In the Spring of 2012, when I was studying film at Mizzou, I got an email about a study abroad course for my major. Now, Film Studies was a relatively new major at the school so study abroad opportunities for it were basically nonexistent. I was psyched. after looking closer at the email, I learned the details. The study abroad trip would be over only a month during the summer and it would start in Athens, Greece before traveling to an island called Serifos. I had never been to Greece and the idea of a summer trip to Europe was definitely something I was interested in.
However, it only took a few minutes for me to remember my last trip to Europe.
Like I mentioned in my last blog post, I went to Italy over spring break during my sophomore year of high school. During the trip, I decided to take my manual wheelchair instead of my power chair because I was afraid of everything being inaccessible, not to mention the huge chance of my wheelchair getting damaged in transit. What then occurred was one of the most physically uncomfortable 10 days I have ever been through. I had a bruise on my arm from the armrest that wasn’t properly fitted to my body and I almost had whiplash from the amount of cobblestones I had to go over. Not only that, but all of my independence was taken away because my dad had to push me around in my manual wheelchair instead of me driving myself. He did his best and none of my discomfort was really his fault. At times, we both forgot that I was so dependent on him and so there were one or two times where he would simply walk somewhere and expect me to follow, despite the fact that I could not push myself. By the end of the trip it was funny. Especially because I would often reach out for my joystick with the intent to reposition myself or go somewhere only to have my arm drop dramatically to my side. So while I know I was very privileged to be able to go to Italy and I learned a lot on my trip, a lot of my memories had to do with physical discomfort or pain.
Just for kicks, when I got the email about the study abroad trip to Greece, I forwarded it to my dad. I think I probably said something like “Hey Dad, want to relive the Italy trip in an equally inaccessible country for a whole month!?” It was only about 20 minutes until he emailed me back with a response of “Absolutely! Have you emailed the people in charge yet?” At first I thought he was kidding but I called him and he was so excited. He had apparently already forwarded my email that I had sent him to my mom and they had been discussing how they would make it work if I wanted to go.
So I did. I emailed the people in charge and just asked general questions about the trip and what it would be like. I was going to be in a film class in which my main project was going to be writing, directing, and editing a promotional video for the study abroad program. That was it. Honestly, I was enjoying the filmmaking so much that I probably would have done that for fun if I have gone there on vacation. What followed this discussion with the organizers was meeting after meeting, some with my parents and some without, in which we discussed the logistics of my attending the study abroad course and what kinds of accommodations would be my responsibility versus the school’s responsibility. By the beginning of May, I knew I was going to do it. We had planned everything, even down to the last detail. My dad would be with me for the first two weeks and assist me with all of my physical care. For the second half of the trip, my mom would come to Greece to relieve him and help me during the rest of the time. This way, neither parent would get worn out and both would get to visit a beautiful country. I was just happy that I would be able to do something I loved and check off a new life experience (despite the expense which I used student loans to cover). Oh, and we decided to bring my power wheelchair, which was nice.
So on the last day of May 2012, I set off to Athens. It was a long flight and I tried to sleep (which was hard without my BiPap) and I settled on watching a movie called X-Men: First Class. A few weeks ago I wrote about how much X-Men means to me and how I think its stories can help the disability community. In First Class, Mystique is a teenage (or maybe early 20s) girl who struggles with being different in a world that hates mutants. But I wasn’t really paying much attention to the plot, I was too excited.
When we landed in the Athens airport, the real fun began. They didn’t get my wheelchair right when we landed, so I sat on my dad’s lap while he sat in a generic push-chair for about 30 minutes. Eventually, when the airport employee brought my wheelchair around, I was astonished that it actually worked! What a miracle, I thought, that my chair, my independence, hasn’t been jostled around and broken.
My memory is a little hazy when I try to remember how I got to the hotel. I do remember that there was what seemed like miles and miles of bumpy sidewalk with only the occasional curb cut in the blocks surrounding our hotel. The elevator inside could barely fit more than 2 people, much less a wheelchair, but we made it work somehow. That was probably the biggest accessibility problem in Athens. There was always an accessible alternative route for everywhere else we went. Well, that’s not including our first hotel room that had a step at the entrance, then another one going into the bathroom (Like, why? Who would want that?).
We had a couple of days to visit around Athens and get acclimated before we set off for Serifos, where we’d spend the bulk of our month. One thing that continually impressed me was how accommodating many of the shopkeepers were. A couple of them even had portable ramps stuck away in the depths of their shops that they dusted off and set up so I could get in. And people were kind. They helped me if I needed anything and I felt like I was welcome and wanted pretty much everywhere I went.
Once we arrived at Serifos, that kindness continued. Upon arrival at our new hotel, we were dismayed to see that there was a not-so-small step that led to the hotel. Tired and hot, my dad and I were devastated at this seemingly overlooked detail. But before we could even say anything, the hotel owner ran out, said “just one second,” before whipping out his cell phone and giving quick, frantic orders in Greek to whoever was on the other line. Within 5 minutes (no exaggeration) there was a cement truck out front laying out a new ramp.
There were many more stories like this one, including two restaurant employees whose restaurant was at the bottom of a sandy hill laying out wooden boards for me to drive my wheelchair on so I wouldn’t get stuck in the sand. Things like that were easy for them. They were normal. Of course, not everything was made fully accessible. That couldn’t possibly be done. What did make this experience different from most of my experiences in America was that the mentality and the intent felt different in Greece. Business owners knew that accessibility was their problem to solve, not mine. It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t get into shops and other buildings, it was the shop/building owner’s fault that they were not able to serve all of their patrons equally.
At one point, I befriended one of the shopkeepers on Serifos. I was describing something that I had done the night before and was too embarrassed to tell my mom: There was a curb that had a bit of a slope to it and so instead of avoiding the area I tried to get up on the curb by taking a running start and coasting up onto the curb. (Yes, it was stupid. No, I would not do it again but I was in Greece and I was 21 so… YOLO). I asked her how other people with disabilities get around and I’ve never forgotten what she told me. She said that per the law, business owners were responsible for curb cuts and the other things that the city or state government in America would normally pay for. There are no tax breaks and there are no regulations that force businesses to be that country’s equivalent of ADA-compliant. She also said that I was probably the first disabled person to ever be on that island. Ever. In all of history. Ever, ever. And that throughout most of Greece, family is expected to take care of people with disabilities, so when people become immobile due to disability or age, they stay home and their family goes to the shop or the grocery store or wherever they need to go to do things for them.
At the time, I remember thinking that was really unenlightened and I felt bad for all of the people with disabilities that I did not see around Athens or Serifos, without even realizing that for them, being disabled was basically like being on house arrest for the rest of their life or until they get “better”. One piece of insight that I did gain over my time there was that while this perspective may be true for me and I may greatly value my independence, the people who I encountered did their best to accommodate me, not out of legal obligation but out of love. When I did my “goodbye tour” on my last day on Serifos, I went around and said goodbye to all the shopkeepers and restaurant owners who served me and showed my appreciation for all that they did to accommodate me. One restaurant owner gave me a t-shirt that had the name of the restaurant on it, along with a jar of olives, because it was all he had that he could give away. It was the sweetest thing.
At the end of the month that I spent there, I did not want to leave. In fact, I almost couldn’t leave because the ferry that took us back to the mainland was not wheelchair accessible. Something had gotten confused when the program director had requested a wheelchair accessible ferry and so I had to leave my wheelchair down in the cargo area of the ship and sit uncomfortably on a couch upstairs for the multi-hour trip back to Athens.
My last few days in Athens before flying back to the US were mostly uneventful. I remember being somber, remembering that only a few more days of magic was left. It felt like the last day of camp. I spent the time contemplating how much this experience had changed me and the big lessons I could take away. At one point, while exploring on my own, there was a disabled parking sign I saw discarded in a big pile of trash. Someone had graffitied it and painted a cape on the back of the disabled person icon. I couldn’t take a picture because I can’t take photos of things myself, and I couldn’t find my way back to where I was when I had someone with me. In hindsight, maybe that was best. Maybe that message was just meant for me. After all, visiting Greece and surviving uninjured felt like my biggest accomplishment. I felt like a bit of a superhero if I’m being honest.
Getting on the plane to the US was a pretty difficult process because they wouldn’t let me take my wheelchair to the gate, so my mom had to borrow a wheelchair and scoot across the airport using her feet while holding me. Luckily, we had a friend from the trip with us who gave the airport personnel a nice little lecture on liability and safety and how they should probably change their policy because the more time they had my wheelchair unsupervised, the higher the chance of us suing them for repairs. I wasn’t going to sue, but it was certainly entertaining to hear him talking a mile a minute to people who spoke very little English. Needless to say, we lost that battle so my mom and I both were pretty exhausted by the time we got onto the plane.
After boarding, she fell asleep pretty quickly but I didn’t. I found the same selection of movies and decided to watch X-Men: First Class again. There was something I liked about it but I wasn’t sure what. Amazingly, I got a completely different message from the movie on the plane ride home than I did on the plane ride out. The movie taught me that being different can give you a lot of blessings but it’s your obligation to pass those gifts on and help other people. I am a storyteller because of that trip. Going to Greece truly planted the seed for me taking on a career in which I could help people with disabilities, especially by writing. I can only hope that I fulfill that obligation.