Thanks to Kenneth Carpenter, UNM Office of International Programs and Studies, for sharing this article…Wow….and I thought I had it bad…thanks for sending.
More to come from Rio de Janeiro (the Rio Diaries) soon!
Reid Davenport’s Wheelchair Diaries
As told to Libby Sander
Photographs by Mark Abramson
A student with cerebral palsy, discouraged from study abroad,
makes a film about accessibility in Europe
makes a film about accessibility in Europe
When Reid Davenport (above left) learned at freshman orientation that 80 percent of students at George Washington University study overseas, he instantly decided that he would be among them. As his friends began making plans to go abroad in the spring of 2011, so, too, did he—to a program in Florence, Italy. But after he told officials there that he used a wheelchair, they discouraged him, he says. In the end, he didn’t go.
As his friends traveled that next semester, Mr. Davenport, who has cerebral palsy, found himself thinking about accessibility in Europe for wheelchair users like him. He wondered: Was there a story to tell? That May he won a fellowship from the university: $5,000 to travel to Europe and document the challenges that wheelchair users there face.
When Mr. Davenport arrived at the Brussels airport, his wheelchair was broken. He got around on foot—he can walk, but with great difficulty—for three days until he found a shop that would repair it.
For 20 days this past January, Mr. Davenport and Mark Abramson, a photographer and videographer, traveled through Ireland, Belgium, Italy, and France. Their footage ultimately became a documentary film, produced and directed by Mr. Davenport, titled Wheelchair Diaries: One Step Up. A rough cut of the film was released in April, and a final version will be finished this summer.
The trip involved plenty of headaches. In Dublin, the first stop, Mr. Davenport’s wheelchair emerged on the luggage conveyor belt in two pieces. In Brussels, the wheelchair arrived altogether broken: Mr. Davenport walked around with great effort until he found a place to fix it.
Across four cities, Mr. Davenport interviewed more than a dozen wheelchair users about their experiences getting around. Among his “subjects”: the leader of a disabled-advocacy group in Paris who became a paraplegic after a car accident about 20 years ago; a French law student with spinal muscular atrophy; a journalist in Brussels with cerebral palsy; and a man in Dublin with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis.
Mr. Davenport, 21, graduated from George Washington in May with a degree in journalism and mass communications. He recently sat down with The Chronicle to talk about his travels and the film. Here are his recollections, as told to Libby Sander.
It was a no-brainer that I would try to study in Italy. My grandma was born in Italy, and Italian is the nationality I identify with the most.
Reid Davenport, a student at George Washington University, trekked across Europe to answer a simple question: How do wheelchair users fare in cities not known for their accessibility? Mark Abramson, a photojournalist, went along to film the trip. Here the travel companions tell us what they learned on their journey.
So I took five semesters of Italian, applied to study in Florence, got in. I had to disclose that I have cerebral palsy and use a wheelchair to get around. They didn’t tell me I couldn’t come, but they discouraged me from coming. They said that it would be difficult to accommodate me, difficult to find an accessible home stay. They weren’t sure if the elevator was big enough for an electric wheelchair. They talked about the cobblestones. So I decided not to go.
For my spring break that year, I went to London to visit friends who were studying abroad. Now, I’d heard London was comparable to New York in terms of accessibility. But it was awful. The Tube had an 18-inch gap between the platform and the train. I had a collapsible wheelchair, and my friends carried it down flights of stairs because the elevators were broken. All of the pubs had one step up. I can walk, so I can handle it, but I was thinking, “What do people in England who are in wheelchairs do?” It confirmed my hypothesis that accessibility in Europe could make some type of story.
Socially, I thought that people with disabilities were put into a corner and given social welfare. In some sense that’s true: I met a guy who is head of this huge disability-advocacy group, and he gets a pension. But if he ever got a paid job, he would lose his pension forever.
After I got the grant, I started networking nonstop. My goal was to find the everyday wheelchair user in Europe. After three or four months, I finally started breaking through and finding subjects, and they dictated the cities we picked. Except for Florence. We were going there, obviously, for the symbolism.
I was excited to go to Italy, but I knew that this was work. I wasn’t there to meet the family and eat pizza and drink wine. I was there to do what I had to do.
In his Dublin hotel room at the start of the 20-day trip, Mr. Davenport felt the full exhaustion of the journey.
At the Naples airport, we hear there’s a taxi strike. It’s 11 o’clock at night. We have thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and an electric wheelchair, and we are just exhausted. About eight taxi drivers are just hanging around smoking. Before we know it, they surround us. And before we say anything, they have our bags in a cab, and they’re lifting my chair into another cab.
All of them come with us. All eight of them. So we’ve got two extra people in our cab and six in the other cab. All of a sudden we hear, “Fotografia! Fotografia!” and we’re like, what’s going on? How do they know? All of our stuff is concealed! Are we going to get robbed? I had no idea what was going on.
They drive us to the city center where the real strike is going on. Everyone surrounds us instantly—at least 50 drivers. They open the doors and they’re taking pictures of us, and finally we realize: They are showing the government, “Even though you’ve raised our license fees, we’re going to take these two guys, one of whom is in a wheelchair, for free.” So we spent about 10 minutes there.
Then they drive us to our hotel, and the lobby is dark. They walk in and turn on the lights and start yelling for the manager—“Allora, allora!”—and we check in and go to bed.
You want to hear about the time I broke a bus? We were in Naples, going to the city center to buy train tickets for a couple days after. First of all, it takes me 10 minutes to get on the bus. The ramp comes out, goes back in. Comes out a little more—goes back in. Zzzt, zzzt. It’s like they’re trying to screw with me, but they just don’t know what they’re doing.
Getting around Naples proved to be a hassle: Here, fellow passengers help Mr. Davenport get off a bus after its ramp malfunctioned.
We finally get on the bus, and I get yelled at by the bus driver. When we ring the bell to get off, the same thing with the ramp: Zzzt, zzzt. Zzzt, zzzt. There’s a guy on the ground looking at me, trying to help. Finally, he’s like, “Screw it,” bear hugs the chair, and lifts me down.
Then the bus driver is outside the bus, because it won’t go. Taxis are honking at him. People are angry—they’re getting off the bus. After 20 minutes, it goes out of service.
In Florence, everything went pretty smoothly the first day or two. Cobblestones were a little tough, sidewalks were a little tough, but it wasn’t impossible.
We mapped out a way to get to the program I’d applied to. Just kind of wandered there—no schedule, nothing. We hung outside, and they opened up the big doors to let me in. We were wandering around, shooting scenes.
In Paris, Mr. Davenport visited the Eiffel Tower but wasn’t able to make it to the top.
We go upstairs—I could fit in both elevators—and walk into an office where there are two professors. I don’t know if I said it or if Mark said it, but one of us was like, “Can we call on the director and get an interview?”
I didn’t want to do a gotcha interview—that wasn’t the point of this film. We went because I figured, what other place would be a bigger pinnacle than the program I was discouraged from attending?
The director was new since I applied. She pretty much said, “There is a lot I wish I could do, but I can’t.”
After the interview, there was disappointment. It was a very hard feeling to acknowledge: I could have been in Europe like all my friends. Meeting new people, becoming fluent in another culture, learning so much. Traveling is one of the most effective ways to learn, so realizing that it was not insurmountable kind of stuck with me. I felt like I could have done it.
It’s hard to say what I got from the journey. How people in Europe with disabilities live their lives isn’t any clearer, because you can’t generalize. All 13 people had different cases. But some of the time I was interviewing them, I thought of the U.S., and how the struggles of people with disabilities transcend borders.
Mr. Davenport visited Florence, where he checked out the sites of the city on his own. Florence was where he had intended to study abroad.
The name of the film is Wheelchair Diaries: One Step Up. “One step up” means that everybody with a disability has that one step up they have to take. It’s not a flight of stairs, it’s not a $5-million remodeling. It’s a piece of plywood that allows them to get up. We all deal with it in different ways. But my message is that we need to realize where that one step is, and put that ramp up. That will make the world of difference for physical accessibility and social inclusion.
I’m having a recurring nightmare that I have to go back to Europe and get more footage. I’ve had it about three times in the past six weeks! But I would really love to do more films. I’m not sure how it’s going to happen, but I’m hoping it will.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.