Canada: Where accessibility is a part of life right from the start
Canada: Where accessibility is a part of life right from the start
Known for its beavers, bears or the recent return of the bison, maple syrup or its love of hockey – Canada is the personification of nature and vast distances. Thanks to its many national parks, this North American country is a must-see for any nature lover. Though it seems subdued when it comes to its politics and a tad old-fashioned given its constitutional monarchy that recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as its nominal head of state, the country is ahead of the times in many other ways: When it comes to accessibility, the Canadians provide an infrastructure people with disabilities can only dream of in this part of the world.
So it comes as no surprise that traveling to Canada is very trendy. All the more reason to view this country under a (travel) microscope.
With mountains, lakes and forests Canada offers the nature lover the complete package, including one or the other wildlife observation.
If you like nature’s bounty, don’t mind encounters with wild animals or look for an adventure, Canada is likely on your list. 47 national parks allow visitors to experience the best sights Canadian nature has to offer, which include – though hopefully at a safe distance – the observation of bears, moose or bald eagles. You are never far away from water in Canada either, whether it’s a glacial lake, Niagara Falls, the Saint Lawrence River or one of the two oceans that border it. The reflection of Canada’s mountains and forests in these waters look twice as breath-taking.
Oftentimes, these types of adventure travel tours are rarely an option for people with disabilities due to a lack of accessibility. But that’s different in Canada. Admittedly, travel portals that specialize in people with disabilities list 16-day tours at over 1,000 Euros per person. According to Karl B. Bock, Managing Director of RUNA REISEN, "you should expect to pay around 2,600 Euros per person including your airline ticket. However, flexible travel dates also mean lower fares." Meanwhile, Canada offers travel highlights in every season. Whether it’s a long winter in ski resorts like Whistler, which hosted several competitions during the 2010 Winter Olympics, or the so-called Indian Summers during the fall or the somewhat shorter summer months – no matter where your travels take you – the nature of Canada is simply stunning at any time of the year.
And the North Americans know how to implement accessibility: In the 80s, the concept of universal access has become accepted in North America. That is to say, people with disabilities, as well as older people or parents with baby strollers, are meant to have easy access to all areas of public life. Many national park routes are also manageable for people with disabilities. Rental car and hotel conditions are different from those in Germany. Even though you "have to do without a ramp, different hand control options are not an issue," explains Bock, who points out that while Canada is definitely a role model in terms of accessible infrastructure, the accessibility of hotel rooms is still subject to different standards compared to those in Germany. "You need to understand that the accessibility found in Canada can’t be compared to Germany’s idea of accessibility. For example, support rails in bathrooms are usually just mounted on one side or surround the toilet but they are not retractable."
Nevertheless, Canada seems to be very popular with people with disabilities. That’s also why RUNA REISEN has included a 16-day round trip in the Canadian Rockies in its portfolio. "This is the first time we have included Canada as a destination in our program because there has been an increasing demand in recent years – especially a request for a round trip option." The BSK Reisen GmbH portal also offers this type of tour. AHORN REISEN Gmbh and www.barrierefreie-reisen.com specialize in car tours in North America.
For Karl B. Bock, Managing Director of RUNA REISEN GmbH, Canada is always worth one or more trips.
Trips for active people, who prefer self-determined and flexible travel
In a land the size of Canada, a round trip is perfect but can also be a bit tricky or not exactly the best choice for everyone. "People expressly suggested the round trip because they wanted to be flexible and self-determined in discovering the country and driving the streets of North America. The trip is best suited for active nature lovers." That’s why a tour through North America might not be the best idea for persons with severe physical disabilities in power wheelchairs. And people have to be aware of that fact. What’s more, the long flight is likewise a major drawback. Bock says, "air travel is obviously a major factor. A trip to the bathroom on the plane could prove difficult."
What do people with disabilities have to consider before they embark on a trip to Canada? "You have to know how to speak English. French is also an option but English is more important. You also need to think about the type and size of car you want to drive because you will spend a lot of time in your vehicle. Added to this is the level of accessibility and what type of hand control you prefer. And you also have to be able to sit in a car for an extended period of time. 400 kilometers is the maximum distance you should drive per day. So you need to consider ahead of time, who gets to drive. Depending on the driver – whether that’s the wheelchair user or fellow travelers without a disability – the rental car must be adapted accordingly." That being said, travel agents like RUNA REISEN, who specialize in people with disabilities make sure that "all trips guarantee a minimum level of accessibility."
Bock has some tips for those who have the wherewithal for this type of trip and are willing to make the mentioned concessions during their stay: "The peace and views you get to enjoy on this trip are amazing. It is simply incredible to drive along a national park route and get a panoramic view of a glacier at the highest point. I also recommend a tram ride to the top of Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, which is also an option for wheelchair users. Or a visit to the Banff Upper Hot Springs (near Calgary) – with a hot outdoor pool and a view of the mountains. A cruise on the Maligne Lake (a glacier lake near Edmonton) is a breathtaking experience. A whale watching tour is also an option during this trip."
Although she was on there for business with the SOZIALHELDEN, Judyta Smykowski got an impression during her seven-day-stay at Toronto of how the Canadians interpret accessibility.
Metropolitan areas that embrace people with disabilities
Next to its breathtaking natural sights, Canada also offers amazing metropolitan areas. Those who prefer urban settings, will also find what they are looking for in the land where people speak both English and French. Aside from Vancouver, people might also want to travel east and visit Toronto, which is surrounded by one of the five Great Lakes of North America. And since Canadians are known for their polite and friendly nature, the cities of the world’s second largest country are well worth a visit. The team of the SOZIALHELDEN e.V. Association can also attest to this. It reported on its trip to Toronto in September of last year on www.leidmedien.de. Cue the friendly bus drivers – something Berlin residents are usually not familiar with. The Berlin team didn’t organize its trip to Toronto but was invited by the Canadian Ability Foundation. Of course, this meant meetings with inclusive organizations. "Obviously, people had no reservations or fear of people with disabilities in these settings. Yet even when we were out on the streets, I got the feeling that people in Canada are used to people with disabilities and didn’t try to avoid us as wheelchair users as is often the case in Germany," Judyta Smykowski, editor of Leitmedien sums up her experience in the largest city in Canada.
In addition to elevators in subway stations or buttons featuring the wheelchair symbol that automatically open the doors at every station or in any supermarket, ramps or wheelchair accessible public restrooms are also abundant in Toronto. Or as Smykowski sums up the trip: "The Sozialhelden team only spent seven days in Toronto but we really liked what we saw. Guide strips in public areas, automatic door openers everywhere and even beach sections with wheelchair accessible platforms."
The editor fondly remembers one incident that highlights how Canadians handle the subject of accessibility. "I will never forget a construction site on Yonge Street, one of Toronto’s major downtown streets. The area was under construction. Normally, a construction site is not beautiful at all but in this instance, the construction company also created a route for wheelchair users or parents with baby strollers in addition to the regular marked pedestrian path. What impressed me about this is that a construction site is typically not something that lasts forever and yet the organizers still emphasized accessibility."
Besides the beauty of nature, Canada's metropolitan areas, such as Toronto, also have a lot to offer. After all, Canadians are known for their helpfulness and friendliness.
By the way, those who have trouble walking or riding a bike can use Toronto’s Wheel-Trans service offered by the local TTC public transport agency. That’s a converted bus or minivan that offers people with wheelchairs and assistants accessible travel at the same price charged by local public transport options – and this even includes door-to-door service for those who need it. This option requires you to order the ride at least four hours in advance and to have a time window that considers potential delays of the contracted ride-share taxi since this type of transport is not tied to a standardized schedule and is also bound by traffic restrictions that occur in major cities such as traffic jams or construction.
Smykowski knows another reason a trip to the capital city of the province of Ontario is worthwhile: "Toronto unifies extremes: one neighborhood boasts skyscrapers, while another features the Kensington Market, which offers street food and live music in bars and is surrounded by cute tiny houses. The surrounding territory is also worth a visit. Obviously, there are the Niagara Falls that are easily accessible in a wheelchair and little villages like Niagara-on-the-Lake that have maintained their vintage charm. As you leave Toronto to get there, you will notice many vineyards and cottages along the way." Incidentally, if you are in need of an accessible tour in Toronto, visit www.travelable.info. On the portal, you will find a day trip that includes a variety of wheelchair accessible sights.
If you have a rental car and a little patience, you can also travel to Montreal (540 kilometers northeast of Toronto) and Ottawa, the capital city of Canada (located 410 kilometers northeast of Toronto). These three cities could not be more different, yet each of them has its very unique features and is definitely worth a visit. While Montreal is very lively – especially in terms of its nightlife - and offers many cultural attractions, Ottawa’s architecture is very distinctly shaped by Britain and is host to – among many others - the National Gallery of Canada or the Canadian Museum of History.
Planning is everything
No matter which type of trip you choose in North America – whether you visit the many national parks to see the unique natural sights of Canada or stay in urban settings like Toronto – aside from a long flight and the necessary money to spend, you should also keep one thing in mind when you decide to travel to Canada: planning is everything. First and foremost, this includes a so-called eTA – an electronic travel authorization needed to enter Canada. Without it, you can’t even expect to get on the plane in Germany. And if you are overwhelmed by the amount of planning this trip requires, experts at the travel bureaus would very much like to help you. If you decide to embark on the 2,200-kilometer round trip in Western Canada, you won’t be left to your own devices either. "We provide our guests with travel information and maps. It’s up to the individual person to take our advice," says Karl B. Bock. By the way, the Managing Director of RUNA REISEN also tells us that the best time to travel starts in May and "if you love nature and the outdoors, I wholeheartedly recommend visiting Canada."