Defying Odds: Travelling the World by Wheelchair

I never wanted this blog to be solely focused on myself. Of course I’m mainly sharing all of my tips & tricks during my adventures. But there are experiences and challenges that I may never face while travelling. One of those, would be travelling the world in a wheelchair. So everyone, meet Vera.

Vera in her wheelchair at the Beatles Story Exhibtion

Vera was born in a small town in the centre of Portugal called Miranda do Corvo and, with the exception of her university years, has always lived there. Ever since she can remember, she has been confined to a wheelchair due to being born with congenital muscular dystrophy. This is one of many neuromuscular diseases and is characterised by the increased weakening and breakdown of all muscles. This has never stopped Vera from doing anything though! She works as an HR Statistics & Reporting Technician at a food distribution multinational company. She is a board member of the Portuguese Neuromuscular Association and a volunteer at Junior Achievement Portugal. Vera also privately teaches English and started taking singing lessons a year ago. She enjoys reading biographies, practising mindfulness meditation and of course loves travelling!

Vera will be turning 40 next February and has begun a project called 40×2 Wheels in Europe. I recently was able to ask her some questions about her big project and some of the struggles and achievements she has come across while travelling in a wheelchair. All of the answers are Vera’s own words and I have tried to keep her responses in full.

What has been your motivation to start travelling?

My passion for travelling must have started in 1977, when even before I was born my parents took me to the south of Spain and Morocco. Later, at the age of five, and in search of a diagnosis for my disability, I travelled to Germany with my father. Three days on the road! Several bus changes! What an adventure! The memories of this journey are now quite vague, but I remember being awakened by my father in the middle of an uncomfortable sleep to see the Eiffel Tower and the feeling of arriving at another planet. The German streets were immaculately clean, the roads were wide and without holes, all the houses had vases with colourful flowers on their window sills, the villages had hotels, cinemas, swimming pools, lots of children… something not seen in Portugal at the time. Then, in the second half of the 80s, and looking for more innovative medical follow-up, I travelled to Poitiers, France, by car in the company of my father and one of my aunts. Two days on the road! No sleep! Memories: feeling totally lost in the north of Spain, looking for San Sebastian when on the road signs we could only read Donostia! It still makes me laugh! Making it short, and to answer your question, I guess my disability was what led me into travelling. Of course my curious and unsatisfied nature also played their role. I always need to dig deep, understand all the reasons, explore all the available possibilities!

What big adventures for a young girl! When did you first travel on your own?

At the age of eighteen I had the opportunity to travel on my own for the first time. The company my parents worked for offered me an English Summer course with Pilgrims Young Learners in Canterbury, UK. You cannot imagine how scared I was! I need 24 hour support and I did not know if there would be someone at the other end to help me. What if my English language skills were not good enough to explain the kind of support I needed? These were just two of the many worries going round and round in my mind. I remember that during the flight I needed to go to the toilet. I had two choices. Peeing myself or asking the flight attendant for help! I decided to be brave and ask a total stranger for help. When arriving at Heathrow Airport, the airport staff took more than an hour to bring my electric wheelchair because the key to switch it on had disappeared. It wasn’t in the wheelchair, it wasn’t inside the plain. Where was it? You are not going to believe it! It was inside my bag the whole time. With the mixture of excitement and fear I had totally forgotten that before taking off the flight attendant had given it to me. When getting out of the airport I was pleasantly surprised with a very old school bus but which had an automatic lift for my wheelchair, something I had never seen before. Needless to say, this course was one of the best experiences I have ever had. At the time I dreamt of becoming an English teacher and being able to visit the UK and meet young people from all over the world before starting university was a dream coming true! I still have friends from those good old days, friends who are today enthusiastically supporting 40×2 Wheels in Europe! Soon after this course, I “went” to university!

Sounds like quite the endeavour on an airplane! How was your time at University?

A nightmare which lasted for three years! You see, this university had absolutely no facilities for wheelchair users and there seemed to be very little institutional will to make any improvements. I was really unhappy! I couldn’t attend classes and so my grades were not what they could be, I didn’t have a social life… So, I decided to apply for a British university. Guess where I ended? You are right, Canterbury! My college years were a time of great self growth. I was once again on my own… well, I did have a Personal Assistant, but she was great in the sense that she did not help me in all the things she realised I could well do on my own. This was also a time of freedom and discovery! For example, I discovered I could use public transportation to go anywhere I wanted to. I could finally go where I wanted when I wanted like anyone else!

Vera at Kent University

What are some challenges you have faced during your travels?

It is always a challenge when something bad happens to my wheelchair. Once, in Eastbourne, my electric wheelchair broke down the day before I travelled back home. It was a cold and wet day in March and I stupidly decided to visit the pier. When I left I started sensing the smell of burning and I couldn’t keep the wheelchair moving straight. The engine must have burned. I managed to get a taxi back to the hotel and there, after having a warm drink, I called Steve, a wheelchair technician from Smile Rehab Ltd who I had met during my time at university. There was nothing he could do to fix it in such a short period of time, but he said that he could come and pick the wheelchair up to fix it within two days. I only had to find a way to get to the airport without my wheelchair and ask for the hotel’s permission to leave it there until Steve was able to collect it. The hotel management staff were incredibly nice and understanding. And Smile Rehab Ltd kept my wheelchair until I went back to Eastbourne in that Summer. When I arrived at the hotel, a different one, the wheelchair was already inside my room waiting for me, fixed and clean. I couldn’t ask for more!

Wow I’m glad Steve and the hotel were able to help you. What has been your best memory from your travels so far?

It is really hard to choose the best memory from all my travelling. Every trip was special in its own way. I will mention my trip to Barcelona in September 2014 though. This was a group trip. Me, my Personal Assistant (by this time she was already one of my best friends) and three friends from the old university days. For 12 years we had been meeting one here, the other one there. This was the first time we were all together again. So this made it a very special trip. And then Barcelona is such a special and eclectic place. It caters for all types of people and tastes, it is so relaxing, so full of culture! In just a week we did and saw so much! We had the privilege of visiting La Sagrada Família and the Palau de la Música Catalana, walking along the Gothic Quarter, walking along Las Ramblas, where we popped in to the Boqueria Market, enjoying Park Güell, an open museum devoted to Gaudí’s life and work, and Parc de Montjuïc, where I arrived by cable car. A frightening experience for someone who is afraid of heights, but a conquest for someone in a wheelchair! We also visited the Museu de la Xocolata, the Museu del Perfum and the Museu de la Música. We had a swim in Barceloneta and enjoyed a delicious paella. It was only on my way home that I realised how wheelchair friendly the city actually is. I did not encounter a single obstacle so I didn’t even had the need to think about the issue.

Vera in her wheelchair in Barcelona, Spain

Vera at Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona sounds incredible! What has been your favourite place so far?

It is not my favourite place, but definitely one of my favourites: Galicia for its beautiful beaches and for Santiago de Compostela, where the quietness of the historical buildings blends with the bustling life of restaurants, cafes, shops and student residences!

I’ll have to add this to my list of places to visit. Is there anywhere in particular you really want to travel to?

Can I name two? I would love to visit Reykjavik and enjoy its midnight sun and Istanbul for its cultural mix.

Great choices! Are there things you thought you wouldn’t be able to do while travelling in a wheelchair or places you wouldn’t be able to visit but have been able to?

Very old monuments! It is so fulfilling to witness the effort that is made, in the UK for example, to make these buildings wheelchair accessible.

What are your top 3 essential items you have to bring travelling with you?

Does my electric wheelchair count as an item? Well, since it plays my legs role I will not take it into account. I think I will mention my wheelchair battery charger, a hand pump to inflate my wheelchair tyres and, on a more feminine side, a long scarf!

You can never go wrong with a scarf! Tell me more about your project 40×2 Wheels in Europe.

In February 2018, I will be 40 years old and to celebrate such a special date I decided to take a 6-month trip around Europe. Me, my wheelchair and 2 Personal Assistants. Between June and December we will be visiting 40 cities in 26 different countries, travelling more than 16.500 kilometres. I can hardly wait to make it happen! When I started planning this trip, back in September 2016, it soon became very clear to me that, despite it being the fruit of a personal passion, this adventure could not be a mere individual initiative. So, after hearing the opinion of a few wheelchair users, I decided to use this trip to explore what best is being done across Europe in terms of wheelchair accessibility and to meet other people using wheelchairs and learn about their way of life, their daily challenges and victories. I expect to gain new perspectives on current European accessibility policies and practices which will certainly help me to advocate towards a more inclusive society in my home country, where a lot of people like me are still feeling stuck at home due to poor accessibility. I would also like to draw national attention for the importance of Personal Assistance.

The project already counts with Facebook and Instagram pages, media coverage, street and awareness raising events. I have created a Crowdfunding Campaign to help me cover the costs of my 2 Personal Assistants. I am also looking for corporate sponsorship.

Nothing has yet happened and however the support I have already received has been beyond amazing! I am so grateful to all those who have decided to follow my four wheels and support such a worthy social project! To all of them and to all those still to come I want to say that a lot is being planned! Keep following!

Vera in Oporto

“Make my wheelchair trip happen!” – Vera on Dom Luis Bridge in Oporto, the city where her trip will begin

This sounds amazing Vera! Do you have further travel plans after 40×2 Wheels in Europe?

After 40×2 Wheels in Europe I would love to visit Israel and also the Dolomites in north-east Italy. One of my friends runs a small but very cosy hotel there. The landscape is breathtaking during all year round. When she bought it and renewed it she made sure it would have all the necessary facilities for someone in a wheelchair. But we have both been a bit frustrated because there are no facilities in the surrounding area and so it is hard for people in wheelchairs to go there. I truly hope this trip will not only raise awareness in my home country, but in all the countries I will be visiting as well!

What is some advice you would give to others that are in a wheelchair and are afraid to travel?

Do not be afraid! Travelling as a wheelchair user requires a bit more planning. You cannot just pack
your suitcase and go. Planning and organising your first trip is a bit of a nightmare, but when you start digging and discovering all that there is already out there for people using wheelchairs, it becomes easy. My advice is, do enough planning to make you feel comfortable, but be open to receive the unexpected. An obstacle encountered will be a story to tell, an opportunity to grow as a person and to discover strengths you didn’t know you had. This is why I chose T. S. Eliot’s quote “only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go” as the motto for 40×2 Wheels in Europe. I have also found that the difficulties I have encountered while travelling have been eye-openers for my nondisabled friends travelling with me.

Thank you so much for answering my questions Vera. You are a huge inspiration to others that would like to travel but don’t believe they can!

Thank you Katherine for having invited me for this interview. I hope your readers will enjoy it! Thank you for the opportunity you have given me to talk about my passion for travelling and my desire to make a change for all those who are permanently or temporarily faced with accessibility challenges!

Vera in Liverpool

Vera has become such a huge inspiration to me since I’ve started chatting with her. Regardless of her physical limitations, she has managed to travel and explore and has even bigger plans for the future! I think a lot of us take for granted that we can just go anywhere and see anything. For a person in a wheelchair, daily tasks can even be a struggle. With 40×2 Wheels in Europe, I hope Vera can pave the way towards improving wheelchair accessibility in many countries. As well as highlighting their achievements in the area! I hope Vera and I will be able to meet somewhere in Europe together at some point and share more of our travel adventures!

-Katherine

Please feel free to make a donation to Vera’s wonderful cause 40×2 Wheels in Europe here

If you have anymore questions or know someone that might like to share their story, contact me here



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