How the ruins of ancient Rome can teach the modern world about accessible travel

When I first entered the Roman Colosseum, it wasn’t the sheer scale of the ancient structure or the exposed labyrinth of underground passages that left me stunned – it was the elevator that took users to wheelchairs to the top.

As a person with a disability, traveling where and when I want to can seem like an impossible dream, as sometimes I need step-free access and rest areas to accommodate my health. But walking into this famous tourist hub and seeing the accessibility of the ancient site gave me some hope for the future of accessible travel.

Why is accessible travel always a problem?

For people with disabilities around the world, accessible travel can be a nightmare, as accessibility is often seen as an afterthought. As CEO of Ben Kirby of Activate public holidays Explain, “[Disabled people’s] needs are not taken into account in many general travel agencies. They offer a hotel and say an adapted room is on request. We have a lot of cases where tour operators cancel people’s vacations three or four weeks before departure because the suitable room is not available, and then [disabled tourists] call us and say “my vacation was canceled because I couldn’t get the room I needed, can you help me? “

So when vacationers collapsed due to pandemic vacation cancellations, I had no sympathy as inaccessible travel destinations are a constant reality for travelers with disabilities around the world.

Arriving in Rome from London, where the age of tube stations is frequently cited as a reason not to make them accessible, the marvelous sight of ancient ruins accessible to wheelchairs was stimulating. In London only 71 of the 270 metro stations are wheelchair accessible, but the proud protectors of an almost 2,000-year-old building have ensured that people with disabilities can enjoy the same experience as all non-disabled tourists.

The irony of Rome’s accessibility

Although I am not in a wheelchair and can use the stairs on good days, the irony of step-less access to an iconic symbol of Roman culture has not escaped me.

In ancient Rome, people with disabilities were generally treated with indifference at best and outright violence at worst. Even the Twelve Tables, the foundation of Roman law, said that any child born with a notable malformation must be put to death by stoning.

Although disabilities acquired in combat are considered honorable, people with disabilities encountered many difficulties in Roman society. Seeing people with disabilities entering a site that once would have been filled with people who despised or hated them was a definite sign of progress.

Later, after reaching the top of the Colosseum, I was struck by my good fortune. The world often doesn’t prioritize accessibility, but being inside this monumental structure seemed like a huge privilege to me as the people who once presided over it probably would have preferred it if I hadn’t. had never set foot.

Signs of progress

I visited Rome by finding accommodation with a lift on AirBnB, but travel agencies specializing in disabled access are popping up all over the world. Each creating a space for disabled travelers to roam and roll as far as they want.

Founder of Unlimited travel Angus Drummond was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy in his early twenties. After quitting his job in investment banking to travel the world, he realized that accessible travel was a rarity. He says: “When I was away I found out how difficult it was to travel with a disability and that there was no support to help people. I wanted to do something about it and Limitless was born. We now want to not only allow people with disabilities to go on vacation and make the most of all that life has to offer. “

Companies like Enable and Limitless ensure that disability access is at the center of every trip they plan. When booking for a disabled traveler, they guarantee accessible rooms and thoroughly check accommodations to ensure their accessibility requests are verified.

There is still a long way to go

Although many Roman monuments are accessible, the city itself is often inaccessible due to the limited accessible travel options and the rugged or paved terrain throughout the city. I have often struggled to find elevator access in the metro and a wheelchair user would have found several of its streets impassable which was a disheartening contrast after visiting the glorious Colosseum.

Fortunately, other cities have a head start, like Luxembourg, which took first place among the most accessible cities in Europe in 2019 thanks to 33% accessible attractions and 18.5% accessible accommodation. But those numbers are still low and many disabled travelers are being left behind.

For real change to happen in cities like Rome, the needs of people with disabilities must be focused. Angus says it can be done “by talking to people with disabilities and listening to their needs.”

Transformation will be slow, but accessible travel may be a possibility if it makes it a priority. “Rather than having just one room that ticks the box, there are millions of people who would love to travel or travel with a disability, so why don’t we have ten or more rooms designed and built for people with disabilities? said Ben. “Local governments at destinations need to take advice from people with those needs, rather than just advice from people who have never needed a wheelchair. “

Walking around Rome remains one of my favorite vacations and I will forever look forward to the pleasure of seeing this elevator fly to the top of the Colosseum. But there is still a long way to go before true and consistent accessibility is a reality for all travelers with disabilities.

Hopefully in the future every city in the world will focus on accessibility and when a disabled person enters the Roman Colosseum they will not be struck by its accessibility in the same way as I am, because access will be the foundation of every progressive city.

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