The Palatine Chapel topped my list of places to visit in Palermo, Italy. I'd read "Travels with a Medieval Queen," Mary Taylor Simeti's account of Constance of Hauteville's arduous journey from the German castle of her husband south to retake her father's throne in Sicily, and I wanted to see the splendid 12th-century Norman Palace and its private chapel covered with Byzantine mosaics.
But I was worried. Sicily isn't known for being wheelchair-friendly, and both Italian and European Union regulations are relaxed about the adaptation of older buildings. I use a "companion" chair (small wheels; a friend pushes), and Palermo was proving very challenging. Because the wheelchair wasn't invented in the Western World until 1595 — for Phillip II of Spain — I didn't expect much from Norman architecture.
I was right. Despite a ramp to the ticket booth, the attendant was adamant about not giving us tickets to the palace until I explained (using gestures) that I could climb the steps up and down to the various rooms. He was more accommodating about admission to the Palatine Chapel, though getting to it involved an ordeal. I had to go to a side driveway, ride in an elevator so small I had to stand and fold up the wheelchair, find someone to unlock a wrought-iron gate and navigate a couple of steps.
It was worth the effort. Glorious mosaics adorned every inch of the jewel-like chapel. Medieval chants played in the background, and I was transported to the Middle Ages, especially because almost no one else was there.
The experience was typical of my wheelchair adventures in Sicily and everywhere else I've traveled. There almost always are barriers — and ways around them, if you're prepared. Fortunately, resources abound on the Internet, among them travel agencies that specialize in travel for people with disabilities and offer many specific tips on everything from protecting your wheelchair when flying to dealing with bathroom issues. Every wheelchair traveler is unique, of course, but here are some essentials to get you started, whether you have mobility limitations or are traveling with someone who does.
Plan way ahead
"I urge people to plan months in advance, not weeks," said James Glasbergen, director of accessible travel for World On Wheelz, a division of Frederick Travel, "and a year ahead is not too soon." His reason: Accessible accommodations are limited and tend to be booked early, so if you need a specific type of room, especially an affordable one, the sooner you act, the better. Howard McCoy, president and CEO of Accessible Journeys, noted that drivers of wheelchair-accessible vans are in even shorter supply.
Try to pick destinations that have been made accessible enough for your individual needs. Scope out the smoothest routes, but expect a bumpy ride, literally and figuratively.
"You can never do enough research," said Barbara Jacobson, president of Flying Wheels Travel, one of the country's oldest agencies for people with disabilities. She likes starting with tourist boards because they can provide insider insights on accessible attractions, and she is wary of much Internet information because it may be incomplete or outdated.
But Glasbergen turns to online forums and disability websites for travel reviews, or he simply Googles what he wants to know: for example, "Is the Colosseum in Rome accessible?" Then he compares the answers.
Don't believe anyone who tells you someplace is "accessible." Ask very specific questions about the terrain, steps, hotel rooms (door widths, number of beds, roll-in showers, grab bars), etc.
Getting several opinions is a good idea, Glasbergen said. He will call a hotel several times to confirm reservations, because different reservationists often respond with different information. Jacobson sometimes requests exact measurements and tries to talk to housekeeping staffers, who likely know the features of accessible rooms better than reservationists do.
Have it in writing
Glasbergen recommends taking a printout of the federal rules on airline travel for people with disabilities (find them here: tinyurl.com/airrules) to the airport to show airline and security personnel in case of disagreements.
"Also bring a copy of your confirmation to the hotel," he said. "When you have written proof — say that you reserved a room with a roll-in shower — it's indisputable."
When traveling to sites considered inaccessible, look for modifications in unexpected places.
Jacobson said that accessibility at historic sites such as Pompeii and Ephesus has improved in recent years but that some amenities, such as the wheelchair lifts installed at the Acropolis, aren't obvious, so you should ask.
"Many old churches have ramped side entrances," she added. "They're not just for tourists but for aging and disabled parishioners."