Visiting Israel in a Wheelchair: The Power of the Group

by Bonnie Guzelf on Sun, 2012-07-01 09:47

To satisfy a lifelong dream, the author put together her own accessible tour group and discovered the challenges of travel were worth it

The author's Israel tour group at the Jordan River.
Article Highlights:
  • Author Bonnie Guzelf, who received an ALS diagnosis in 1999, satisfied a lifelong dream to visit Israel by putting together her own accessible tour group.
  • Guzelf reports that traveling with an accessible travel group not only ensured they were be able to see the sights but also was very empowering.

I’ve always loved to travel and I planned to continue to travel even after being diagnosed with ALS in 1999 (thankfully, a slow-progressing form).

I especially wanted to visit Israel, drawn by the history, the culture and the chance to reconnect to my Jewish roots. Could I do it in a wheelchair? Is Jerusalem accessible? What about wheelchair-accessible bathrooms?

After an Internet search, I found Israel 4All, which specializes in tours for people with disabilities. Owner/operator Eli Merir is a member of SATH (Society of Accessible Travel and Hospitality), and most importantly, he knows where the accessible bathrooms are!

A private tour was out of our price range, but Eli said if I could get together a small group, he could give us a much better rate. He worked up a nine-night, three-city itinerary that included two meals a day and accessible hotels, transportation and sightseeing. The group rate would be about half of the cost of a private accessible tour and close to the cost of a standard group tour. We set the date for March 2012, giving me almost a year to gather a group. 

Creating the group

We called it a "Multicultural Tour" that would visit Jewish, Christian and Roman sites. Everyone was welcome.

I put out the word through friends, local temples and churches, and in applicable publications and received several inquiries — but no one seemed to share my enthusiasm for this trip. Slowly, I began to get more serious inquiries, mostly from out of state. I telephoned and offered to answer questions. Many wondered about flying with a wheelchair. I’ve learned how to travel (almost) trouble free, so I had some specific tips to share (see Traveling with a Wheelchair: My Experiences).

Perhaps it was due to my genuine excitement, but slowly people began to commit and by October 2011, we had our group: my husband Phil and myself; Bill and his wife Silvia (who has multiple sclerosis); Carolyn (who has an undiagnosed neuromuscular disease and uses a mobility scooter) and her adult daughter; and Tina, a manual chair user from England. I was the only one with ALS.

Different issues, same determination not to allow our disabilities to define who we are or what we can do. Never give up the dream. I was going to Israel!

Accessibility varied

The group's tour bus was specially equipped to handle wheelchair travelers.

 Tour group in Tel Aviv

Although accessibility is generally good in Israel, this ramp at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a bit steep.
The author dining at the Ramat Rachel Hotel in Jeruselum.
Tina bathes her feet at at special place on the Jordan River.
The author at Old City, Jerusalem.
The author pointing to wheelchair-accessible bathrooms.

Upon touchdown in Tel Aviv, a special airport agent helped us off the plane, escorted us through the terminal, helped us get our luggage, walked us through a dedicated customs line for people with disabilities and delivered us to Eli. I was impressed already.

The tour bus was an oversized van with a lift in the back, individual seats on each side and space in the middle to tie down wheelchairs. You could stay in your chair or transfer to a seat.

Over the course of the trip, hotel accessibility varied from good to OK. Our first hotel room, in Tel Aviv, was large and comfortable, with a big bathroom that was very accessible. Both the toilet and shower had grab bars on each side, and the shower had a seat and hand-held shower head. Tel Aviv is a relatively new city, only about 150 years old, so many things were built to be accessible.

Our second night was spent near Tiberius. The hotel room was OK, but the bathroom did not have a roll-in shower, just a hand-held shower head within toilet/sink area. Fine — if you are not in a wheelchair. They brought us a plastic lawn chair, and I was able to transfer to it and to the shower. Not the best situation, but it was doable for me. 

I would suggest being very specific about your needs when booking a hotel. Ask questions!

Accessible sightseeing

Accessibility also varied among the tourist sites we visited, but generally was pretty good. The Israeli government is trying very hard to make things accessible for people with disabilities without destroying the ancient sites they came to see.

Our first stop was Caesarea National Park, where you can see the port built by King Herod and the place where Paul set sail to preach to communities around the Mediterranean. This was very accessible. Then north to the town of Nazareth, a large, thriving tourist city, we had to go up a steep hill to get to the Church of the Annunciation, which is built over the place where Mary is said to have been visited and told she would bear a child. Unfortunately, there were no cut-out ramps, the road was a bit bumpy, and we had to take our chairs up the narrow street with cars coming down the other way.

From here, we visited the Mount of the Beatitudes where Jesus is said to have given the Sermon on the Mount, and then saw the miracle of the loaves and fishes illustrated in a beautiful ancient mosaic. We next stopped at Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, home of the earliest Christian churches in the world, as well as an ancient synagogue — all of which were easily accessible. Then it was back to our van for an ascent to the Golan Heights. And finally, we arrived for dinner at the hotel — tired and excited at the same time.

The next day, we visited the Jordan River. Those of us in power chairs or scooters could not go down to the river due to several steps. However, Tina was in a lightweight manual chair, and several men carried her down to the river where she was able to put her feet into the spot where it’s said that Jesus was baptized by John.

On to Jerusalem — the highlight of my visit and everything I imagined it would be. The old city is divided into four quarters: the Christian Quarter, Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter and Armenian Quarter. We wheeled along an “accessible route” developed by the Jewish Quarter’s Center for Tourists with Disabilities, stopping to bargain for souvenirs in the narrow passageways lined with vendors. The streets were made of stones and very bumpy to wheel over, but it was an authentic experience.

Just outside of the old city walls, we saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre of the Sacred Tomb, which is built on the site where Jesus was believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. With Eli’s help, Silvia was able to take her scooter inside the cave to get a closer view.

No visit to Israel would be complete without seeing the Western Wall, one of the holiest places for the Jewish people. It is the only part of the Second Temple left standing after its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. This area is fully accessible. People come to touch the wall and put prayers written on small slips of paper into its cracks. This touched my heart and made the trip very special for me.

It was then on to the Masada, where Jewish rebels made an epic stand against the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. We easily boarded a cable car for the top of the Fortress and once there, accessible pathways — sometimes paved, sometimes not — led us around the site as our guide explained its incredible history.

Getting help at the Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is a resort area where people from around the world come to experience the healing properties of the salt and mineral water. We were taken to the Plaza Hotel, which has its own accessible beach as well as a pool with water from the sea.

Unfortunately, the experience was not as accessible as I would have liked. To change into my swimsuit to go into the water, I had to go into the women’s locker room and of course my husband, Phil, couldn’t come with me. Luckily, the women at the desk offered to help me change, so no problem.

There was an accessible path to the beach and rails to hold to get into the water. Carolyn offered me her cane and — with the help of others — I walked to the edge and put my toes into the Dead Sea!

When I returned to the locker room to get showered and dressed, the hotel put a plastic chair in the shower for me, but there were no grab bars to hold to keep from falling. Thankfully, a lovely woman who was a guest there offered to help me dress and did everything she could to make it easy for me.

Accessible tour empowering

Traveling with a group of people in wheelchairs was, for me, very empowering. I didn’t have to worry about keeping up with the group or being embarrassed about using special eating utensils. Unlike most standard tours, we usually began our day a little later to give us the extra morning time we needed. Eli was sensitive to our needs and flexible enough that if the day was getting too long for us, we could rearrange the schedule to push something off until the next day.

Of course, traveling with ALS can be a challenge. I know from experience that if I suffer an injury or overexert myself, it can set me back and push my disease forward. When we returned to the hotel each night after dinner, I usually went straight to our room and tried to get a good night's sleep so I’d have energy for the next day’s itinerary. I also did a few gentle stretching exercises every morning and evening to stretch out the kinks.

What about those wheelchair-accessible bathrooms? Generally, the bathrooms were clean and accessible at hotels and museums. However, the public bathrooms often had no toilet paper or paper towels, and seat liners were unheard of. My advice: Bring along your own supplies. Be prepared and be flexible.

I learned many things in putting together and taking this trip. Yes, traveling with ALS can be difficult — but it doesn’t have to stop you.

I chose to bring my full-size power chair on this trip because I knew we would have a wheelchair van with a lift once we arrived. The power chair allows me more freedom and independence than having to depend on someone to push me in a manual chair.

On other trips, I’ve used a small lightweight travel power chair that comes apart into four manageable pieces that can fit into a car trunk. This works well if there’s not a wheelchair-accessible vehicle waiting for you upon arrival, and it’s great for cruises where the hallways are narrow and accessible transportation in a strange port may not always be available. You can find a good range of travel chairs online at SpinLife.com.

Flying with a disability

Tell the airline of your needs when you make the reservation so they can put it on the flight record. Confirm all the information with the airline two days before your flight. Anything you need to bring for medical or disability reasons is not counted as luggage. For example, I travel with a portable bed rail to help me get in and out of bed.

When you inform the airlines you're traveling with a power chair or scooter, you'll be asked for information about the battery. This information is contained in your wheelchair manual. To learn more about airline requirements for transporting wheelchair batteries, see How to Travel by Air with a Wheelchair, from the Society of Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH).

When making reservations, request the bulkhead seats. They’re easier to access, have more leg room, are closer to the plane door and usually closer to the bathrooms. People with disabilities are supposed to be given priority for these seats. Since I can't walk unassisted, I request an aisle chair, which is a narrow wheeled chair used to transport you from the plane door to your seat.

My advice is to "gate check" your wheelchair, meaning keep it with you until you’re at the gate and ready to board. This is important in case the flight is delayed or you have to use the bathroom or there’s a gate change. You do not want to be caught without your wheels!

Put plenty of identification on your chair. I print an 8-by-10-inch paper with my name, cell phone, flight number and destination, and tape it to the back of my seatback. I also affix personal return address labels on my luggage and chair for identification.

Many wheelchair travelers recommend removing the chair’s accessories (for example, the joystick, foot pads, headrest) when checking your chair, to prevent loss or damage. I have a separate offboard charging unit for my chair's battery and, because of airline security these days, was told to bring it on the plane in my carry-on luggage. When making reservations, be sure to ask for all their guidelines for transporting your chair.

Long flights and bathrooms

Accessing the bathroom onboard a long flight can be a challenge. Tell the flight attendants, and they should be able to help. Most flights have an aisle chair on board and can use it to take you to the bathroom if needed. I also wear protective undergarments just in case.

On this trip, I was able to go to the bathroom on our flights with the help of my husband in back of me and a flight attendant in front. Holding on to the seats in front of me, I inched my way up to the bathroom (being in the bulkhead seat meant it wasn’t too far away). Airplane bathrooms have grab bars and are so small there’s really no place to fall, so I was fine.

Bonnie Guzelf, 60, lives in Tempe, Ariz. A former engineering administrator at TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, she now blogs about her experiences as a wheelchair user at wheelchairaztravel.blogspot.com.

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