If you would be in disabled and bound to a wheelchair, would you still travel the world? Claudia from The Netherlands does not let her disability stop her from doing anything. “I can travel thanks to my wheelchair, not despite of” she says with a big smile on her face. In this interview Claudia tells us about her challenges, favorite destinations, travel memories and travel bucket list. An inspiration!
Claudia (1969) is married to a multi-talented man and has the best and cutest service dog in the world named Katya. Together Claudia and Jan have three daughters and three grandchildren. Claudia studied Communication and Psychology and worked as a travel consultant for many years. Her nerves are damaged, which makes her wheelchair dependent. Four years ago Claudia set up her own practice called Jouw Transformatie (Your Transformation), specializing in the difference between the male and the female brain and transformational therapy.
The great thing about being in a wheelchair is that you can always wear heels!Claudia
What does traveling mean to you?
To me, traveling means discovering and exploring the world. Expanding my own point of view and experiences. Getting to know different cultures, places and people. I love it! Travel brings me freedom, joy and satisfies my curiosity. Traveling enriches you mentally and introduces gratitude in your life. It makes you aware of how lucky we are to be born where we are born.
Traveling opens up your mind and it teaches you that we are all different and we are all the same. There are beautiful countries and cultures to discover, you can learn so much by exploring the world! Traveling helps women to grow their self-confidence and be proud of themselves. Look at the women in the Caribbean, you can tell they are proud of their curves.
I love traveling so much that I became a travel consultant decades ago. My best memories of that time were actually the study-trips. In that way I got to travel the world myself, together with some awesome colleagues. Experiencing airlines, hotels and sightseeing. Those trips helped me to advice and service our clients even better.
How is traveling for you nowadays?
Traveling has changed a lot for me over the past couple of decades. The biggest difference for me since I am in a wheelchair, is that it requires a lot more planning. There are travel agencies who are specialized in trips for disabled. That is not my thing, I like to organize things myself. This means I have to check whether the accommodation is wheelchair accessible and whether the bathroom is really adjusted for disabled or not.
For example, the description may say it is adjusted, but the images may show for example that there are no grab rails by the toilet, or that the shower is in the bath tub. Very challenging in a wheelchair! Sometimes the rooms are adjusted, but there is a high doorstep at the entrance of the hotel and/or there is no elevator.
When I tried to check in a hotel in Wroclaw, Poland some years ago, I was told all of their disabled rooms were taken. Apparently 40 paralympic tennis players were staying at the same hotel! Wroclaw is a beautiful, colorful city by the way, not grey or boring at all.
And how about transportation?
I plan transfers to the airport and hotels in advance, because my wheelchair does not fit into all types of taxis and not everywhere it is possible to travel by public transportation with a wheelchair. If I rent a car, I have to make sure my wheelchair will fit in the car. This usually means I will have to rent a bigger car. I cannot drive myself abroad because it is not possible to rent a car with the necessary custom controls for disabled people.
When booking an airline ticket I request special assistance. This also means I cannot check-in online at home, I have to check-in at the airport. Getting through customs takes more time in a wheelchair as well, which means I have to be at the airport a lot earlier than the average traveler. On the other hand, I get to be the first on the plane. But I am also always the last to leave the aircraft. Besides, it is not always possible for me to use the bathroom on an airplane, the crew is not able to assist with that.
Obstacles that I encounter when I travel with my wheelchair are often things like sidewalks and roads with big holes, high pavement, steps, narrow entrances, etc. I also experience that people are often willing to help. Sometimes you need to ask, but there are always ways to get around an obstacle. Just focus on solving instead of the obstacle.
What is the biggest difference when traveling with or without your husband?
Whenever I travel together with my husband, it is fairly easy. When we get to the door of the airplane, he carries me inside. My husband will carry me to the toilet and help me there, but often it’s very small and a challenge. Nowadays there are planes that have a handicapped toilet, which is awesome! But when I travel without my husband it means I cannot use the bathroom. I can tell you, that very unpleasant on a 6+ hours’ flight.
If I travel without my husband I depend on special assistance; staff will have to carry me in and out of the plane on a special chair. At Amsterdam-Schiphol airport this process usually goes quite smoothly. But not everywhere around the world the people who are supposed to provide this service are well-trained. And you have to be mindful about cultural differences as well. For example when I travelled to Dubai, I made sure my arms and legs were fully covered, otherwise people do not want to touch you in order to lift you up.
A few years ago, I traveled to Marrakech with a friend of mine. When we landed at the airport, the stewardess happily told me “you can get off board now, you are the first”. But the plane was not connected to the gate by gangway, we had to get off the plane via a mobile staircase. When I explained I was not able to walk down any stairs and depended on my wheelchair to move around, it created a bit of panic. After 45 minutes they came with the solution; a wooden chair for me to sit on and four men to carry me down the stairs. It was scary but it worked. Never a dull moment as a disabled traveler!
Since I have been in a wheelchair, I have been traveling just as much, if not more than before. It is challenging at times, but always enriching.Claudia
Do your dogs travel with you?
It depends. We have two cute dogs. At least we have our recurring annual trip to escape the fireworks during the December holidays. Chica, our Jack Russell, is the happiest at home. When we travel she either stays with her dog sitter who takes care of her when we are at work or at the doggy daycare. Katya, my service dog, is almost always by my side. She accompanies me on short trips by car and whenever I travel without my husband. I need her to assist me in daily chores, like getting dressed or undressed, picking up things, etc.
When we travel to destinations like Bali and Aruba, Katya’s foster family takes care of her. The period is too short to expose her to the long journey and temperature differences. And she deserves a holiday every now and then too, doesn’t she?! I miss her terribly when we are not together because she is always by my side, day and night. This means that my husband has a little less relaxing holiday, because he has to assist me with everything, like getting out of bed, getting dressed, etc. I could not have wished for a better man.
What is your favorite travel destination?
My favorite destination is Bali because I feel at home there. I love the culture, the food, the people and the climate. I have been to Bali several times without my husband. Last year we finally went there together for the first time. We were planning on going back last April, but unfortunately due to COVID-19 we had to re-schedule this trip already twice. Now I am keeping my fingers crossed that we can go in March 2021.
On our previous trip to Bali we spend the first 2-3 days by the pool, relaxing. Physically I have to recover from the journey, a long flight is hard for me. The rest of our stay we explored the island, experienced the culture, visited museums and other interesting places. Not all places on Bali are accessible for me. The temples always have a lot of stairs. I cannot take a walk down to a waterfall or through a rice field for example either. Nevertheless, there is enough to enjoy and see. We love meeting local people and spend time with them, see and experience the real Bali. And the food is amazing.
Another favorite travel destination of mine is Aruba. I love the beaches and the relaxed Caribbean way of life. One of our daughters lived there so we know the island well. The climate on Aruba makes my body feel better than it feels back home, which is great. And who does not like having a cocktail on a sunny beach?!
I remember you made a trip to New York City. How was that?
The best benefit of working in the travel industry is that you get great discounts. Several years ago, my friend Marjolein who still works as a travel agent, got us great discounts that enabled us to discover New York City on a low budget. It was awesome! The great thing about NYC for me is that it is extremely wheelchair-friendly. Most public transportation is wheelchair accessible, even the hop-on hop-off busses, although not every subway station has an elevator. The sidewalks are accessible, venues, hotels, restaurants, museums and shops are accessible. You get discounts as a disabled person and you get priority when you are in line.
We were picked out from a long line for Broadway tickets, got priority treatment including great front row seats with a big discount and got early access to the theater. Fantastic!Claudia
We were able to see a lot on this trip since it was so easy to get around the city, even with my wheelchair. Of course we saw the usual highlights, like Times Square, Central Park, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Plaza, the 9/11 Memorial. I loved the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Chinatown. I have a friend who lives in New York; she took me to a great local restaurants and showed me parts of New York City that you probably would not see as a tourist. I loved the energy of New York City. There is so much to see and to experience. I would love to go back to NYC one day.
You also went to Dubai. How did that go?
That was an awesome trip. I went there with Franka, one of our daughters, who worked in the hotel business at the time. She had to go to Dubai for a few days and asked me to join her. I have a close friend who lives in Dubai and it was great spending time with both my daughter and my friend during that trip. The flight went well, but when we arrived at Dubai airport it was late at night and there were only men available who could assist me to get off the plane. Although I was wearing long pants and a long sleeve t-shirt, they did not want to touch me, which is needed to lift me up. I really had to convince them before they wanted to help me.
Dubai is a place that fascinates me. The old Arab and the over-the-top-shiny-luxurious-new is a marvellous, crazy mix. The beach in the middle of a desert, the greatest mall I have ever seen. Glitter, glamour and extravaganza all over the place. Fancy restaurants, luxury hotels and the old souk, the local restaurants. It is easy to get around in a wheelchair in Dubai. The old souk is a bit of a challenge because of the old and narrow streets and alleys. But it was a lovely experience and we could manage with only a little help here and there.
Several times I was asked in Dubai: what did I do to get punished by Allah? Clearly my wheelchair was a sign for them that I must have done something wrong.Claudia
It was the first time that my daughter and I traveled together abroad. It was a quite an experience for her to see what it is like to travel with a wheelchair. For example, she had to get money from the ATM for me, because I could not read the display myself. She traveled a lot and was used to getting quickly to customs, but not with me. I had to get out of my wheelchair, which was examined thoroughly by customs staff including drug detection dogs for about half an hour. What Franka also noticed is that a lot of Arabic people were talking to her instead of me, or even ignored me completely.
Any destination that is off your bucket list?
I always wanted to go back to Istanbul but crossed it out because of the hilly streets. I would love to see Machu Picchu in Peru for real, but because of my wheelchair it is mission impossible. India is also deleted from my bucket list, mainly because of my low immunity. The biggest item on my bucket list is the Oriental Express, I have been dreaming of that since I was a little girl. I hope I will be able to pay for that special journey one day.
Luckily most destinations are still doable for me. You just have accept that certain things require a bit of extra effort or certain activities are not possible. But look at me, I went to Morocco in a wheelchair and I loved it! Most people think Bali is hard in a wheelchair – it is not!
As a therapist you empower women. Any travel advice?
Do not ever let fear or doubt keep you from exploring the world. Find a way that suits you and go anyway. If traveling solo is too scary, go with friends or join an organized group trip. Talk to people who traveled solo, find out how to prepare yourself and use your common sense.
Also if you have a disability, you can travel. There are several websites1 full of tips on traveling in a wheelchair or with other disabilities. There are special travel guides about it and special travel agencies to help you make arrangements. Just go for it, discover the world!
If you can dream it, you can do it!Walt Disney
I hope this interview makes clear that traveling with a wheelchair is still possible, what a special power woman Claudia is and why I asked her for this interview. I believe she is an inspiration to us all, so strong yet vulnerable. Claudia deserves nothing but respect. Should you have a question for her, want to share your own experience or thoughts after reading this article, please feel free to leave a message in the comment box below.
This article was also published in Dutch and English in the Wheelchair Traveller Magazine Winter 2020-2021 edition.
1 Useful websites about traveling in a wheelchair and other disabilities:
- Travelstride wheelchair travel tour companies
- Accessible Indonesia
- Op vakantie met een rolstoel deze bestemmingen scoren op toegankelijkheid
- Rolstoelvakantie Europa
- Atlas van Zorgvakantie rolstoelvakantie in verre oorden
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Last Updated on 03/01/2021 by Elisa Flitter Fever