I like to think of myself as a fairly independent person — almost to the point of stupidity at times. I’m a paraplegic and rarely admit that I need some help even in those moments that most able-bodied people would know to just ask. I’m the type of girl that would (literally) rather fall on her face trying to get down a couple stairs, than ask for help.
So of course I thought I could do Iceland alone in the winter. I’m from upstate New York where it’s typical to get 10 inches of snow at a time, and it would only be for two days. It couldn’t be that hard, right?
I wanted to visit Iceland and Arctic Norway to see the Northern Lights for my birthday this year, and was all jazzed up to go solo. Everyone thought I was nuts, so a couple weeks before the trip, my sister in-law decided to join me. I ended up being extremely grateful that she did. Iceland, although beautiful, had a myriad of obstacles waiting for me that I had not faced before, and I needed her help getting on buses, getting my wheelchair onto vans, and getting through the snow that never seemed to end.
So if you’re in a wheelchair and are thinking of traveling to Iceland, I have some advice for you, through the lens of traveling on a budget.
- You Can’t Drive Yourself Around
Literally. That is, unless you have your own portable hand controls at the ready. Iceland doesn’t offer cars with hand controls to rent. I looked for weeks and could only find a couple of extremely expensive vans that I couldn’t use. If you’re someone who is used to being independent and enjoys driving yourself, Iceland probably isn’t the best place to go. The car rental places are not helpful, and the majority of cars are manual, so even if you have portable hand controls, you may not be able to get a car to put them on.
As a disclaimer, I was extremely grateful to not be driving, as the weather was so terrible the majority of the time. We passed by a lot of tourists on the side of the road who were unprepared for the wind and snow, and the towns are separated by several miles, so help is often a long ways away.
2. The Majority of Tours are Off-Limits to People in Wheelchairs
Another thing I was pretty shocked by, is I could not find a single tour that had a wheelchair accessible bus or van. And doing a private tour is extremely expensive. There’s only one company in the whole country that really does wheelchair accessible tours, and it would have cost $1200 a day to do anything remotely cool. Not within our budget, when the other tours we were looking at were between $60 and $100/person.
I was insistent on being able to see the sights beyond the Golden Tour Circle, which every tour operator told me was the only remotely accessible tour in the country. They turned out to be wrong and not well-informed, although I’m sure they were trying to be well-meaning and overly cautious.
I’m very lucky that I’m a pretty agile person, although extremely cheap, so I booked us on a small group South Coast tour and told the operator in advance that I would be fine climbing on and off the bus throughout the day. We were on a 17-person van, and I assured them that I would not need any help from the bus driver. This was still not without issue however, as the driver flat-out said, “this will not work” as I dragged my ass up the stairs of the bus.
The South Coast tour was, outside of the van, fairly easy outside of the snow. the paths going up to the waterfalls weren’t too rocky, and the black beach, while very difficult to maneuver was doable and totally worth it.
3. Public Transit is Near-Impossible if You’re Alone
The bus drivers don’t want to help you. While yes, the buses within the city limits are all technically wheelchair accessible, there’s a little ramp at the back of each bus that needs to be taken out. The bus drivers expect you to be able to do it on your own, but if you’re in a wheelchair (the whole point of needing the ramp), you can’t take the ramp out.
4. You Will Get Dirty, Even in the City
The streets have what looks and feels like black ash. I’m not sure if it’s just something that happens in the winter or if it’s what they use instead of salt/sand for ice, but it was everywhere in Reykjavik. It was so bad, that by the end of our first day, my clothes were ruined, and the black had seeped through my gloves. If you use a manual wheelchair, my advice would be to try to wear several layers of waterproof gloves while walking around the city.
5. Be Assertive
My chief complaint with Iceland, is that I was told “no” or they wouldn’t accommodate, around 90% of the time. I had to learn that just because I was told no, didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. You will be told this countless times but you have to keep pushing if it’s something you really want to do. I wish I had pushed harder to do the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, because the photos are stunning, but everyone I spoke to highly discouraged it.
In talking to locals, I was dismayed to hear that there is a negative societal attitude toward people with disabilities in Iceland. Essentially, they’re thought of as kind of a nuisance and people don’t want to be of assistance. I especially had this problem at the airport, and dealing with the Icelandair staff along every step of our travels.
Iceland is a beautiful country with a great beer selection and interesting history, and is trying to learn how to adapt to the onslaught of tourists in its rebound economy. Despite the growth, they have not yet learned how to properly integrate its citizens or visitors with disabilities, which I fear will be a continuing problem unless the society actively chooses to make major changes.
If you do choose to travel to Iceland and you use a wheelchair, my chief recommendation is to go during the summer. Iceland is not great about keeping up with the snow they get, even within the city. If you’re dying to see the Northern Lights, head to Canada or Norway (another post coming about that shortly) where there are a myriad of options for travelers with all sorts of disabilities.
I can’t stress enough how beautiful the black sand beach was and the waterfalls were completely worth it. If you are a wheelchair user that can get around with minimal help and are capable and bumping your ass up steps and like extra challenges, then a two or three-day stopover in Iceland might be worth a shot. At the very least you’ll be treated to great music and fascinating culture. Please feel free to reach out if I can do anything to help you plan!
By the way, we never did get to see the Northern Lights, although not because of the chair. It was just bad luck.