites. My suggestions are based on my own experiences as a user of a manual wheelchair who can't walk. There are different booking codes and policies for people who can partly walk and for people with electric wheelchairs etc.

 

FLYING

You can book wheelchair services directly online and don't need to ring up any agency. It's important to book the WCHC service, that is, that you will be carried to your seat. Be sure to ask for "delivery at aircraft" upon check in. This means you can use your own chair up to the departure gate where staff will put you on a special aircraft wheelchair and will bring you to your seat. You're the first to board. One of my travel mates is also in a wheelchair, so you can request to sit next to each other. You don't need to sit behind each other, since the window seat regulation has been ruled as discriminatory. If you want to stay in your own chair up to the departure lounge, never agree to check in your wheelchair. Airport wheelchairs are horrible to drive, don't have appropriate cushions and, first and foremost, there's the danger that ground handling might damage the wheelchair if checked in as ordinary luggage. If you opt for the "delivery at aircraft" option, the wheelchair goes directly in a special compartment and you won't need to collect it at baggage claim. It will be brought right to the aircraft upon disembarking.

Different companies have different regulations. All accept just a limited number of wheelchair users and, principally, they can deny the right to fly if they argue that you're "unfit to evacuate on your own". This applies if you're not accompanied or your company is also disabled. In this case, always insist to be able to embark on your own. Established companies often accept more wheelchair users, wheareas others may allow just 2, which means that you'll be rebooked (you are entitled for compensation if the delay is for more than three hrs or so). Some airlines, especially low cost carriers, have frequently used the "unfit to evacuate" regulation, inter alia, to deny people in wheelchairs the journey. I strongly advise not to use the cheapest crap but to book with reliable and civilised companies.

I always ask a flight attendant approx. 30-45 mins before landing to ensure that the wheelchair handling staff is ready at the gate. They sometimes don't show up and it's perhaps a sort of experience to be alone in an empty aircraft. Yet, while this is fine for 15 minutes, it does get tiring after a longer period. So be prepared and bring some patience, especially if your're landing into Tegel.

 

BOOKING

Again different regulations, but there's at least a 72 hours deadline to order wheelchair services for flights. Finding an appropriate hotel can be a bit time consuming. There's no site to book an accessible room. While most sites offer the category of accessible rooms, you can't book directly but usually need to call. What I do (if I take flexible rates that allow cancelling) is to do the booking first and then emailing the hotel with the request to confirm the availability of an accessible room (it must not be any more expensive!). Alternatively, I use the hrs platform and give them a call. Don't forget to say that they need to check if lifts and doors are broad enough. Most people have strange assumptions of accessibility. If you stay with friends or do couch surfing etc. this is perhaps easier and can be more fun but I’d always ask people in advance to take measurements of breadth of doors and to check accessibility etc. 

 

 

About Me

I am a wheelchair user based in Berlin, Germany. Originally from Vienna, I have always loved to travel and to explore new countries, places and cultures. Traveling in a wheelchair is, in many respects, different from conventional traveling. One is less spontaneous and needs to plan well in advance (i.e., at least a week before scheduled departure). Yet with the right dose of homework (which, admittedly, I loath doing), nothing is impossible. My first journey in a wheelchair on my own (except from just taking flights "home" to Vienna) was in April 2016 and it took me to Barcelona. I read articles, travel advisories, postings etc. and encountered often contradicting and limited information. Thus, I thought to share some of my experiences which, perhaps, turn out to be of practical use for other people, to present a cursory overview and, first and foremost, to inspire other people to travel. Life is short and the world is wide, as a saying goes, and I plan to fully resume my former traveling. I'm beginning with cities, since this is easier, but really wish to embark also on adventure and nature holidays. I love deserts, the outback, coastal areas, the glens and valleys of the Highlands, the polar region and much more. 

You can see my travel photos on Instagram and Flickr:

https://www.instagram.com/oliver_inberlin/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/140885919@N03/