Giulia is a free spirit from Italy who refuses to let her mobility issues curb her wanderlust. She is a psychologist by profession and has a weak spot for desserts (especially the French ones). She is full of life and is utilizing her stimulating strength to make people aware about the access needs of travelers with disabilities. Read this insightful interview to know all about her travels and more about accessible travel in general!
How did you become a wheelchair user?
I had a motorbike accident in 2011. I was 19 then. My boyfriend of that time was driving. It was nothing special, just another summer story I guess!
It's refreshing and inspiring how you choose to look at it with humor and wit. Did the 19-year old Giulia feel the same or did she harbor a lot of resentment against the world?
There wasn't really any resentment against the world. But i wasn't sure that the life I was going to live in a wheelchair could be a happy one. Now, of course, I think differently. Life is too worthy to be not lived at its fullest. I have changed a lot over the years. The accident and the drastic life changes that followed made me evolve and grow instantly.
Were you always interested in traveling? Or is it something you found after the accident?
I used to travel with my parents when I was a kid. We traveled only in Italy though. When i met my husband Andrew (in the hospital, he was my physiotherapist), he told me, "As soon as you leave the hospital, I will take you to Australia!". And so he did. It was our first trip together and it was magical! I have been in love with traveling since then. I had the chance to experience freedom, autonomy and be independent. It felt so good!! We started traveling regularly after that!
How many countries have you covered as of now and which has been the best in terms of accessibility and overall experience? Also, which has been the least accessible country you have been to?
We have visited around 22 or 23 countries and more than 80 cities. The most accessible countries have been Australia and Japan for sure!!! I think japan has been my favorite so far.. I loved China but it's not that accessible. India has been one of the least accessible countries I have been to.
We sometimes find it hard to travel in countries that are not willing to move on with changing times. The lack of infrastructure, I feel, is deep rooted in the social stigma of some countries. Being inclusive has to first come and grow on a society level first.
We found Venice to be a difficult place for people like us. It has a lot of little bridges and canals. It's quite impossible to cross a number of these canals because every bridge has steps and not all the bridges have been made accessible. You can go around in the Vaporetto (the public transport boat) but even then you can explore only a small part of the city. A lot of the old European cities have narrow streets with terrible pavements.
How do you manage at such places?
Well, Andrew is fit and carries me at places with steps and gets my wheelchair attached to his back. This is why I manage to travel almost everywhere.
But I do understand that it's something not everyone can do. A lot of people with mobility issues travel alone as well and that's why we want to change things. We want to make people aware of our needs and the fact that so many people are not being able to travel owing to architectural, cultural and mental barriers.
Is there any particular issue that solo accessible travelers face and one that you want to change?
Well, a lot of airline companies do not allow me to travel alone without a partner. That's terrible!! Airline companies are mysterious in their operations. We went to Thailand this year. While planning for the trip, we found out that some low cost airlines do not provide full assistance to people with disabilities and can deny you the right to board on account of that. The same is written on their official websites. Also, the way some airlines carry wheelchairs on their planes en route to the destination is terrible to say the least! These are things I definitely want to change.
What are your thoughts on inclusive urban planning and universal design? What can be the baby steps towards inclusive strategies?
I have been to cities or countries that are just so comfortable to "walk" in and I can tell you it's amazing! And I'm sure that's true not only for me or people with disabilities but for everyone out there. I still remember the big, safe roads, smooth pavements and crossings in Australia. These not only enhance the travel experience but also the quality of daily life. I keep saying that when something is easy for a person with disability, it is easy for everybody- families with kids in strollers, people with luggage, elderly people and also the so-called 'normal' people.
And I am trying to affect these changes in my small capacity. I'm trying to make everyone understand the problems because a lot of times it's the awareness that is missing.
How are you reaching out to people?
I am contacting people mainly on Instagram. I launched my profile in September 2018 and today I have more than 16 K followers. I am receiving a lot of positive feedback. Reaching out has also made me realize that things are even worse than I ever imagined them to be. There's just so much ignorance! I don't mean that in a bad way but it's really a problem. Sometimes, people stop to travel or don't start to travel in the first place only because they don't know how to do it. Even in this day and age of Internet, it is difficult to get information and 'normal' people don't even see that. A study says that for every person with disability there are 2.8 persons accompanying him or her, be it their parents, children or caregivers. So, if places are not accessible, they miss out on catering to not just travelers with special access needs but also those accompanying them.
Do you think it’s better for the government to establish infrastructure that allows people with disabilities to have full freedom and independence to travel on their own or do you think that providing human assistance at times is necessary?
I believe that a person should be given the choice to do as he wants to. That freedom is incomparable. There should also be the provision to ask for or get assistance. What I mean to say is that both options should be viable.
There are just too many instances when we simply don't get to choose. I'll give you an example. There are many hotels that have THE accessible room. That's great but then that means someone like me won't be given the option to choose to stay in the Deluxe Suite or Sea-view room if they wish to.
A shake-up is needed from time to time! Do you have some easy solutions in mind that the corresponding authorities should consider?
In Australian trains, there is a little gap between the station and the train. There is a man at every station with a small slope. If you need the slope, he places it right away in that gap. This allows everyone to get on board easily. Here, in Italy, you have to book assistance from 24 to 48 hours in advance! So, it's a matter of understanding the problem and finding smart solutions to it.
I don't think Machu Picchu is going to be accessible any time soon. But sometimes it's really easy if we only think about and see things in a slightly different way!
What are some good resources people in wheelchairs can use to travel? I suspect many just think they can’t do it!
Find out how you are going to travel (by bus/ by train/...?), contact the hotels and ask if they are accessible. Most importantly, you have to be ready to change your program and adapt to the circumstances. We sometimes cannot find a decent hotel with a shower, so we sleep in a cheap one for one night, and maybe book a good one for the next night. Otherwise it can be quite expensive, because accessible hotels are often more expensive. So, flexibility is key.
Can we have 3 specific tips for travel, that you'd want to give to a fellow chair user?
Don't think too much, just go and book the tickets. I just ask myself: "Where do i want to go?" and then act accordingly.
Get a good medical insurance. I think it's very important!
Don't be too afraid of being on your own. There are a lot of good people out there. We have met wonderful people and found out that people do help each other sometimes!
And finally, what according to you is the essence of traveling?
Traveling means wanting to broaden your horizons, learning about contrasting points of view and learning from others.
Traveling makes me feel free!
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