Accessible Iceland, part two

This is part two of a series on Accessible Iceland. You can read part one of my interview with Jón Gunnar Benjamínsson, the CEO of Iceland Unlimited, here.

Further to the 2009 ATV tour you mentioned previously (video here), do you have any more big adventures planned that you can tell us about?

Coincidentally I and my friend were just thinking about revisiting the highlands in the summer of 2014 and do another ATV tour. This time starting in Reykjavík on the west side of the island and ending up in Egilsstaðir in the east. This would be a slightly longer tour then in the one we did in 2009 but hopefully just as enjoyable and adventurous as the previous one. I love the highlands of Iceland. This plateau of burned lava fields, towering mountains, black sand deserts and shiny white glaciers is mesmerising and constantly dragging me towards it, even though I don’t have the opportunity to go there as often as I would like.

Do you hope to inspire other people in a similar position by showing them that it’s still possible to have these great adventures?

Yes, that would be a very satisfying feeling for me. I am in the unusual position to have a younger brother that has also suffered spinal cord injury in an accident and has been using a wheelchair for 11 years. He inspired me as he never gave up and overcame extreme difficulties through his ordeal. My family and friends were also my inspiration. I felt that I owe it to those people to get through my difficulties. I still get phone calls when the rehabilitation unit receives recently injured people, asking me to come and talk to them and share my experience. If I can inspire anyone with what I’ve done during those 6 years since my accident, I’m happy to do it but it has to be done in good time and not too soon. You have to get some time to grieve for the loss of your mobility in cases of spinal cord injuries. When you’ve gone through those emotions, it’s time to move on and adapt to your new situation and that’s when you’re ready to receive encouragement from your peers.

What advice would you give someone who may have just had a life-changing accident as you did, and is adapting to their new life in a wheelchair?

Take some time to grieve but don’t dwell on it. You will find out who your acquaintances are and who your real friends are. Grow the latter friendships as the former will slowly disappear. Take care of your body and eat healthy. Whatever you do, don’t smoke! If you do, stop it. Everything will be ok. You just have to believe it yourself.

How accessible is Reykjavík for someone in a wheelchair?

It could be better and it could be worse. I and my brother who’s also in a wheelchair have been fighting for improved accessibility to both official and private establishments here in Reykjavik and Akureyri (the largest town outside the greater Reykjavík area) for a few years now. We have thankfully been successful in our battle but these things move very slowly so this is an ongoing battle and something that will take a long time. Iceland Unlimited is now the first local travel agency that offers accessible travel in Iceland and something we will put more focus on in the coming months.

How do you feel accessibility compares in other countries you have visited outside Iceland?

The most accessible country that I’ve visited is USA and that’s due to the ADA act or so I’m told. I’ve travelled quite a lot in Europe since I started to use a wheelchair and I found that accessibility in Spain was of much higher standard than what I expected. I was pleasantly surprised. The Nordic countries were of similar standard as I’m used to here in Iceland

Do you think the growing tourist numbers put pressure on not only tourist sites but restaurants and hotels to improve accessibility in Iceland?

Yes, absolutely. That and the fact that there is now a company that caters to disabled travellers is also encouraging hotels/guesthouses to do better when it comes to accessibility in their facilities. We always inspect new hotels/restaurants or other tourist facilities with regard to the accessibility and send them our “verdict” or comments afterwards. If there is something that needs improvement we are not shy to tell them so. But we also compliment the owners when things are done the right way. I feel it is very important not just to complain about the negative but also give praise about the positive.

Have there been any particular sites where you have noticed a lack of facilities?

Good question. Yes, absolutely and it‘s kind of a disgrace for the authorities that in Snæfellsjökull National Park, there are absolutely no accessible facilities for disabled travelers. This should not be allowed to remain unchanged, year after year in one of our most spectacular National Parks. The authorities are charging a special 100 ISK per each sold hotel/guesthouse bed per night and this tax was supposed to be used in the maintainance and build up of facilities in our national parks. This seems to have failed to a certain degree but hopefully it will change in the coming months.

Finally, what do you like to do outside of work?

I’m an avid fly angler. I love to fly fish and I do it as often as I possibly can. Again, my way out there is my ATV. I also enjoy hunting for geese and reindeer but fishing is my main hobby. I really enjoy travelling abroad and fortunately my fiancée shares that with me. Last year we travelled as far as Hawai’i where we spent two weeks, swimming with sea turtles, jet-skiing, taking helicopter tours and driving around in the jungles and coffee fields of Maui and Kauai. It was fantastic. I also really enjoy cooking for my friends and family, especially if it’s something I have hunted or fished myself.

This has been a very enlightening topic for me. Unless you have a disability or are travelling with a disabled person, it is all too easy not to think about these kinds of issues. As always I welcome your feedback and any thoughts you may have on accessibility in places you have visited in Iceland.

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7 thoughts on “Accessible Iceland, part two

  1. Pingback: Accessible Iceland, part one | I'd Rather Be In Iceland

  2. Even though I am not disabled, nor do have close friends or relatives who are disabled, I’m glad that there are people and organizations fighting for greater accessibility for those with disabilities.

    Being American, I’m surrounded by disabled-accessible features – which is a good thing, even though it doesn’t directly affect me. That was something that I noticed when I took my first trip to Europe – specifically in London. After several days, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a single person in a wheelchair. Then I realized that I hadn’t seen a disabled person because there was no way a disabled person could navigate that city (I’m sure it’s possible, but I saw hardly any ramps or elevators, or anything else to make it easier to get around).

    When I was in Reykjavik, even though accessibility wasn’t really on my radar, I do remember noticing ramps on some buildings, some toilet stalls that could accommodate a wheelchair, etc.

    • What you say about London is so true. In fact you can’t get around much of the underground as so many stations are still just stairs or escalators. They do highlight the stations with lifts, but there aren’t many. London itself was built so long ago and has been added to in so many ways that it doesn’t give a lot of room sometimes for changing things now – certainly the tube stations would be a start though.

  3. I just had a cabdriver in Iceland who picked me up in a huge van with straps for wheelchairs, and he spent the entire ride telling me about his recently started company that specialized in making Icelandic sights wheelchair accessible. He made much of their high google search ranking so I am guessing the options have expanded since 2006, should anyone be specifically looking for current options.

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