Monday, October 29, 2012

Barcelona in a Wheelchair

Excellent weather
Original work by Antonio Gaudí
Natural beauty

Barcelona, Spain was our most favorite city [besides Edinburgh] in Europe. It is not only a beautiful beach city, but the most wheelchair accessible city I have been to in Europe so far (including metros, buses, sidewalks), even offering designated wheelchair friendly beaches. We stayed at Barcelona Urbany Hostel that was very close to a stop for our hop on hop off bus (very convenient).

There was so much to see and do.  Some of my favorite things were visiting the naturalistic artwork of Antonio Gaudí: La Pedrera, Casa Batlló (not all accessible. cool old lift to get to get to the top), Parc Güell (what a perfect place to go for a long walk, but windy incline for wheelchairs), and especially the Sagrada Familia. I was extremely impressed with the futuristic designs of these structures, including accessibility for the most part. My favorite destination was the Sagrada Familia, which is an unfinished cathedral by Gaudi. We were awed by such beautiful, intricate stained glass. The light shining through from the beautiful Barcelona sun just rainbowized the whole cathedral with such vibrance. I also thought the statues were really cool looking with the narrower, almost cartoony features as opposed to other statues that are meant to look more realistic. Wheelchair accessibility was an added bonus (although there is not an accessible lift to get to the top. You can make it in the lift if you can walk up a few steps to it) and we got in free (talk to the attendants at the side gate, don't wait in the line)!

On top of La Pedrera- limited accessibility
Sagrada Familia. Just imagine how much more grandiose this would be if it were finished...

Stunning stained glass of colorful light

The food in Barcelona was absolutely delicious. The big thing in Spain is tapas which are little appetizers that offers a great variety of seafood, paella, drinks, which is perfect for tourists who want to try a little bit of everything. Though, everything was just a bit pricey when converting the euro to the dollar...but that's expected in Europe so just avoid the headache and anxiety don't do the math. Rationalize all the way that you are being just like everyone else and pay it. The food is so worth it!
Tapas: sausages, mussels, and batatas bravas around Las Ramblas
AJ about to devour his prey: paella
I loved the very kind and friendly people who were so helpful to us. The night before our trip, I burned my feet while taking a hot shower (I tend to burn my legs a lot without knowing, and the water in Scotland gets scalding hot really fast)! I woke up with two huge blisters, the size of my palm but there was not much we knew to do about it and had to head to the airport at the crack of dawn. Well, while at one of the bars in Barcelona, one of my huge blisters popped and I panicked. I felt we needed to see a doctor right away to prevent an infection. We only had an address in our travel book and no sense of direction to read our map. People were so willing to help us read the map along the way and get us to where we needed to go. I was so thankful.

The culture of ciestas was a bit inconvenient as a tourist looking for food during certain hours, but it also gave us an opportunity to slow down a bit and relax.

I couldn't get over how wheelchair accessible Barcelona was. That definitely was perfect on my wheels. The metro was wheelchair accessible at just about every stop (finally!). The weather couldn't be any better. AJ and I talk about going back almost everyday since getting back to Edinburgh, especially during cold and rainy days. We definitely recommend Barcelona!

A bit of Barcelona:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lisbon in a Wheelchair

Seja bem-vindo a Portugal! Welcome to Portugal!

Over the parliamentary recess in October (I know this is really old, but I've been so busy!), AJ and I spent a few days in Lisboa, the capitol of Portugal. AJ and I always try to experience as much of the culture of the places we visit as we can, and Portugal sure does have a lot of culture to offer.  As you can imagine, I was super excited to visit the city I had learned so much about and to speak Portuguese! As expected, the Portuguese was different from Brazilian Portuguese, yet still so beautiful! Portugal is known for its unique music style of fado, long history of navigation, as well as delicious bacalhau (salted and dried cod fish) and pasteis (sweet or savory treat in a cup shape), so we made sure to check those out. We booked two days on the Sightseeing Portugal bus and off we went! (Note: the green line of this company does not offer regular sized buses that can accommodate wheelchairs, so don't pay for all of the lines! It was still a convenient option for the most part. You can explore regular bus routes or the metro.)

Lisboa was pretty wheelchair accessible. I was able to  wheel down the streets with little problems. There were some slopes that I struggled getting up, so AJ would give me a push here and there. The shops are also a little more cozy and some had steps without lift options, so that was a bit tricky. I think it was most difficult when I wanted to try on clothes, but stalls were not accessible. There is a bit more Lisbon can do in terms of catering to wheelchairs. But I understand the economy is tough here and they're barely keeping afloat. Wheelchair accessibility probably doesn't make the list just as it isn't in many other places. I'm just saying it would be a bit more enjoyable if I could get around with more ease.
However, I had fun in this beautiful city. Some of my favorite places included: the Museu de Marinha (Sea Museum), Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, and the Museu de Fado.
Right next door to the museum is the Mosteiros dos Jerónimos (Jeronimos Monastery), where we found Vasco da Gama (ocean explorer) and Luis de Camões' (beautiful poet) tombs. The monastery is very ornate with intricate carvings and cloisters. We went through it pretty quickly, but got a good view of it. It was fully wheelchair accessible and free!
Mosteiro dos Jerónimo
The Museu de Marinha was awesome as it had lots of artifacts from the extensive navigation the Portuguese were involved with over the years. They were the leaders in this field, hence the many Portuguese speaking countries around the world. We saw belongings of the famous, Vasco de Gama (famed for his navigation around the world. We also saw models of some of the most modern ships of the time period, maps of the world from each era, info. on notes from Brasil, which I got super excited about, rooms on different ships made for kings, and fun navigation tools like compasses. I would have loved some of these things for my "vintage" collection. Maybe next time they'll loan it to me? We easily spent a few hours there.  We also got discounted tickets for being students, and it was wheelchair accessible except for the floor up (there were no lifts). However, the restroom at the shop next door was accessible (thankfully).

An old compass
AJ and model of a great boat
We had lunch at Pastel de Belém, a well-known cafe which was apparent with the long line for both take away and sit in. Those were some of the best pasteis AJ and I have ever had. A pastel can be a sweet dessert or savory treat. The famous pasteis are made from a secret recipe from long ago. Only a few people know it. We compared it to other pasteis throughout the city and there was none other like it. I also had the pastel de bacalhau and loved that too.
scrumptious pasteis in the making
Lastly, the Museu de Fado was also an awesome place to visit. We learned about the history of the music and artists. I fell in love with the beauty of the style of music, unique to specifically Portugal. I loved listening to the accent and seeing the passionate expression of the artists as they sang. The music had variations of sentiments. I especially liked the ones that were more fun and chill.  The museum was fully wheelchair accessible as it is a more modern building.

Fado is joy, fado is pleasure because fado gives us life, and in fado I want to die...
We stayed in a really nice hostel, Lisbon Destinations, a converted historic train station. It was so spacious, well decorated and clean. It was located right in the city center, surrounded by shops and delicious restaurants including our favorite, Hard Rock Cafe. However, the shower stalls were not accessible.

Overall, a great trip to Lisboa! I can't wait to visit the rest of Portugal.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

On Board HMY Britannia

One the best days in Edinburgh so far in terms of weather shined through today on our 30 minute walk from our flat to Leith to visit Her Majesty's Yacht, the Brittania. We're still waiting for our invite to the Jubilee, which might have gotten lost in the mail, oh well. I didn't know this, but the yacht is connected to the Ocean Terminal mall. It is fully accessible and with our student ID's we received a small concession.

Ever wonder how luxurious of a lifestyle the rich live? Come on board the Brittania. There are many elaborate rooms, furniture, artifacts from all over the world--way cooler than any cruise I've been on. My favorite room was the large living room with beautiful floral printed couches, salmon curtains, a baby grand piano and card tables, where the royal family would hang out. It's really special thinking of how even the most powerful can share time with family.

There's so much history on this ship. I saw many pictures of powerful people all around the world including Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, etc. who have come aboard. This is a fun peace making ship/home. 

AJ carried me downstairs to the quarters where shipmates bunked. It was super crowded, but interesting to see how they lived. AJ had to carry me through that whole floor, so I'm not sure if it would be worth it for someone with the same mobility needs.
AJ and I had a light snack at the Tea Room, a little restaurant up the top of the yacht. We got to ride in the royal lift, which the royals would use to avoid going down stairs in large ball gowns. It is now designated for mobility disabled visitors. We enjoyed a pleasant view of the Leith port through the large glass windows. AJ had a fruit scone and I had Porelli's home made ice cream with 3 different flavors: Scottish table (butterscotch-like), mint-chocolate chip, and strawberry. Each flavor was equally delightful.

Friday, October 5, 2012

An Attitude of Gratitude

The other day, I was reminded by a talk given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland that gratitude is essential in life because we just don't know what the future holds.  From my personal experiences over the years, I've learned that time on this earth is short so enjoy those moments of both happiness and sadness. 

The secret to enjoying life despite everyday struggles--pain, sickness, stress, etc.--is having an attitude of gratitude: look for those simple blessings or remember funny and comforting moments to be happy about. For example, when I am wheeling up a steep hill (especially the one behind the BYU library), I think to myself, "I can do it, keep wheeling, little by little, I'm almost there."  When I get to the top, I congratulate myself with a pat on the back. Having the ability to accomplish that simple task is a blessing to me and I'm thankful for that strength--not only physical strength to push myself, but an inner strength to live. Whenever I seek those blessings, I feel so happy because I can see the huge role He plays in every aspect of my life--I am not alone. Someone wonderful is watching over me.

Sometimes, challenges seem overwhelmingly difficult. Yes, it does get annoying not being able to reach things that are higher than me, or push up hills, or get around stairs. Sometimes, I have bad days and just want to give up and throw in the towel. But I remind myself, "If not this, then what?" I feel everyone has challenges of some sort. What challenge am I willing to take on? It could be worst and scarier. Should I press it? No, these challenges are for me, personally. I need these challenges to progress and I become better person, which I feel I am now because I made that commitment not to quit, ever. I want to keep growing and learning, and I want to be able to help someone else who is going through their trial, just as others have helped me. I am so grateful. I feel I've accomplished so much already and no matter what the future holds, I'm ready and I know I'll be grateful then too.

There are so many simple things to be grateful for in life. Seek them and we'll be tons happier. 

Today, I am grateful for scones. They're so simple and delicious!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Edinburgh Castle in a Wheelchair

We love living in Scotland and getting to explore new places together. It's like being on a date every time we go out! It was a beautiful day outside with a light breeze as AJ and I enjoyed a nice walk together, passing many little shops, churches, and restaurants along the way. We passed a few men in kilts playing bagpipes on the street corners. Then we stopped to listen to a band playing called the Spinning Blowfish by the Scottish Gallery--a fusion of drums, guitar, and bagpipes--way cool beats.
Along the Royal Mile to the castle - a pretty steep push up. You may want to ride the bus.
Finally we reached our destination. Located on an extinct volcano is Edinburgh Castle, where William Wallace and Robert the Bruce are honored with statues in the front entrance. This castle has never been seized by enemies from its front gates as it stands invincible. I was definitely excited to explore the inside. We were fortunate to receive a concession (discount) because like most places, the castle is not as wheelchair friendly and requires some adjustments. We used a car service (free) that took us up to the back of the castle and began our tour there. There are lifts for wheelchairs and ramps that require staff help to access, but it's easy enough.

One of my favorite parts of the castle were the royal jewels and honoraries. There were magnificent pieces of jewelry and historical artifacts. I can't believe the stone of destiny was stolen for so many years. That was a funny way to make a statement. And really, it's a stone boulder, not a jewel kind of stone. 

The war memorial was sobering to see all those names of people who died in wars. I'm not a fan of war, I believe there are other means of negotiating. War is needless.

The view from the top of the castle was amazing. It makes sense for this castle to be here. Looking out over all the colorful rooftops, it dawned on me just how lovely the city. It is a great balance of historical yet modern contributions to give it a familiar feel. Blanks are shot from the cannon everyday (except Sundays) at 1PM. Check it out!

Fish and chips at a pub and a deep fried Mars bar were a wonderful way to end our date. I have a feeling I'm going to love it here.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

From Hotel to Hostel to Home: Welcome to Edinburgh

After a day and a half of travel from Salt Lake City to Edinburgh, we arrived exhausted to a very brisk evening at the Waverly train station. We found a cab big enough for us, my wheelchair, and all of our suitcases.  When we arrived at our wonderfully wheelchair accessible hotel (Lochend Serviced Apartments), we laid out all of our suitcases in the front room, sent out an email of our arrival to our families, and crashed. Fortunately, it was off season so they provided us with a private room on the ground floor. It was not wheelchair accessible (many steps to get to the front door, small restroom) but it was manageable as most hostels are this way. The next day, the rush to find a flat began. It took longer than we expected to find a flat, so we moved into a private room hostel (Argyle Backpackers) to conserve our financial resources, uncertain how long it would be until we found a home. 

After two weeks of sharing the restroom and kitchen with 40 other travelers, and worriedly searching for a home in Edinburgh, we have finally moved into our quaint little home for the next few months on Broughton Road. It is a 30-minute walk to and from the Parliament everyday, which should be good exercise for AJ and me. Most importantly, it meets our basic requirements: ground floor and wheelchair accessible. To our pleasant surprise, a fully furnished flat includes kitchenware as well. We’re also right next to a supermarket and a bus stop that goes directly to the Parliament.

In the process of looking for a home, we wandered around Edinburgh and are coming to love the "busy" city already. There are people here from all parts of the world, both residents and tourists. There are many cute little shops and cafés all around. We stopped into a café and got their specialty sandwich with included peanut butter and bacon. Heart attack! We have learned many major roads and have seen many historical land marks along the way.  It also helps that we work at the Parliament along the Royal Mile, right next to the Queen's Gallery and Holyrood Palace. It's also beautiful to see Arthur's Seat right behind of the Parliament every single day. Everything in Edinburgh is accessible by walking and busing, which is very convenient, but not the easiest to go up steep hills in a wheelchair. We have the option of riding the bus to work everyday, but I think we're going to take the challenge of walking everyday until the cold sets in. This will allow us to see more and I can't wait.

Work at the Parliament has been very interesting and exciting. I’m learning so much more about the Scottish National Party (SNP) and my Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), Colin Beattie, who is a funny person. His assistant, Alyson is also so very nice and helpful to me. And they’ve been so accommodating, physically. I appreciate it so much! Everything is so new to me that even simple tasks are exciting to me. I’m sure it will wear off over time but I’m trying to enjoy it as much as possible. I’ve been writing press releases, congratulatory letters, emails, responses to constituents, researching, attending meetings, etc. Political/Public Health stuff.

In addition to the excitement, I received my parliamentary staff badge this week, so no more having to go through security! 

AJ and I have planned out some trips around Edinburgh, Scotland, and continental Europe over the time that we are here. We hope to go on an adventure, both big and small, every week while here (and tend to our school tasks, too). I look forward to the time that we’re here and hope to make the most of it. Welcome to Edinburgh!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Rome in a Wheelchair

Rome is a city known for its unique historic remnants of a once very powerful empire. One of my all-time favorite actress, Audrey Hepburn starred in a film, Roman Holiday that instilled a desire in me to see this city for myself.

Carlina and I arrived in the night at the Termini center and caught a bus through town that would hopefully to help us get to our hotel near the Vatican (we weren't sure because we don't speak Italian and the bus driver didn't really speak English!). It was so cool to drive through the city as it looked like a place where modern buildings were embellished with beautiful statues and historic structures. I remembering thing, "Is this real?"

When we arrived at the Vatican, we found cabs waiting, so we went up to one that looked wheelchair accessible because it was larger. However, there is a cab line system so we had to take the one at the very front of the line. The drivers weren't really nice about it, even though I had a special need. It was a little shady thing with this cab we took. I think we were charged more because of my wheelchair, but I guess it was a small price to easily get to the hotel, although I think he went a long roundabout way to increase the pay. We figured out the next day that it was a much shorter walk to the Vatican than the length of time he took to get us to the hotel. Lame. But it's OK, he must have really needed the money (that's what we kept telling ourselves). We reserved tickets to the Vatican for our second day there, so we explored other places first.

Carlina and I mapped out our days with lots of historical sites on a map that came with the Roma Pass (30 per pass), which we heard about beforehand. We got it from a local shop (they sell them everywhere). It allows us to use the public transport-metro (B line is accessible but with limited stops) and bus systems for two days. I learned after that those with mobile disabilities can get one free of charge, although there are limited buses with disabled stickers on them (my wheelchair couldn’t fit through the doors of the bus, not convenient at all, but someone with some mobility and a fold up hospital chair would be just fine on the buses). I personally would not get the Roma pass again because it didn't quite suit my needs.

My favorite spots to visit were the Forum and the Colosseum, which are right across from each. As I wheeled through the ruins of the Forum. This was not the most comfortable stroll because of old broken paths, and I needed lots of help, but heck, we're in Rome! My companion and I got in for free (the theme in Europe is if the price is discounted, most likely it's not accessible). I was wonderstruck by the fact that the great emperor, Julius Caesar walked these grounds. The story behind the construction of the whole metropolis and the power struggle over the empire were real life dramas.

Just across the street was the Colosseum, which had incredible architecture and construction for a mass crowd of 50,000. There are so many in's and out's to the maze. I’m amazed by how much of it still stands today. It’s crazy to learn what Romans thought of entertainment—it’s like UFC but to the death. Imagining gladiators fighting is kind of cool but morally wrong as well.  These guys got paid to kill. In terms of accessibility, it was simple to maneuver around for the most part but required a few alternate routes. There is a lift to get to the higher stories, which I was thankful for. However, there was a section that was not accessible for wheelchairs but don't worry, you're not missing out on much, as I was told. We also got in for free and skipped the long line by just going in through the front entrance of the Colosseum. Also, there is an accessible restroom here, thankfully, so be on the lookout for it. A clue will be the long line to what looks like a mobile restroom within the Colosseum.

Our hotel was literally a few blocks from the entrance of the Vatican, but was not accessible. Really just pay the extra money for wheelchair accessibility, it will save you and your companion lots of stress! I didn’t have to wait in the massive line because of the wheelchair (just walk against the traffic that is exiting. I found out later that a companion and I could have gotten in free by going to the check in counter and showing a doctor's note or something to verify my disability—definite plus. (The next trip I took to Rome with my husband went much smoother after finding these things out). 

There was much to see in the Vatican: beautiful sculptures, intricate woodcuts along the walls, cabinets used by popes, jewels, paintings all over the ceilings, rugs of biblical stories, etc. I was super excited to see the Sistine chapel, but didn’t expect to be stuck in a jam-packed mosh pit. This made my experience a little more hectic and I found myself rushing through the paintings on the ceiling, afraid I would to tired to enjoy the Sistine Chapel if I waited until the end. Go in with a game plan of how to tackle this massive, digitally stimulating place. My eyes were so tired by the end. Expect to spend many hours, maybe a full day there. It was difficult to get through massive crowd there, so just expect to go a little slower than usual. There were steps to get down to Sistine chapel, so we were led by an attendant to a lift (ask for "ascensore") that is connected to the siderails of the stairs and guards had to temporarily block off the narrow pathway so we could get through. They were a big help. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the beautiful artwork although my eyes were exhausted by the end. I was also glad for the lifts and ramps! It was SO worth it!

The Colosseum, Forum, and Vatican provide free entrance to those with limited mobility! Totally cool. However, the trade off is that these places aren't really wheelchair friendly. We had to go through many hoops and get lots of outside help to navigate the places.

Here are some places that are fairly wheelchair friendly:
There are many other places to see as well, but I didn't list them all. Check out my trip to Rome the second time with my husband.

Delicious lasagna and gelato made Rome just that much more memorable. I had a great time and thanks to the help of Carlina, this was possible. Glad I came, I saw, I conquered Rome in a wheelchair.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Florence and Tuscany in a Wheelchair

We arrived in Florence via train (it is wheelchair accessible, but staff should be alerted the day before, just pay for normal seating price and they will escort you to an accessible area), to roads of people driving on right side—a change from the left side driving in England.  I felt a little safer and less confused. An added plus was being able to push myself on regular sidewalks because they were decently even.  The sky was warm and a little drizzly as we wandered around the city.  We purchased tickets for "Tuscany in a Day" tour across the street from the tourist info center across from the train station.  Keep in mind buses are not accessible and require assistance.

 A highlight of Florence was the Accademia where I saw the awesome masterpiece by Michelangelo, David. He was beautiful with naturalistic style and accurate portrayal of every muscle and vein in his body. He was so much taller than I thought he would be. I was in awe and had to circle the statue a few times before moving on. I also got to ride a lift that was attached to side rails that led to a higher floor of the museum, just like the grandpa in the movie, “Up.” That was a fun trip :)

I took a tour of the Tuscany including Pisa, San Gimignano, and Siena. I enjoyed the Tuscan sun while having a nice spaghetti lunch, overlooking endless rows of vineyards and rolling hills.  Going to the leaning tower of Pisa was a dream finally realized. I couldn’t believe that I was actually there! Unfortunately, I was unable to make it inside. The neighboring churches were accessible though, with ramps to get inside and minimal steps. 

Be prepared for steep hills in San Gimignano and Siena, as well as inaccessible shop entrances.  It's not easy to push up steep, cobble stone roads.  On the other hand, Pisa is pretty flat, although sandy.  The buildings have wheelchair accessible entrances.

Although not as wheelchair accessible because of its steep cobble stoned hills and stairs, I had a fun visit through the quaint little town of Siena. There were many picture-esq scenes from atop which required hiking up the cobble stoned hills. I had a hard time pushing myself up because it was so steep so Carlina had to help me. While going up like the fifth hill that day (I feel really bad), she yelled, “I hate this town,” as we passed a woman who had an easel set up and was painting a pretty section of the town.  The woman stopped and asked, “You’re kidding right?” To which I had to clarify that Carlina meant she hated pushing me, not the city. Haha. Phew! I was afraid she was going to rail on us. 

As the annual horse race among its 17 districts was to be held the next day, colorful district flags hung from tall stoned buildings around Siena. Bands of young men and flag throwers marched around the town, boasting their presence over the other districts.  It was fun to imagine how the following day would be with horses racing through the little roads. I wish I had more time to stay and watch! 

I thoroughly enjoyed the Tuscany as it was a nice little break from the city and showed a beautiful side of Italy. It can be done in a wheelchair, but requires some help. Don’t be afraid to do it!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Venice in a Wheelchair

My dream destination has always been Italy to see a city with water running though, eat delicious Italian cuisine, admire the artwork of Da Vinci, see the Vatican, and listen to the beautiful language. When the opportunity arose, my friend Carlina and I planned a trip to see major cities in Italy. It didn't take much convincing us. We booked our flights through Ryanair, a company that offers cheap flights throughout Europe. Because they offer budget flights, they have to make revenue in all areas such as heavy fees for flight corrections and extra baggage. I made the unfortunate mistake of booking our flight from Venice to London instead of vice versa--a costly error to correct.  I definitely recommend reading over the itinerary at least twice before hitting the purchase button because sometimes corrections are double the price of the original flight itself.

We were greeted by Venice with bright sun, blue skies, ferries and gondolas going in all directions, and of course, many tourists.  It was surreal to be there but the first thing I realized when we got there was that there were no accommodations for wheelchairs such as ramps or hotels. You know how it's a city surrounded by water and bridges everywhere to connect the islands of the city? Well, the bridges are made of steps, not a smooth ramp bridge (I so wish it was). I was automatically nervous about getting around and having to make Carlina do so much work on her vacation. This posed a huge issue for us in getting around Venice. Everywhere we went, I had to be pulled up and down steps. We would be wheeling along and suddenly stairs would appear out of no where and we were trapped, so the only way was to get through the stairs. It was super stressful at times and I felt so bad for Carlina. This is a rough place for wheelchairs (Whoops! Should have done the research ahead of time!).

I recommend pulling out Euros ahead of time (airport) because the drop off point for the aerobus doesn't have a cash point. We had to pay to take a ferry across to the train station, which we were lucky enough some kind tourists offered some money to help us get across (like 4 euros). By the way, even though it's a tourist town, not everyone speaks English. Be sure to bring along a travel book and learn some key phrases. Also, when booking hotel accommodations, consider staying at the monastery because they are generally two stories high, tops. That means you'll more than likely find accommodations on the ground floor.

After the first day, we decided to get a ferry pass that took us to major attractions to avoid having to use bridges. These are sold at the train station and at the bus drop off point. However, there are parts where you still have to get up and down steps. Shopping was tricky as shops are narrow. At some shops, I waited outside and Carlina would bring items of interest out to me.

Italy is known for it's many churches, so I had to make them one of our stops in each city. We navigated with a map and got lost many times, which was pretty fun, but eventually made it to St. Mark’s Basilica, my favorite place in Venice. This church was AMAZING and mostly wheelchair accessible. It was so huge, ornate, with big onion domes and multi-colored marble pillars, and the interior is floor-to-ceiling mosaics. There were so many statues and other museums within the basilica. I would have appreciated it more if I had known a little more about the history before going in but I still loved it. The crowd was massive though, especially in St. Mark's square. Though it was hard to move around because of the crowds. It was free and wheelchair accessible!

The two of us wandered the streets and stumbled upon booths of fun souvenir items like theater masks, beautifully colored fruits and veggies at local farmer's markets, a large variety of flavors at gelaterias, eye drawing restaurants, and of course we had to stop at every place to see what it had to offer. So much fun. People looked at me everywhere I went--it must be the wheelchair. I especially got many stares while getting pulled up the stairs. It was a bit awkward to feel their eyes on me and not get many offers for help, but we dealt with it as gracefully as pulling a person up stairs could be. For dinner, I had gnocchi which is a rolled up potato dough balls in red meat sauce and it was delicious! It was perfect in softness, taste, and the sauce just combined together perfectly.  Carlina ordered water, thinking it would be tap water like in America, but it came in a bottle for 3.50 euros.  I had heard water in Italy was expensive  so wasn't too surprised and tried it out. I learned that I don't like gas water and will avoid it if I can. But it became a funny thing when she did this a few more times throughout our entire trip in Italy, forgetting each time. It was hilarious.

Overall, my time in Venice was wonderful and it was an interesting part of Italy to experience. Although I feel it would have been so much better had the city figured out a way to be more inviting to those with mobility limitations like me.  I'm not sure how people like me navigate or even live in the city.  Venice has a long way to go to before becoming a universally accessible city.  One suggestion I have is that bridges be made with smoother curves which would be far more conducive to travel on wheels.  It would benefit strollers, dollies, and bikes as well.  I definitely hope they advance over the next few years.  Yes, it is possible to change.  And yes, Venice in a wheelchair is just requires lots of help and more work on your companion's part, but that's the case with everything.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

So I met the President...

I had the opportunity to sit down with the President of the United States, Barack Obama, his staff members, Valerie Jarrett, Cecilia Muñoz, and Kareem Dale, along with 11 other American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) interns to discuss the future of disability policy.

Top: Rak, Jim, Mark, Frances, Zoe, Rachel, Shawn, Stephanie, Bonnie, Paul
Bottom: Ben, Allie, Me, Dana, and Adam in front of the West Wing
For 50 minutes, we had a detailed discussion with the staffers about our concerns and thoughts on all aspects of disabilities.  Suddenly, the door bursts open and in walks President Obama to the Roosevelt office and he says, "Hello Everyone," and everyone, stunned, stood up (minus me, Ben and Allie who are in wheelchairs).  I looked over to Ben and Frances and we widened our eyes at each other.  He proceeds to shaking everyone's hands, asking their names and where they are from.  Half way through, he gets to me, shakes my hand and I say, "Hi Mr. President.  My name is Martina.  I'm from Fresno, Ca, and my heart is pounding so hard right now." He laughs, gives me a hug, and then says, "I'm glad you're here.  Nice to meet you." 

It was an amazing 25 minutes spent with all of his attention focused on what we interns had to say about our concerns for our disability community.  So many important issues and concerns were raised on behalf of our disability community as well as suggestions for change, which were noted by his staffers.  Some of the main points made were the need to decrease unemployment (very high unemployment rate of 27% among those with disabilities, which his administration has been working hard to change, at least federally by opening up jobs for our population), increase community integration i.e. via education (equal opportunities and rights to higher education), and expand accessibility (universal design for everyone).

I talked about the importance of integration of people with disabilities into society/community via jobs, education, etc.  I focused more education because I feel the administration is making strides right now with employment of people with disabilities (and continue to improve).  I feel that if you want to instill values in someone, the best time is start is when they are young, which could be through the school system from K-12.  People become more aware, tolerant, considerate, and inclusive of people with disabilities when they gain more exposure to those who are different from them--this has been the case for many family and friends of mine.  Imagine a world where everyone including business owners and civil engineers realize that simple accommodations can be made for those with disabilities including elevators in business buildings, accessible elevators at metro stations, voice software for the blind (i.e. Siri was created for the blind), etc. that allow us to be highly functioning and independent individuals and able contribute to the progress of our country. 

It was reassuring when President Obama told us that disability issues were very personal to him and something he cared deeply about.  I knew he meant it when he shared his story about his father-in-law who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and the struggles he faced before ADA time, getting to his sons' basketball games an hour early with his family to get to the seats, as well as going to Michelle's dance recitals with difficulty.  He understood that there are challenges within our community that can be addressed with simple accommodations.  He said that his goal is to "provide equal opportunity for everyone in this nation to maximize their talents if they are willing to work hard."  That includes those who are in the disability community.  He told us that we are the future leaders of America, especially in the disability community, and encouraged us to continue to be self-advocates.  We can run a sub 50 in disability rights.  It's important that we are heard. 

I left the meeting feeling empowered to get more involved in my community.  I gained so much perspective of the role I can play in terms of civil rights, more specifically disability rights.  Direction may come from a little inkling or a strong passion for something, and I believe that this meeting instilled a desire in me to serve and reaffirmed my passions.  I have thoroughly enjoyed this summer and cannot wait to apply all I've been taught to create change towards a better quality of life for others, and health policy is one of many good approaches to address current health issues among these populations.

I want to thank AAPD for making this experience possible and for all the great work they put towards advancing the disability movement. This has been an incredible summer and I couldn't have asked for a better adventure.  I look forward to what is in store.

Here is a link to the White House blog which includes details and a video from the meeting.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

My Book of Milestones

As I look back on these past three years, the moments seem so unreal.  I can't believe three years have gone by already since the accident that left me paralyzed from the waist down.  I remember the months in the hospital, lying in bed and thinking that my life was over...that things would never be the same again.  I was fixated on all the physical pain and misery from that terrible moment as well as the long list of my inabilities and difficulties that lie ahead.  I was torn between quitting and moving on.  It was a big decision to make, but I chose the latter: I moved on...and it did get better. 

As I reflect upon my experience in D.C. this summer alone, I can recall many moments of learning and growth that have come as a result of the accident--wonderful experiences I never foresaw while in the hospital like this internship in D.C.  Pushing through tough storms physically and emotionally, answering a million questions in my mind and heart, discovering new relationships, managing my internship, and exploring the city have each taught me something new and exciting about myself.

For one, I have proven to myself and others that despite my tendency to get lost easily and fear of getting stuck in a stinky metro elevator,  I can be independent in a wheelchair.  Back in Utah, I had the support of my husband, family, friends, and school--my safety net that protected and made accommodations for me.  I have lived and traveled abroad in the past, but have never had to do it on my own in a wheelchair, so I felt hesitant to live on my own in a relatively big city, afraid of big falls causing breaks in my body without help, afraid that I would get too sick without anyone helping me, and even getting around and doing my own grocery shopping by myself without a car.  As I became more familiar with the streets, the metro, the people, the culture...
I found that it could be done, one step at a time.

Sometimes, things do get rough though because my independence around the district depends on universal design--reliant on civil engineering for businesses, metro stations, cement sidewalks, etc. The fact that I live in an ablelist society becomes more apparent whenever I have to navigate around ridiculously designed metro stations with elevators in inaccessible places (L'Enfant Plaza) or worst--broken ones, but I managed as best I could with that challenge.
Now, if I can do that, I can do even harder things.

Molly, Carlina and Me in front of the Capitol.

As I reach another milestone in my journey, I would like to thank AAPD for the opportunity of a wonderful summer of continual learning.  All that I've learned this summer could not have been possible without their assistance and encouragement.  I now feel more confident in my abilities to navigate this world and am ready to enter the workforce as a productive citizen.  I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with such kind bosses at Disability Rights International, who really cared about my well-being and growth.  They really are some of the greatest voices of the disability rights movement today.  I am also thankful for the chance to live with and learn from my roommates, Allie and Bonnie--the voices of future disability rights leaders.  I'm thankful for the friends I've acquired this summer as well as my long-time confidants, Carlina and Jeff, and the many ways that they have enriched my summer, including exploring the city and long dinner conversations.  And my sweet husband and family for supporting me from afar.  This has truly been a summer worth noting in my book of milestones--time well spent.  Keep your head up and things will get better.

Jeff, Carlina, Molly, and Me

Monday, July 30, 2012

Disability is Diversity

This week, I was invited by my mentor, Sofija  to attend a meeting at the Dept. of State regarding disabilities and HIV in conjunction with the HIV conference held in Washington D.C. this week (btw, this is the first time the conference has ever been held in the states and for a long time, foreign people with HIV were automatically denied entrance...epic moment in history).  There were representatives from various African organizations who spoke about the challenges of those with disabilities in receiving health services.  Those with disabilities around the world are highly stigmatized--second class citizens--and those who have disabilities and HIV infected are even more looked down upon.  They are the last to receive help, if any.

It also doesn't help that there is a virgin myth that if you are infected with HIV, you can rid of it by sleeping with a virgin.  Those with disabilities are generally perceived to be unwanted caste from society, therefore, virgins.  They are easily targeted and not only become infected, but don't receive treatment and have to suffer.  It's terrible that people have to endure this injustice, especially because it is NOT their fault!  These organizations are striving to change this as best as they can, but with little support.  Many of the representatives mentioned the CRPD and how it's ratification by the U.S. will become a model for improvement in their countries as well (I really hope this is the case), and I'm thrilled the convention was sent to the floor this week.  I'm so excited and am hopeful of what happens this following week.

Another topic discussed is the call for youth leaders with disabilities to rise up and become the voices of their disability communities, to educate others and push for those basic human rights--health and equality.  People should never be discriminated against because of their disability (or anything for that matter), but unfortunately, we are.  We, as disability advocates, need to work alongside able-bodies to integrate people with disabilities into society, and teach people to become not only tolerant, but accepting of others different from them.  At least, we can educate others on our disabilities so they can better understand our needs, our abilities, and how we can contribute to our society.  Disabilities add diversity to every society and make up part of the definition of melting pot.  In actuality, everyone has a disability of some sort or will experience it at some point.  We are here and proud of our disabilities, and we should never allow these challenges to hinder us from attaining our right to equal treatment, health care, and opportunities.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Reporting an Awesome Week

I have had another wonderful week in D.C.-- simple and sweet, just as summer should be.  On Monday, I went to the Screen on the Green at the National Mall with some friends and watched the classic movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (filmed in Utah).  It was awesome!  It was so nice to lay a blanket down on the grass and watch a movie on the big screen outside in the open space.  The movie was very enjoyable with great one liners, plot, and who could ever resist Butch?  Best of all, we could see the Capitol in the background. 

On Thursday, I attended a brown bag lunch held by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and learned useful information regarding the various capacities those on the panel have served-- at political campaigns, human rights non-profit, federal agency, think tank, etc.  They said a lot of the work they are doing could have been done withouta law degree, and that there is value in seeking as much experience as possible in areas of interests.  Many of their necessary and useful skills were acquired through internships, which makes me happy because I can check that off on the list of to-do's.  I've been debating whether or not to go the law school route or seek for a joint degree--MPH and JD, so attending this panel has given me great insight.  I was also told to take risks, but I struggle with which should I choose to take as there are so many great options.  Thus, the exploration continues...

I also attended a meeting at the American Institute of Research, which is an organization that is contracted to conduct research on various topics such as health, education, international development, etc. and improve them.  I was warmly welcomed as an AAPD intern and met such personable staff members.  I became very impressed by the projects that were described and hope to learn more about them.

Work at Disability Rights International continues as there is always so much work for the organization to do at home and abroad.  I'm gaining more and more respect for those of the non-profit sector because of the persistence and diligence required for success and action.  There's so much to do to preserve the basic rights of people, but so little resources.  I'm glad I can be a part of the work.  I am currently working with my boss on researching information and references on children with disabilities living in institutions abroad to be published in the UNICEF year end report.  How exciting!

I love having the GW pool at my disposal because swimming has been super fun and therapeutic after work.  I'm truly enjoying a healthier summer workout than any other along with wheeling to and from DuPont Circle everyday.  This is great physical preparation for my trek around Europe this coming fall.  The highlight of this week is learning how to get in and out of the pool all by myself!

Finally, I met up with some friends to watch the opening of "The Dark Knight Rises."  It was so AWESOME!! I loved the story and how it tied in so well with previous films, although it could easily be a stand-alone film.  Christopher Nolan did a great job in ending the series, and I'm SO sad it's the end!  I love Christian Bale as Batman (since high school) and I'm going to miss him!! This film is a definite must-see.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

On our way to making history

On Thursday, I had the privilege of attending the hearing on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  I just have to say, "Wow!" What an incredible experience.  I listened in on the arguments for and against the convention, and both sides had legitimate points.  The chairman on the convention was Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), who was very hilarious and charismatic.  A quoted I liked from him was, "Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed unless it is faced," meaning we as a disability community need do all that is within our power to voice our concerns and push for change.  Others who are not in the same position don't understand the challenges we go through, but we can help them to understand a little more.  There is great power in numbers, so we need to mobilize our communities in capitals of the 50 states to exercise our democracy and fight for this convention! Here are some of the senators present: Senators McCain (R-AZ), Durbin (D-IL), Moran (R-KS), Harkin (D-IA), Barrasso (R-WY), Coons (D-DE), and Udall (D-NM), Lee (R-UT).

Senator McCain

Liz, Dwight, Me, Rhonda, Dana, Yoshiko, and Allie

As DeMint, who was obviously against the convention was leaving, Senator Kerry said, "Oh you're leaving...I was about to welcome you to the supporters group." I couldn't believe how hilarious and real he was in that room.  I always thought he was tons more serious.  Who knew?!?

There were so many supporters for the convention within the Senate that I am optimistic it will be floored next week (I really, really hope so).  I can't emphasize how important this convention is for our disabled citizens abroad--military personnel, students, tourists, workers, govt. officials, ex-pats, etc. in order to have accessibility wherever they go.  This document is centered on the equal rights that every disabled person deserves in their communities--quite important.  Although this convention is nonbinding and countries are not obliged to follow, it does begin talks on a very important issue that affects millions of lives (everyone reaches a point of disability in their lives) and allows the U.S. more say in this matter at the table.  Countries who have ratified it are required to send a follow-up report every two years.   It sounds like a pretty good start to me.  To read more about the convention, Click Here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Getting around New York City in a Wheelchair

New York City, one of the most dazzling cities in my book. The first I ever visited was when I was a young sixteen year old. The lights, the shops, the excitement of massive crowds, the accents and cultures...they all intrigue me, especially the shows on Broadway. What a huge melting pot! Everywhere I went, there were people speaking all sorts of languages. I get excited every time I heard Portuguese and Italian being spoken...such beautiful languages! I feel my love along with my appreciation for the city has only grown since learning more about the history and gaining more cultural perspective over time. This time, I got to visit the city with my sister, who is living there for the summer, which made it extra special and even more of an adventure.

We went up to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the city (tickets were $25 each).  We saw the whole city and its lights for far above the ground.  I loved the feeling of a little bit of invincibility from being so high up.  I loved the time to think outside about some very important questions that have been on my mind for a while in a "serene" setting, with little sirens and music to break my concentration.  I loved the sense of security from being there with my sister--one of my bestest friends in the whole world. It seems New York has a lack of signs because it was difficult to navigate and locate elevators to get to the top of the building. And there were no accessible women's restrooms on the 86th floor. Blah! I wished all of the attendants were all on the same page and communicated instructions better. That was the most frustrating thing. 

We visited the World Trade Center (free, but prior registration required) with mates from her program (brilliant and funny people). We went through a long security check line, but made it. The memorial included two reflection pools, each with names of heroes from 9/11 engraved on them.  The water dropped into a never ending pool, which to me, was symbolic of forever--the memories of those who passed on will forever remain in our hearts and minds.  I thought long and hard about life and sacrifice for the greater good. They are true heroes. I'm so sad that this happened, but so glad and proud of those who, in the last moments of their lives, decided to prove humanity is existent and saved others. Words cannot describe the love and respect I have for their courage and valor.  It's such a  wonderful opportunity to be there and to reflect on their lives and sacrifice.  I'm thankful for the memorial because it helps us to forever remember and cherish their lives. It was a bit difficult for me to get around the museum as the lift was broken and some of the displays were on platforms that were crowded with people. Maybe next time will be better. Is there an off season?

We also watched the show, "Chicago" on Broadway.  What a scandalous and hilarious show! I was afraid I would leave feeling depressed or sad that it would totally bring out all the scandal in people, but it's the crazy reality some people lead. I could probably deal without all the lies and scandals in my own life though. I was glad there was wheelchair accessibility at the theater, although less smooth than other places because it was an afterthought. Pretty old theater.

I just want to mention that the downfall of the whole trip was that New York City is that it is so old that it's NOT as wheelchair accessible as other places (like D.C.), especially the metro, stores, Chinatown, and restaurants. I was shocked to find out that there are metro stations that don't have elevators, so the only option is to awkwardly ask for help to get lifted up several flights of stairs, or stop at a station that does have an elevator and take the bus or walk to your destination.  Now, my sister and I didn't know about this beforehand, so we encountered some problems. Also, signs were not helpful for visitors, especially those looking for accessibility. Also, not all buses are wheelchair accessible, so your best bet may be an accessible taxi. Try AccessibleDispatch and they will not charge you extra for the wheelchair.  

Nonetheless, exploring the streets of NYC continues to entice me.  Nothing that a traveling wheelchair can't handle. There's just something about this city that makes it so exciting for me to even think about visiting...just don't use the metro!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rough Day on the East Coast

Last week, I decided it was time that I take advantage of my time on the East Coast, and explore a little bit, especially because I got the whole week off from work. My sister, Molly is living in NYC for the summer so I purchased my ticket online via Washington Deluxe to go visit her. I had a hunch that something was wrong when I did not see any information on the bus website about wheelchair accommodation, so I wrote a note when checking out that I needed wheelchair accessibility. Since the picture online of the bus showed a ramp door on the back of the bus and there was no indication otherwise, I figured and hoped that would be sufficient (booking these things is always so inconsistent). Sadly, when I called them in the morning of the trip to check up with them on accommodations, I learned that wheelchair accessibility was not available not available on that bus and they didn't check the note that I had put in ahead of time. I was less than pleased with the lady over the phone. She was so ornery and continued to blame me for the booking. She told me the only way to get to NYC on their bus was to wait until the next day. I really didn't know what to do at that point, so I just had to cancel. It so hard not to feel frustrated and stressed out a bit.  

 Fortunately, I was able to book a wheelchair accessible bus with another company, Megabus for that day. The ladies I spoke to were so very polite and patient with me. Although, they taxed on some extra fees for booking over the phone. I don't think those with disabilities should have to pay that because we HAVE to book over the phone to make sure bus companies can accommodate us, but there are many things in the life of a person with disabilities that we need to fight for in order to allow change.

 Anyways, I headed towards the Foggy Bottom metro station with my bags. I made it to the platform when this man came by and asked if I had a $20 bill to exchange for his two $10. I said sure, although I thought it was weird that he was asking for that instead of breaking a bill like most people. I handed the bill to him and he held onto it with a grip before letting go of his ten's. Then, he said, "Oh, this is a $1." I replied, "Ooops, I must have grabbed the wrong bill for you. Sorry." What? I was so sure I handed him my only $20. So I went through my purse again and couldn't find it. So I apologized and just took back "my" one and gave him back his ten's. I stared at him, then the money in his hands, and then my purse. I was so confused at what was going on. He repeatedly said, "These are real. These are real." That was an indication that I had been tricked. I wasn't sure what to do in this situation. Naturally, it made me frustrated, but I had to move on. But this really didn't help my rough day. Uggghhhh.

After missing my stop, having to back track, waiting in line for an elevator that clearly had written on it, "Please give priority to persons with disabilities," while able-bodied people got on and off, I finally got to Union Station where the bus was to pick up passengers. It was difficult to find it because it was on a different floor, which explain customer service couldn't explain how to get there but the general location and didn't know where elevators were (because they didn't need to use it, which is good thing they don't use it, but bad because I needed it). I struggled to find it all by myself, but made it. I got to the bus personnel and showed them my reservation, and then I saw the panic expression on their faces. They didn't have wheelchair accessibility. What?!?? I called the company ahead of time! Everything built up and exploded. I couldn't keep the tears from filling my eyes and rolling down my face, uncontrollably. Disappointment and anger entered and a bazillion thoughts and questions went through my head. I was so, so tired of things not working out today. I couldn't understand why everything was happening. I just wanted to disappear. I really wish there was someone there with me.  I missed AJ so much…he's the one that usually makes things possible and would just swoop me up into the bus seat without thinking twice about it, then he would pack away my chair, and we would both be on our way to adventure together...

In the midst of everything, one of the personnel guys asked me if I was OK and tried to make me smile by cracking jokes. He said I was too pretty to cry (just like what my mom used to say). I told him I was having a really tough day. He asked if I had been praying. I said, "Yes, I prayed this morning." "Well," he said, "You've got to keep praying. God is listening to you. He may not answer you today and He may not answer you tomorrow, but He will answer you. You've got to believe that He is there and that He will do what He said He would. When you believe, He will bless you." I believe Him. My heart calmed down.  And then with the help of the personnel, I made it on my bus.

Gosh...what an emotional roller coaster ride. Lately, I've been questioning my beliefs and trying to sort things out in my mind. This experience has been such a challenge for me to do by myself. I felt so alone. I wondered why everything was happening. But that note from the kind man reminded me that God was and is there for me during those moments. I needed to turn to Him. He gives me hope, which gives me a positive, which would lessen the challenge, no matter how difficult it may be.  I realized something back when the accident happened but just forgot in the chaos that I was living a dependent life as much as I wanted to live an independent life, but that dependency was more on God than anyone else, which is the way it should be.  I thank God everyday for my life and I know that the things I'm going through are only for a short time.  I've been wondering a lot about why things happen and what I can do to make those things worth it.  I feel that this whole experience has taught me not only to navigate an ablelist world, but to really stand up for what I and many others with disabilities need--to make them known and help who are not in the same situation understand what we as persons with disabilities go through and help them address those issues because they can't know without us.  I'm not sure if this is my life's mission, but I'm sure that it can lead me down a very interesting road, that can help many lives.  The key is to stay positive, knowing God is by my side.

In the end, I finally made it to see my dear sister, Molly, who made me feel all better inside. I'm so grateful for this best friend/sister of mine. I love her so much!