Accessibility in travel is not about receiving special treatment, say the couple behind Instagram account @TheStruggleIsWheel. It’s about equal treatment, especially as paying guests
“Do you trust me, Michael?” I said.
There was nervous laughter between us but, in hindsight, there was nothing funny about it. On a grey December day back in 2019, we had just turned the last corner of our 6km hike on the Gortarowey walk in Co Sligo, when we saw the fallen Scots pine.
This was no sapling. Laden with branches of bristly pine needles, the tree stretched across the entire width of the trail, a victim of every forester’s worst nightmare — windthrow. The mystic air of Ben Bulben’s northern flank faded into the background as we looked at our blocked trail. A barrier that other hikers would simply step over without a second thought was, to a wheelchair user like Michael, an unexpected, frustrating dead end.
With nobody around and dense mountain fog beginning to roll in around us, we discussed our ad-hoc strategy. I realised what I had to do or, at the very least, try.
“On the count of three, I’m going to lift this tree, you’re going to wheel under it, push through the branches and shout when you’ve made it through to the other side,” I said. A perfectly normal sentence to say on a hike!
“Uhm… okay,” Michael replied, looking a little apprehensive (he knows I have the upper-body strength of a frog).
With that, I lifted the top of the tapered trunk as high as I could and, after a few, tense, what-seemed-like-forever seconds, Michael shouted. He had played limbo with a lofty conifer and won.
Fifteen years ago, Michael sustained a spinal cord injury from a car accident. It was something that could happen to any one of us, at any given time, yet according to the World Health Organisation, it is one of the most devastating and life-changing injuries that a person can sustain.
Depending on the location and nature of damage to the spinal cord, such injuries can be fickle, and being unable to walk is sometimes just the tip of the iceberg. After spending six months at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, Michael then had to adjust to life outside the walls of rehab as a full-time wheelchair user.
Fast forward to 2011, long before the days of Tinder, when we randomly met in amongst a wave of GAA fans in the corridor of Quinn’s pub in Drumcondra — the then mecca for after-match shenanigans.
Feeling carefree after finishing my masters in geography, I fancied a casual beer after work, while Michael was up for the Dublin-Wexford Leinster final. We hit it off and, after four years of dating, I moved down to his homeland in sunny south Wexford.
That’s where we now live happily, together with our French bulldog, Nala, at the gateway of the Hook Peninsula along Bannow Bay.
We both love to travel. As a post-grad geography student and a tour guide at John F Kennedy Arboretum near New Ross, I’m constantly in awe of the natural world, and Michael is fearless when it comes to travelling. Whether it’s the Pacific Coast Highway or the Wild Atlantic Way, I look at the maps, he drives, and we make a great team.
We honeymooned in California, a road trip that ranged from coastal redwoods to an accessible tour of Alcatraz, and post-injury, he has even skydived in Australia.
In fact, it seems like the only limits to our travelling schedule right now are GAA fixtures, as Michael is currently the secretary for Wexford GAA.
It’s human nature to seek out new experiences, whether it’s the great outdoors, different foods, new landscapes or people. That curiosity doesn’t stop just because you’ve fractured your back. New and improved technologies have enabled us to see more together — clip-on motors attached to a manual wheelchair, for example, enable couples like us to hike more, to see more, to take on gradients, or just simply traverse cities for longer.
But despite the innovations, what’s common ground to some often remains uncharted terrain to us. We may be a regular couple just like everyone else, but our treatment as a couple in the hospitality sector can be anything but regular, all because Michael is a wheelchair user.
While travelling along the Pacific coast on honeymoon, we encountered mid-range hotels and motels that had more of a clue about wheelchair accessibility for their guests than some luxurious hotels back home. So we asked ourselves the question: What is Ireland’s excuse?
Then we had an idea. Why not use social media to give people an insight into how we, as a couple, experience those “new experiences”?
And so, our virtual adventure on Instagram and Twitter began. Our social media handle, @TheStruggleIsWheel , is a play on ‘the struggle is real’, urban slang borne out of people encountering everyday frustrations that are linked historically to discriminatory situations experienced by minorities. The idea is to show the highs and lows of accessibility we face as a couple navigating Ireland’s tourism industry, from hotels to beaches and hiking trails.
Take cycling. Depending on the weather, this is one of our favourite ways to explore our environs. I use two wheels to keep up with Michael’s five — as his clip-on motor can reach speeds of up to 25kmph with a range of 40km.
In recent years, we have seen an improvement in accessible cycling tourism via Ireland’s greenways and, as we await with excitement the launch of the South East Greenway, we are no strangers to the Waterford one. To break up our journey, we make use of vital accessible parking in Kilmacthomas, then wheel straight to Dungarvan, where we fuel up before the journey back home.
Our tourist time budget is restrictive here, however, as finding a wheelchair-accessible toilet on the “pub grub” scene is very difficult and disheartening.
We’ve also seen improved outdoor trails and coastal boardwalks brought on by the Rural Development Plan. Our house is situated along the Tintern Trail in Co Wexford, for example, and our local trail development group actively engages with us — wheelchair-accessible picnic benches have been installed, and deep, loose gravel has been replaced with compact stone.
Moving further west, we also recently paid a visit to Youghal’s Eco-boardwalk. Classed as low-impact infrastructure for sensitive areas, boardwalks have a high impact for couples like us. Elevated wooden pathways mean we can both enjoy a coastal walk — an activity that a lot of couples would take for granted.
But there is still much more work to be done, and just because investment has been provided, it doesn’t mean wheelchair accessibility is considered.
On trails all over Ireland, for example, we often encounter narrow entrance stiles that stop us in our tracks, preventing us from enjoying woodland walks.
“The amount of hassle involved in travel can be overwhelming,” as travel writer Paul Theroux once wrote. But to us, wheelchair accessibility is not about receiving special treatment; it’s about equal treatment, especially as paying guests.
There are thousands of wheelchair users in Ireland, and many of us use the power of social media to recommend accessible holidays. We all talk, and we are extremely loyal customers. The hospitality sector shouldn’t care about wheelchair accessibility just because it’s good for business, but the truth is, it is good for business.
When it comes to Ireland’s hotel industry, the only consistent thing about wheelchair accessibility is that it’s inconsistent. The usual suspects include poor disability parking design, high reception desks, high wardrobe rails, ill-planned bathrooms, tiny pedestal bins, high mattresses, poorly aligned mirrors and so on.
I’ve also lost count of the amount of times I’ve been told that a hotel’s pool or spa is freely available for me to use, but not for my husband. I don’t know of any other couples that are segregated like this as paying guests.
Michael and I generally go for two types of hotels — one used purely as a base while we go out gallivanting on greenways or hikes; the other a place to retreat into, to get a break from the outside world, to order cocktails and lose track of time. We all need those types of breaks.
After years of checking in, we’ve mastered a kind of “hotel feng shui” — or, the art of rearranging rooms with excess furniture, clutter that prevents wheelchair-users like Michael from turning fully in their chairs in and around their room. These are not insurmountable barriers to fix. Universal design can be incorporated into any hotel, and the idea that wheelchair accessibility must be clinical in aesthetic is a myth.
We’d like to see hotels appoint access reps within their teams to act as supervisors should anything need to be adjusted before check-ins. Pet-friendly travel is growing too, and we’d really like to see more dog-friendly hotels that combine this new type of canine guest with wheelchair-accessible rooms.
However, when we do find a great place to stay, we let everyone know about it (including the hotel itself). Feedback is so important in this industry.
With that in mind, we’ve included a small selection of our favourite places to stay in Ireland here (see panel below), but are acutely aware that we have yet to encounter a hotel that has seamlessly streamlined wheelchair accessibility from online booking to checking out.
While we don’t recommend ploughing through dangerous barriers like that fallen tree blocking our trail in Co Sligo, we will always highlight such barriers wherever we go.
We can’t overcome inaccessibility to new experiences if we are treated like “invisible tourists”. Despite the multifaceted character of wheelchair accessibility within the tourism industry, there is one common thread, and that is to remember wheelchair users and their families are tourists who have spending power.
Invest in our experiences, and we’ll invest in you!
Seafield Spa, Co Wexford
Everyone loves a spa retreat, and we’re no different. On arrival, Seafield has an effortless flow around its stylish marble floor tiles, with restaurant and bar set next to each other — all on ground level. A lift brings you down to their award-winning Oceo Spa, with an ‘Aladdin’s cave’ atmosphere of lighting and earthly interiors. Our wheelchair-accessible room had a spacious bathroom with all the fine tunings needed and, while we would like to see this hotel incorporate a hoist for inclusive pool access, many of their spa treatment rooms are accessible. Their pool area has an accessible flow from sauna to steam room, so there is thermal suite access to a certain degree, too. seafieldhotel.com
Green Acres Caravan and Camping Park, Donnaha, Co Clare
An unlikely choice for a wheelchair user, but one of our favourite places to stay. Green Acres is tucked away at the back of the Shannon estuary, and our stay at the only wheelchair-accessible mobile home on site proved to be a major success. Despite our mobile having the same size constraints of most, clever accessible design made by the Pemberton mobile home company meant that space wasn’t an issue. A fantastic base along the Wild Atlantic Way, if you want to visit the iconic Kilkee Cliffs, the Vandeleur Estate at Kilrush and Loophead Lighthouse, to name a few. greenacrescamping.ie
Knightsbrook Hotel, Trim, Co Meath
Situated in the Boyne Valley, Knightsbrook may be better-known for its golf resort. But for us, the unique selling point is its swimming pool. While we wish inclusive pool access was standard in hotels, we really enjoyed swimming here together as a couple for the first time as hotel guests in Ireland. With a fully equipped wheelchair-accessible changing room that leads directly out onto the pool area, we were able to use the poolside chair lift ourselves. This basic hydraulic pressure pump system simply lowers/elevates the chair in and out of the water. Floatation aids are available from friendly staff. Both in our bathroom and changing room, sturdy portable shower seats were made available, too. knightsbrook.com