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