The travails of European travel

Going to Europe is very interesting and exciting but you must contact friends who have made the trip and do […]

Going to Europe is very interesting and exciting but you must contact friends who have made the trip and do research to minimize many of the obstacles to getting around. Last fall I was able to take that trip, but before going I had to make sure I could get from one city to another. In the process of getting to my final destination I first flew by Northwest Airlines to Amsterdam. I was then supposed to fly to Strasbourg, France but Air France would not offer assistance to transfer me from my motorized wheelchair to the airplane seat. Airline officials also indicated they would not transport my wheelchair on the airplane.

I had to get to Strasbourg from Amsterdam somehow. I contacted Eurorail and learned there is a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris. I was told that getting from the airport in Amsterdam to the train station is just a short distance and that the stations are usually accessible. Having used a motorized wheelchair for more than 40 years, when I someone tells me it’s just a “short distance” or that something is “usually” accessible, my experience tells me I need more information. So I Googled the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and Amsterdam train station and discoverd that they are very close to each other. Indeed, Schiphol airport and the train station are in the same location and both are accessible!

But getting from the airport to the train station proved to be another matter. I soon realized that the service I needed to get on and off the airplane is one of the high priority items of the trip. Landing in Amsterdam precipitated one of the more interesting aspects of the entire trip. In regards to accessibility and assistance there was a definite clash between the U.S. system and European/Netherlands system. After landing all passengers debarked leaving only my personal care attendant (PCA), Elaine, and me on the plane. The Amsterdam Airport disability assistance staff was ready to help me off the plane, but my wheelchair was missing.

The ground crew had taken my wheelchair to the terminal and we were waiting for the ground crew to bring it back to the airplane. That caused quite a commotion. The captain wanted everyone off the plane and insisted that the disability assistance team put me into an aisle wheelchair to get me off the plane. He was tired and wanted me to wait for my wheelchair somewhere else. The leader of the assistance team refused to comply with the captain knowing that sitting in an aisle chair for longer than a few minutes is extremely uncomfortable. So, we were in a standoff: the captain angry and raising his voice to get me off the plane and the disability access team saying “no!” Members of the team talked to each other ignoring the captain. Everyone knew it was a power struggle; The rest of the flight crew would try to explain the situation turned power struggle and apologize for the length of long time it was taking to get me off the plane. I felt they were embarrassed and were being apologetic for their captain.

Once off of the plane a member of the disability assistance team accompanied us all the way to the luggage claim, and then directed us to the train station on the other side of the airport terminal. What a concept!

In Europe the disability assistance teams are full-time professionals employed by the airport. In contrast, U.S. assistance team members do not necessarily know each other, nor have any experience working together. They work for the airline company or are contracted in many different capacities, and with no specific training in assisting persons with disabilities. With the European model it was quite evident that each person on this team had worked with one other and with persons with disabilities prior to my arrival. In the U.S. often it can be the first time an assistant has helped in any kind of transfer or even pushed a wheelchair/aisle chair.

As for the train trips, the first thing I noticed was that all of the train floors were about two feet higher than the platform. I became concerned and checked with the train information person. who assured me that they knew I had a reserved seat and needed their assistance to get on the train? I waited, somewhat nervously. Ten minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive and depart for Paris, a person pushing a big lift came down the platform. I was relieved.

Before we arrived in Paris I notified the stewardess and the ticket taker that I needed a lift when we got to the Nord train station in Paris—it wasn’t there! I got off the train late and we had to rush to get to the Est station. There was a cab driver in uniform waiting with a sign saying “Mr. Rick Car-denas,” how cool is that? We hurried outside where his Mercedes van was waiting for us, with just minutes get to the other train station. But when I saw that the Mercedes had no dropped floor, I questioned for a minute on how to get up the ramp and into a short headroom van. We figured out to get up the ramp and into the Mercedes and headed for the other train station. All of that work and we missed the train. Luckily we caught another train and away we went to Strasbourg.

Rick Cardenas is co-director of ACT.

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