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five people standing behind a woman in a wheelchair, all smiling in a plaza in Rome

Wheelchair Accessible Italy: My first trip as a Wheel the World team member

Hey everyone! My name is Emilie Rodger and I am a partnerships manager at Wheel the World. I joined the company 2 years ago, I’m French, and work remotely, from Lyon.

After having watched so many WTW experience videos, and getting emotional to the point I shed tears pretty much 8 out of 10 times, my turn to personally experience a WTW trip came this past September.

These past few months having brought their lot of ups and downs to the travel industry, this trip has been postponed a few times, only making me more eager to go. And what an iconic destination for my first WTW trip: accessible Italy, with focus on Rome, Venice and the Tuscany region!

This trip to Italy had a few purposes. The main reason for me going was to check the accessibility features of hotels, tourist attractions, tours and activities, and overall experience our customers might get in the future.

Before going, I started thinking and wondering. How were the industry partners going to respond to our visit? How were our ambassadors going to perceive us and what we do? Did I have enough knowledge to be an “expert”?  I mean, I do not have a disability myself, and this was my first trip as a WTW representative.

Some of the team in Montecatini Terme in Tuscany

Accessible Italy: Rome

Rome truly is a special place. And I was extremely pleasantly surprised with its level of accessibility. When researching the destination prior to our visit, I had read a lot of mixed reviews about accessibility in Rome and was not too sure what to expect. I guess it always goes back to the same motto: preparation is key, whether made by yourself or companies like Wheel the World. 

a woman in a wheelchair with her back facing the camera in the colosseum
Accessibility Ambassador Lilly in the Colosseum

I was amazed to see how the Colosseum, the ancient Roman amphitheatre, has been made accessible with ramps and lifts. Before having investigated the different options for this trip, I simply would never have imagined that this was something that could even be possible. And yet, here we were! I won’t lie and say that it was all been very straightforward, that the access surrounding the Colosseum itself  was smooth, that the way in and out was a doddle… but the fact is, once you have the knowledge (and we can pass it on to you), the visit inside the monument is very much hassle free. A lift is available inside. It is reserved for visitors with a disability only, and they have accessible bathroom onsite.

The accessible route at the Vatican museums was also very easy. Admittedly, our time at the Vatican was limited and we stuck to what we considered the highlights of the place, from their 7 kms of art galleries: the Sistine chapel, the Pinecone courtyard, Raphael’s rooms… I was impressed by what we got to see, and our experienced guide made it very clear that the museums have so much more to offer that visits can be totally customizable depending on your interests. Ramps, elevators and wheelchair lifts made the whole visit smooth. 

The rest of our city tour took us to iconic squares and landmarks like the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the Trevi fountain.

We tackled the issue of the old, uneven pavements by doing most of our travelling with an accessible van. Our transportation partner, Marsan Multiservice, was knowledgeable and travelling this way allowed us to get nearer to the points of interests by car, thanks to their special access granted to enter usually restricted zones. That definitely made the experience easier, and saved us a lot of time.

We also brought a Lomo 360 with us to make our customers’ visits more comfortable. We left it to our partners onsite, so that future customers can use it during their trip if they wish to do so. Our ambassador, who helped us check the accessibility of the tour, had brought her own electric scooter, which is another great option not to suffer too much from the paved streets.

During these first few days in Italy, I realised I was getting into the rhythm of spotting accessibility features and potential architectural barriers in a very automatic way, to the point where I would not only see the Pantheon, but would rather focus on the road incline leading down to it. Measuring also became one of my major tasks, to keep track of factual data, whether related to steps, door widths, ramp angle, toilet height and a lot more! I very much hope that our experience and work onsite will allow future travellers to go there without having to worry about these sorts of things!

Accessible Italy: Tuscany

man leaning forawrd laughing in a wheelchair in the grassy area of a park
Accessibility Ambassador Rafaelo using the Lomo 360 in Tuscany

Next on our itinerary was the fantastic Tuscany region. There is nothing not to like about this region. You can make your accessible trip to Tuscany whatever you want of it and our onsite partner clearly was dedicated to prove it to us.

We got to experience accessible city tours in the beautiful cities of Florence, Pisa, San Gimignano, Siena, Montecatini Terme… The itineraries taken allowed us to get an overview of the highlights of each city. Our guides have passed on their cultural and historical knowledge and know how to get around the architectural barriers encountered. Sometimes, it is just a matter of taking another route to get to a point, or a matter of them organising for a ramp to be installed prior to the visit, but they have it covered! Unfortunately, in some rare cases, landmark buildings will not be adapted to travellers using wheelchairs. In the famous Pisa Tower for example, the way to the top really cannot be made accessible without damaging the structural building, which is already internationally known to be “fragile”… On that occasion, travellers will get to stroll around the building and get their picture taken with or without the cliché pose!

man on a futuristic powered wheelchair posing so it looks like he is holding the pisa tower up
Fabrizio, who runs an accessible vehicle company in Tuscany, posing with the famous Pisa Tower

During these few days in Tuscany, our partner took us to many different accessible restaurants, and we never got disappointed! We even got to do a wine tasting session in an accessible vineyard in the beautiful Chianti region!

Tuscany should definitely be on the list of places to visit for food lovers, and those keen on enjoying the dolce vita. However, adventurous travellers can also find what they are after. We got to get on board an accessible boat and an adapted Fiat 500 Abarth in Livorno! Time limiting, we did not get to try out everything we were hoping for, but a memorable activity was visiting the Carrara Marbles by Jeep.

man and woman both in wheelchairs in an aisle lined with barrels of wine
Wine tasting and vineyard tour in Chianti

Our partner is experienced and knows what he’s doing. In order to make the tour safe and comfortable for travellers with limited mobility, he checks out the incline of its vehicle while driving, thanks to a level installed next to his driving wheel. They were hoping to get an accessible jeep, with a lift at the back this year, but their plans have had to be re-adjusted because of the pandemic. For now, travellers who can self-transfer or are willing to be assisted to transfer onto the Jeep seats can enjoy a very exciting ride onto the Carrara Marbles site. An experience out of this world!

Accessible Italy: Venice

Venice was our final destination in accessible Italy. And throughout the trip, whenever we would mention our plan to go to Venice in the end, pretty much everybody laughed at us for wanting to go there with people with reduced mobility. “Venice is the least accessible city in Italy”, we’ve been told a few times. And the more people were calling us brave (or crazy) for trying it, the more I wanted to go.

At the end of the day, this trip’s essential aim was to try out things and see if they were accessible or not. Worst case scenario, we fail, but we fail during a scouting trip. We learn and we don’t cause any discomfort or disappointment to anybody. We went there, doubting what we were going to find, but also confident we had selected the right local people to help us with that mission. And fail, we did not.

For some reason, Venice had never been on my dream destination list. Arriving there gave me quite a special feeling though. The beauty of this city is just instant. Coming out of the station, making our way to our hotel on a Vaporetto, by night, was actually quite magical. The lit-up bridges, the unique architecture, the cool breeze created a unique atmosphere.

Arturo, Emilie, and Accessibility Ambassador Enio in Piazza San Marco in Venice

With its 120 islands and 400 bridges, you could think that Venice is not the ideal place to go when using a wheelchair. And I have to admit that by myself, with a heavy piece of luggage, not knowing my way around the city, the way to the hotel was not the easiest. But once again, I think preparation and local knowledge are key to a successful trip in accessible Italy.

Both our partners are from Venice and took us on city tours, with different angles, that did not disappoint. They knew exactly how to move around the city, avoiding bridges and other barriers while giving us interesting facts and stories about the city. We felt in very capable hands which made our experience very pleasant.

We used the vaporetto system to move around, and I was very impressed by its level of accessibility. It has floating platforms, meaning that the platform is always as the same level as the boats, making getting onto the boat easy. Employees always put a mobile ramp down to help with the process. Travelling by boat is not only an easy accessible way to move around the city, but it is fully a part of the Venice experience, as you take in the atmosphere and views from the river.

man in the background rowing a gondola in the canal of venice and two men looking at a phone smiiling
Sharing photos on the Gondola ride

To make the whole experience even more so complete, we wanted to try a gondola tour. We had found an accessible gondola service online and were very excited to find out more about them. But we were super disappointed when we found out the service no longer existed.

It did not stop us, though. We managed to find a gondolier who was keen to work with us. Our ambassador pushed himself really hard as worked together to board the traditional Venetian gondola, and off we went for a gondola ride! 

In the end, when accompanied by someone who knows what they do and where to go, I found Venice to be actually very accessible.

Feedback from our Industry Partners

During this trip, I got to visit many hotels in order to audit their accessible features. It was extremely valuable for me to have conversations with so many industry partners. I found it fascinating how so many hoteliers were apologetic for “not doing enough” about accessibility.

For some of them, it felt like only one type of customer with a disability existed, with one single set of needs – and they either offer facilities for this one type of customer, and consider themselves adapted, or they don’t, and they feel sorry about showing their property around. I am not judging, I would have probably had the same thoughts a few years back, before being exposed to Wheel the World and its Academy.

So for these hotels, my job was to let them know there is no such thing as a single set of needs. I explained to them that the best we could do to make things easier for everybody was to keep track of all their facilities and amenities, in a very factual way, to then present it to our future customers. 

Only then the customers will be able to make an informed decision as to whether this room in this particular hotel is suitable for them or not. Let’s all remember to never assume anything for anyone else, and not just when it comes to accessibility and needs! 

Luckily, our internal tool at Wheel the World makes it easy for us, and for our partners, to collect the accessibility data. It also guides whoever is using it to take the pictures that our community members need to see to validate their choice before booking a trip. Thanks to that, we have selected a few hotels with accessibility features for our customers to choose from in different destinations within accessible Italy.

man kneeling next to a hotel bed measuring its height
WTW Team member Arturo mapping the accessibility of one of our partner hotels in Rome

Feedback from our Ambassadors

I had no doubt that Wheel the World’s mission, to make the world accessible so that people with disabilities can explore it without limits was profoundly right. And seeing it with my own eyes, onsite in accessible Italy, brought it all to another level. All of our ambassadors were impressed with our level of attention to details and enjoyed their time. They appreciated our can-do attitude and were excited by our spirit.

They also gave us plenty of suggestions on where to go for our next Wheel the World accessible adventures! It will have to wait a bit, for a better global sanitary situation, but we will take them on board for sure! I’d like to thank all of them for their time, support, patience and for pushing their limits to make the world more accessible together!

man and woman in wheelchair and three people behind them with hills lit up in the background
Part of the WTW Italy team in Livorno in Tuscany
4 Responses
  1. Victoria Gonzalez

    Where did you find your ambassador?
    Did you have a travel agency find ambassadors for you?
    Venice definitely interests me. I am a full time wheelchair user.

    1. Hi Victoria! We put out a call for accessibility ambassadors in the regions of Italy we were planning on visiting. Through social media and contacts we were able to find our ambassadors. If you’re interested in becoming and accessibility ambassador, stay tuned to our social media channels for more info on where we’re going next!

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