18 March 2013 by Jessica Boston
French holidays for disabled travellers
French holidays for disabled travelers – all the support you need to have a comfortable, relaxing holiday for you and your friends or family.
When Jacqui Alban became wheelchair bound following a road accident in 1995 she had no way of knowing that it would eventually lead to such a positive change to her lifestyle, and to the lifestyles of the disabled people and their friends and families who have enjoyed staying with her at the disabled-friendly accessible apartment in La Roche Derrien, Brittany.
“The accident was devastating and I was in a wheelchair for 8 or 9 years. It changes not only the physical way you move around, but also the relationship balances with those around you as you need so much more help just to do day-to-day things. Having access the right support and being treated as an individual is so, so important to maintaining your quality of life.”
Holiday difficulties faced by the disabled
Jacqui found that going on holiday really highlighted the difficulties of her situation – something that should have been a relaxing break was often reduced to an ordeal through a lack of accessibility, and you often had to pay a premium price for the privilege! These experiences prompted Jacqui and her husband Carl to hit on the idea of setting up a genuinely disabled-friendly holiday home. By 2003, Jacqui no longer needed to use a wheelchair and the time seemed right to put their plans into action.
“We needed to find the right property, somewhere suitable for adapting into a group of fully accessible apartments with enough space to allow people to comfortably manoeuvre around the bedrooms, living areas and most importantly bathrooms. We were also determined to avoid creating anything that looked institutional or carehome like. We wanted to offer ordinary holiday accommodation that anyone would be happy to use that just happened to also be extremely well laid out for wheelchair users and other guests with special needs. After rejecting plenty of beautiful but impractical older French properties we discovered an old cotton mill, very overgrown and little more than four walls and a roof, but the perfect blank canvas to make our vision a reality!”
Disability requirements often misunderstood
“Having been in the situation of being a disabled person on holiday myself, I knew first hand that when hotels or holiday properties say they are ‘accessible’ it very rarely turns out to be completely true. The legislation is not always clear, although it is slowly improving, and providers simply don’t understand what’s required.
As we began our own property renovations I decided to do some research on the disabled-friendly holidays in the region. Of the 124 ‘accessible’ places I visited, I’d only recommend about two! Some had ridiculously tight turning circles or entrances easily obstructed by further interior doors and many had inadequate bathroom facilities – in a particularly memorable visit a hotel manager demonstrated how it was possible to get into the bath by pretending to be disabled himself and hauling himself in! And this was at a well know branded hotel chain not Fawlty Towers! I didn’t know whether to be insulted or laugh at the comedy of it all!”
Designing facilities for the disabled from experience
It goes without saying that the five holiday flats Jacqui and Carl have created meet the highest standards of what’s needed for their disabled guests. Facilities include optional hospital beds, emergency alarm cords in all bathrooms, large lifts to all floors and access to a minibus that can take wheelchair bound guests wherever they chose in safety and comfort. They can even do transfers to help visitors get to and from ferry ports or airports.
“The point about The Old Cotton Mill apartments is that it’s somewhere anyone can come and be treated with autonomy and respect. We can help with basic care, bathing, getting ready for bed and so on, but we’re not a carehome, there are no timetables here – if you want to stay up ‘til 3am sampling the French wine and having fun and still have someone on hand to help with your bedtime routine, you can! We live on-site so we’re on hand to help whenever you need us.
Holiday activities for the disabled
Everyone is different and likes different sorts of holiday activities – being in a chair doesn’t change that. I see it as our job to make sure you can get the most out of your break whether you like sports, beach days or visiting historic sites – whatever you want to do we’ve done the research so we can give specialist advice on the best places to go”.
“Something fun about France is that the Health & Safety legislation isn’t quite as rigorous over here – if you want to have a go at something invariably you can. There are kayaking and canoeing places, treetop trails with zip wires and sailing trips where everyone is more than happy to help you get stuck in. This sometimes leads to some interesting situations though, like the time two of our ladies ended up on a boat that ran aground as the tide went out! All the able bodied passengers were whisked away in a dinghy but our ladies had to endure (or enjoy) being rescued by four strapping sailors who somehow carried them up the rocky coastline to safety. As the alternative was waiting eight hours for the tide to come back in it was rather fortunate they were on hand to help!”
For those less thrill-seeking guests there are plenty of other things to see and do from golf to fishing, beautiful beaches, historic sites and luxurious Thalassotherapy mud wrap treatments offered at very reasonable rates by the wife of the physiotherapist in the next village. Jacqui is a mine of local information and is even in the process of developing a Smartphone App that will locate all the disabled-friendly facilities in the area on the map, making it even easier for people to plan their days out.
Providing a service found lacking elsewhere
Jacqui and Carl are rightly proud of the holiday experience they offer disabled people and their families, giving them all the support they need for an easy, relaxing, enjoyable break. It’s no wonder that 80% of customers come back for more! Nothing is too much trouble and although the set up was originally devised for wheelchair users, Jacqui also offers caring, understanding help and support for groups including individuals with any special needs. The world needs more places like this, and with her son considering joining to help expand the family business, who knows what the inspirational Jacqui will achieve next!
Jacqui’s top tips for disabled holidaymakers in France:
- Check your ‘accessible’ accommodation. Make sure your chosen accommodation is actually suitable for your needs. Don’t be afraid to ask for photos or measurements of key areas so there won’t be any unwelcome surprises on arrival!
- Go to the beach! Many beaches have beach wheelchairs so you can get onto the sand, and even into the sea for a swim. There are two types; ones with 4×4 style wheels and also low set ones rather like recumbent bikes and they usually are free to use too!
- Treat yourself. Whether you want to visit a restaurant, zoom down a zip wire, see historic sites, take a boat trip, go fishing or indulge in a bit of pampering do not be afraid to do it! There may be a bit of shuffling of tables or the need to call in an extra pair of hands, but people here are delighted to help and you deserve to have a really brilliant holiday too!