Where does a disabled person go for information on wheelchair accessible travel? Surprisingly, much of the information available on the internet concerning our niche of the travel world has been written by people who are free of any disability. It is nice that a space has been carved out for us, but can we trust the information we are given? The answer is no.
Last week, I returned from a whirlwind trip to Moscow, Russia. I travel in a particularly heavy power wheelchair. It weights approximately 350 pounds without my 170-pound body sitting in it. Given the size of my wheelchair and the nature of my disability (I am a triple amputee), I need accurate information to plan any trip. Surprises are rarely easy to deal with for someone who relies on a wheelchair for mobility.
My trip to Moscow was a risk. The websites and news articles I had read before the trip provided little hope that I would make it out of the airport. The articles told me that Moscow would be inaccessible, with few, if any provisions for disabled persons in wheelchairs. The country’s history revealed that disabled people were hidden in the shadows of the former U.S.S.R. Their existence was denied as recently as 1980. Here are a few of the articles I read before heading East:
The Exiled: “Hell On Wheels: Disabled For A Day In Moscow” (Mar. 2010)
RBTH: “Disabled in Moscow: Access denied” (Sep. 2012)
PBS: “Moscow: A Nightmare of Inaccessibility for the Disabled” (Dec. 2012)
These links are the top results for a search of “wheelchair accessible Moscow” on Google. They are each more than two years old. The most recent, from PBS in December 2012, was a question and answer session with Alison Gilkey, who is a mother to disabled children.
Her statements concerning accessibility in Moscow use phrases like “nightmare,” “completely inaccessible” and “impossible.” I have long been vocal about the fact that the majority of online accessibility commentary or travel guides receive little to no input from disabled persons. A person who spends their life moving about in a wheelchair has an intuition that cannot be replicated. Disabled people know how to overcome accessibility challenges, because they have to. It becomes a way of life.
Ms. Gilkey says this about public transportation in Moscow: “We had to travel for an hour on the subway system to reach our hotel. The subway is so efficient but so completely inaccessible. No elevators anywhere, miles of corridors, enormous flights of stairs, and sometimes if we were lucky, escalators that seemed to go on for ever.”
Let me get this straight… You are attempting to gain insight into the lives of disabled people in Moscow, but do that by walking upright through the subway? Yes, as I wrote in my Moscow travel guide, the city’s metro subway is a no-go zone for wheelchairs. She leaves no mention of the close to fully accessible city bus system in her attack on the city’s accessibility. I do not believe her dishonesty about the situation in Moscow was purposeful. Ms. Gilkey just cannot bring herself to think like a person with a disability. She cannot replicate the intuition you or I have gained from our mobility challenges.
Certainly, since the articles I linked above were written, the situation in Moscow has dramatically improved. Curb cuts are now present at the vast majority of intersections. More buildings have been opened up to wheelchair users via ramps or lowered entry thresholds.
The city is decades away from being as accessible as a Washington, D.C. or Chicago, two of the top scoring cities I have reviewed here. But a city that presents challenges to accessibility is not a “nightmare.” Disabled people who have a desire to visit Moscow are more than capable of overcoming whatever challenges await.
As I compared what I saw in Moscow to what was written about it, I realized how important WheelchairTravel.org will be for the disabled community. It is time we have a voice that comes from within. We must reclaim our right to speak for ourselves. We don’t need the flawed perspectives of able bodied travel writers. Concerning Moscow, I am happy to have set the record straight. The city is not a nightmare, not impossible and not “totally” inaccessible. Be willing to take the challenges in stride and you will have an excellent visit to the Russian capital.
Help me build a resource with accurate information, written by the disabled, for the disabled. Let’s reclaim control of our community’s travel voice together.
P.S. Share this link so that we can knock the incomplete or incorrect articles from the top of Google’s search rankings!