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Imagine you and your spouse were heading to your vacation in Italy. And if you don’t have a spouse, well, just imagine yourself super excited about going to Italy. You are absolutely stoked! You did your research and made sure everything was exactly as you’d dreamed- the sights, the location, the time of year… And after a long, long trip you finally arrive at your hotel to see five steps leading to the entrance. The majority of the population would not even consciously register these steps, but if you are one of the millions of people who use a wheelchair, your hotel just became inaccessible- as in, you literally cannot get into it.
This is exactly what happened to Jan and Hanneke van der Linde, a couple from the Netherlands who discovered accessibility issues the hard way. About 35 years ago they planned their vacation to Rimini, Italy. “No internet [back then],” Hanneke tells me in our interview. “[S]o very expensive phone calls were made to get a confirmation of the accessibility. Three days of driving, our first drive-yourself holiday in our first second hand car, and surprise, five steps in front of the hotel.” Even though in this specific case they were able to overcome the obstacle through portable ramps, this is by far not the only story of unpleasant surprises and inaccessible vacation housing that they can tell.
Incidents like these made Hanneke and Jan realize there was a need for accessible vacation homes and thus their business was born: Gehandicapten.com / Disability in Thailand Co Ltd. They currently offer a selection of wheelchair accessible vacation homes in the Netherlands, the south of France, Thailand and Hungary, and encourage customers to be in touch about specific accommodations that each individual may need.
These four countries are based on the couple’s personal preference and their accessibility assessments are based on personal experience. Because Jan uses a power wheelchair, they deem a home accessible for most wheelchair users as long as it is accessible to him. This way they can truly vouch for the lodgings they offer. But what about the surrounding locales and tourist attractions? How accessible are they?
“That all depends on the disability,” says Hanneke. “A woman with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) in a power wheelchair can still stand and walk with the help of friends at both sides. She can get into a temple in Thailand. The moment she isn’t able anymore to do this, the temple is not accessible. But then France would be perfect. You want to swim in the sea? France and Thailand are perfect due to the beach wheelchairs available. Biking along the shore, come to Velence, Hungary. It has a bike path around Lake Velence starting in front of the accessible bungalow. It is just what you are looking for.”
In this way Gehandicapten.com / Disability in Thailand Co Ltd. doesn’t just offer their customers geographic options with carefully selected lodgings, but also specific recommendations based on one’s degree of disability. And all this is rooted in Hanneke and Jan’s collective decades of experience traveling with disabilities. It is no wonder then that the most common customer feedback is greatly positive. Additionally, even though they put in a lot of hard work, Hanneke explains that what surprises her the most in running the business is “how much fun it is to search for houses, buying and decorating them.”
I finally asked Hanneke what her ultimate hope was for the future of travel for people with disabilities. “…it will take some time till I can roll into Macchu Pichu. Till then I go where I can.” As for her advice to anyone with a disability: “Never give up, just continue traveling and tell the world about it. It raises awareness and stimulates accessibility. So go out there and show the world you can travel, too.”
Hanneke and Jan may add more travel destinations to their selection though none of them would be in the US. “Already too many possibilities due to ADA regulations,” Hanneke says. While most of her customers are currently Dutch and Belgian, anyone around the world can learn more about their business through their website, Facebook Page or YouTube Channel, and reach out if interested in their accessible vacation homes.
As for her personal favorite travel destination? Hanneke simply says: “The world.”