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In wheelchair around the World – Japan 2017

Exactly on my 40th birthday I started to realize my big dream, which I was thinking about almost all my life – I had wanted to see one of the biggest world metropolis – Tokyo.

The way to Japan was really long. Flight from Europe to last 11 hours but preparations to my journey had been taking me much more time – weeks. I have heard that moving around Japan in that equipment for disabled which I have (this is one hundred and fifty kilograms electric wheelchair) it will be really hard. I was scared that I won’t able to use trains here. But I planned to use only public transport in Japan because of cheapest price. So my feelings were mixed and I were looking a lot of information about adaptation for disabled people in public transport.

When I booked accommodation on booking.com and when I were writing request to hotel that I need room for wheelchair – I usually don’t have any responses. Surprisingly, I had information from two japan hotels. I was happy that I had some answers. Rooms in Japan are really small and tight. Their standards are different than European. And mails from those hotels confirm this:

“I’m sorry but we haven’t got rooms for disabled people. You will not able to moving here on wheelchair.”

To find adapted room in Tokyo, in good price and close to underground was really hard. I had to pay a little more money for bigger apartment. Small, tiny rooms and completely not accessible for disabled people and big electric wheelchair – is normal in Japan and it was problematic for me. It is worth to ask, when you booking your hotel, if room is adapted for disabled and to what extent. A lot of hotels don’t have any possibility to accommodate guests on electric wheelchairs.

When I were looking for information about availability for disabled in Japan I found two useful websites: http://www.japan-accessible.com and https://www.accessible-japan.com. And I found out knowledge about underground and trains on this websites. There are a lot of essential and important information for disabled people and about tourist attraction adaptation too. Moreover I used Google maps as usual.

First of all, I were watching a lot of videos about Japan on YouTube. I found one Japanese girl who is moving on wheelchair and she makes similar videos to my. A lot of vlogs on the Internet are in Japanese but I was able to get the most important information for me. I start to contact with this girl but we didn’t meet face-to-face because we couldn’t find good dates. My visit in Japan was really short.

Everything is prepared – set, go! At the airport everything was fluently. I was on my wheelchair really quickly, the service was efficient. I had visa in my passport truly fast and… and we stayed there alone among Japanese subtitles and misunderstood conversations which we heard.

Strangely enough, in first train, called SkyLiner everything was easy and after fifty minutes we were in Tokyo on Ueno Station. And here was harder. It was huge place and problem was getting to the underground. Corridors and tunnels make some kind of net and there were stairs! Before journey I had checked information about this station and everything was OK – platforms and trains adapted and comfortable for disabled.

I asked staff for help and they started to explain me in English and in Japanese. They gave me maps of this huge and multilevel Ueno Station. Everything was confirmed – my underground line have a lift. But how can I get here if I have the stairs in tunnel? We were looking for answer almost two hour. Answer was very easy – I had to go out, went to the other side of street and take the lift to the subway platform. Easy?

I had a lot of situation like that. I can write them down but I would have to write the entire book. I want to inform that in Japan you must have eyes in the back of your head if you want to find lifts. Usually, if somewhere was subtitle that this station is available for disabled it was true. But sometimes lifts were hidden for example in shopping mall. We had to looking for a lot of entrances and exits. But we were better and faster with every day. And after few days we know a lot of stations haven’t got any secrets for us and moving in underground was easier and easier.

It’s really important – on many stations I couldn’t drive to the train without small ramp. I could defeat gap between the train and the platform. You can ask metro service about ramps and they give you one. And now we come to the final point of travelling in Japan. When you enter to the underground, you must ask staff for help immediately and tell them where is your last point (even if you have changeover you must tell them where you’re going). Why?

Japanese people are really careful, strict and responsible and I think that I will tell you about this many time. Staff guide disabled person carefully to train. And in the next station there was person with small ramp who guided me to succeeding train (if it was change) or to good exit when we told where we wanted to go. The same situations are where you travel by train, tram or ferry because I travelled by this kinds of transport. Summarizing, staff in Japan is really great and they conscientiously perform their duties. There is sometimes only one problem – language barrier. Very few people can talk in English.

A lot of beautiful and interesting places weren’t available; there are a lot of stairs. I doesn’t mean that I didn’t see anything amazing. I saw a lot of beautiful places. In Tokyo the most comfortable restaurants are in shopping malls and in multi-storey buildings with lifts where on every floor is another bar. Otherwise, restaurants next to the main streets mostly are available for disabled – in contrast of those in small streets and alleys.

From the economical point of view the best shops in Tokyo are 7eleven – there are sometimes small and tiny. You can buy there prepared food. And there are microwaves so you can warm up your food. I sincerely recommend, I used to bought food in this shops and a lot of products are really tasty. Comparing this kind of food in Europe, this one was aesthetic. This meals look great and taste is good.

Now I can tell you something about toilets. In Tokyo they are really clean and high-quality – I haven’t met better toilets in any city in Europe or in the USA. Personally, I used that one on stations, gas stations and in shopping malls – of course, the last ones are dozens in Tokyo. Every time in that places were special, bigger and really good equipped for disabled people. Normally there was heated toilet seat, toilets with a lot of functions (washing, drying and music). Control panel is done really big impression. Toilets are very clean with few sinks, disinfectants and small bed if somebody need changing clothes. Against the background of other big cities like Paris, Rome or New York where I had to looking for special toilets – Tokyo is perfect.  Summarizing, you don’t need to be afraid of availability for disabled people in Japan.

In only few words – Japanese people are very cultural, reliable and introverted. Streets are clean and safety. You can leave your bags everywhere you want and I think that nobody steals your stuffs. Japanese respect everything what is surrounding them. You can see this feature for example on their money – these is like from printing house. They have their bank notes straight in wallets and I didn’t see anyone who had money in pockets. If you ask them for help they are always agree.

Unfortunately, I noticed a reluctance to making eye contact. When I were looking for someone no one didn’t smile to me. They respect privacy and they don’t interact with other people on street. Personally, I felt like they are afraid of me. In Japan disability is sometimes still considered as a disgrace in the family – this is sad. But I know that everything is changing quickly and they do a lot of things for disabled – this is a great hope.

Summarizing, Japan you can visit in wheelchair and you haven’t afraid of anything.

20 grudnia 2017
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Wheelchair Man in New York

Is it possible to get to New York (first time across the pond!) in a powered wheelchair, with no help from friends or family who live there, and only conversational English? Yes, it is!

A trip to the USA has been my dream since childhood, probably thanks to movies that were my main source of knowledge about America.

But first things first. How did it happen that I finally landed in New York? As a Polish citizen, I needed a visa. Living in Poland, I’ve heard many times that getting one is nearly impossible. Everybody here knows the American government still assumes that every Pole who wants to go to the US, plans to stay and work there. Nowadays, this sounds absurd. Something must have changed in Poland over the last decades, right? The USA is no longer a paradise for Poles, where earnings are several dozen times bigger. But let’s get to the point.

I live in Sweden, and, although I still am a Polish citizen, I chose the American Embassy in Stockholm as my visa battle ground. At first I had to fill in a long form and attach my picture via the Internet. Obviously, the form was in English. I had to pay right away, and this is when a small problem came up – the system didn’t accept Visa cards, and the account number was given in a weird format. After a longer search I managed to find a “normal” account number and transfer the amount due.

In theory, you schedule an appointment for a specific time online. In practice, you wait in a line after you arrive on that time. Entering the embassy is like entering a fortress. At the gate, which looks more like a small building, security control is more thorough that at an airport. First, baggage check, then scanner. I even had to drink some of the water I was carrying cause it could be something dangerous. It was a nightmare.

The interview was short and sweet, and hardly any of the questions I’d read about earlier appeared. I was asked where we work, how long we’ve lived in Sweden, and where and how long  we are going to stay in the US. I left my passport in the embassy and, three days later, it was waiting for me in my mailbox with my visa stamped inside. Wow! One of my dreams had just come true!

Using my broken English, I carried out all of the preparations for the trip via the Internet. I have to admit, you can find all the information you need about availability or accessibility of particular places there. I was a little anxious about the length of the flight, unnecessarily, as it turned out. The seats were very comfortable and quite different form those in short distance planes, used, for example, in Europe.

At the airport in New York, I was pleasantly surprised by the service. The attendants introduced themselves and asked if they can be of any assistance. My wheelchair was swiftly carried into the jet bridge. We landed at Newark-Liberty International Airport, which lies outside of the city, but getting to Manhattan isn’t trouble at all. When they see someone heading to the station or hanging around the ticket machines, the attendants react immediately and kindly direct you towards your platform. When the train arrives, an attendant takes out special ramp used for wheelchair access. During disembarking the conductor makes sure it is spread out. So, getting from the airport to the center of New York is not a problem even in a wheelchair.

But what next? I’m joking, of course – our hotel was booked a month ago, and the transport checked out beforehand. Unfortunately, the subway is only partially wheelchair-accessible, but I think it is sufficient to get around the city with no great discomfort. The subway is terribly big, and has 468 stations, probably one in five of which is wheelchair-accessible, but all of the major stops are for sure. Maps with marked accessible stations are on the walls of all of them, as well as on the subway’s website. Additionally, all the wheelchair-accessible stations are thoroughly described on the Web. Boarding spots on the platforms are marked, too. They are slightly elevated, which makes boarding perfectly smooth. Summing up, I find NY subway well-marked and really functional.

It is interesting that nearly all buses in New York are accessible, meaning they use wheelchair lifts. I think it is really great, although I haven’t had a chance to use one yet. But I’ve traveled in wheelchair-accessible taxis: they are the normal yellow ones. Apparently, there is a lot of them around, but when I ordered one in Manhattan at night, I had to wait for more than an hour. One of the locals told me that it’s normal in New York. I have to admit that using a wheelchair in the street is pretty tiring. The sidewalks are often damaged, and the crosswalks are ridiculously full of holes. Plus road works and scaffolding are a common sight. Heavy pedestrian and road traffic doesn’t make things better, either. Sidewalk ramps near the crosswalks are usually there, though there are high curbs from time to time, and you have to either find another crosswalk, or manage it somehow, as shown in the picture.

Let me write just a few words about restrooms, because this turned out to be surprising. I was first astonished when I asked about accessible toilet, and in response I heard “Hmm, good question.” Toilets for the disabled are usually just slightly bigger stalls in normal restrooms. There are no separate disabled toilets like where we live, but there are family restrooms – they are bigger and I can recommend using them.

Most of New York attractions are very well-prepared and accessible for the disabled. Usually, there is someone from the staff right at the ticket counter to show you the way, so you can comfortably admire, for instance, the panorama of the New York city from the 102 floor of One World Observatory, or the charm of  skyscrapers from the ferry to the Statue of Liberty.

To sum up, I think that it is possible to sightsee NYC in a wheelchair with no major concern. Certainly, it is better to prepare beforehand and make a plan of your trip, and, most of all, print out important addresses, websites, or detailed maps.

20 grudnia 2017
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