When an old friend travels from Perth, Australia — exactly half-way around the world — to visit Reading, USA (my adopted hometown), it’s a pretty big deal. But it’s a challenge, too, since Michael Walker uses a wheelchair, a reality of having multiple sclerosis (MS).
In June 2016, Michael left Western Australia to visit Pennsylvania, stopping first in Brisbane to connect with Gary Brisset, a friend and skilled MS caregiver, who would accompany him on the long journey. The two wanted to stay briefly in New York City en route — to rest, to see the city, to feel its energy — before heading straight to Berks County for a week of sightseeing.
There was only one way to make this work: research and planning. I was aware that despite ADA regulations — Americans with Disabilities Act rules ensuring that businesses provide access and accommodations for differently abled people — we Americans still have a long way to go before every hotel, restaurant, service station, tourist site, etc. has good egress for folks in wheelchairs.
Firsthand experience is a valuable teacher, and I learn how tricky it can be when my own mother visits me (at age 94, she’s reliant on a cane, a walker and sometimes a wheelchair). I’ve long marveled at how competent my sister (her primary caregiver) has become at identifying accessible spaces and places when I visit them at our family homesteads in southeast New Hampshire and Cape Cod. It’s not easy; it’s no walk in the park — literally.
But my husband and I must have done something right, because Michael and Gary both affirmed at the end of the visit that they not only “loved Reading,” but would tell everyone they knew that it’s a great travel destination. Look out, Reading! The Aussies are coming!
Right Ride, Right Room
To make sure Michael and Gary had a stress-free ride from New York to Reading, I called on Michael’s Classic Limo in Leesport. They not only made transportation easy, but were also glad to make a sightseeing detour at Michael’s request, so he could see Philadelphia up close. Near the Liberty Bell, the driver carefully chose a smart rest stop for his passengers. “He pulled into a big hotel there,” says Michael, “a good choice” as it was an older building retrofitted with accessible facilities. The limo service’s name led my friend to joke, “I flatter myself that I run a nice service. I’m thinking of running tours from Perth to Reading.”
The DoubleTree by Hilton Reading worked out perfectly. Having viewed their website’s 66-point list under “For Your Accessibility Needs,” Michael quickly decided that he would book accommodations there. “This was my first visit to Pennsylvania, but I found the room (and the price!) better than that in a well-known hotel where I stayed in New York City. In addition, the staff was very helpful, without being intrusive.”
Gary agrees, “The service at the DoubleTree by management and staff was second to none.”
Hotel General Manager Craig Poole credits “CARE Culture.” He explains, “CARE is built through the passion and commitment of team members to live our values, deliver our promise and Create A Rewarding Experience for all our guests. Because we have this commitment to creating a rewarding experience for all our guests, we are able to create a seamless and remarkable stay for those that are differently-abled.”
He notes, “Before we opened, we had three ADA consultants review the design and functionality of the hotel because of our commitment to the growing different ability market. A Hilton requires that all managers and associates go through several online training programs, including ADA education and service animal videos.”
Indeed, says Michael, “There was quite a lot of room between beds and the foot of the bed, and it just made it easy to steer myself in the manual wheelchair. But the very best feature was the bathroom. It had really good roll-in, roll-out shower access, and in the shower recess there was a bench so I could get myself off the wheelchair safely and quickly. It was just perfect.”
Good Food, Good Memories
“Cheers, the restaurant, was quite good, including for accessibility. Of course, the majority of hotel restaurants are like this, with plenty of room to have a chair or seat removed so I could wheel in or transfer into a regular chair. I had breakfast there every day and lunch with visitors, plus room service for dinner one or two nights.”
Aware of the entrance ramps, ample space, and warm atmosphere at Victor Emmanuel, my husband and I knew our guests would enjoy eating Italian food there. “Those gnocchi — so good!” recalls Michael. And of course they liked the Peanut Bar. (How could we not go to the iconic Peanut Bar?)
Train Ride through Amish Country
Naturally, Michael and Gary wanted to see Amish country. I had made special arrangements by calling ahead for a big surprise. Success! The Strasburg Railroad in Ronks made our jaunt to Lancaster County unforgettably fun by providing customized services to lift my guest and his wheelchair up to the luxury parlor car of the old-fashioned steam train for a ride into the Amish countryside — a definite highlight of the week. “I would not have believed that they would cater to that,” says Michael. “That was unexpected.”
We trekked about all week in my Chevrolet Equinox, which is a bit higher off the ground and has ample space for a fold-down wheelchair. In review, says Michael, “I saw all the buildings — some like the GoggleWorks — which had been cleverly repurposed. I saw a town that had a history and was making efforts to reinvent itself, becoming very attractive. New York City was all hustle and push and noise. And Reading was just great to absorb slowly.”
The Inside Story: Not Just Visiting
That week of touring around was an eye-opener for me. Depending on your body’s condition, life can be, as Michael delicately puts it, “exclusionary.” He observes, “More and more people are using scooters like I have, and to the extent that you want to be a welcoming town, you have to allow for, or build in, safe road crossings for motorized scooters and so forth.”
As for Berks County residents, I wondered, what is working well for their needs? Albright professor and former Berks County Poet Laureate Maria McDonnell and her delightful son Aidan Sandor, who uses a wheelchair, shared several “best picks.”
“The Reading Museum / Neag Planetarium and the path along the creek are indeed accessible. Aidan actually loves going there in all seasons.
One of Aidan’s favorite things to do is go for walks in nature, so we are happy that there are a number of accessible trails in Berks County. Most parts of the Schuylkill River Trail are well-maintained and manageable in a wheelchair, as well as scenic. We can (and do) walk from Stone Cliff Park in Reading all the way to Blue Marsh Lake. (The trail becomes inaccessible when it goes past the lake.) Aidan loves to walk on the trail at Gring’s Mill. The trail at Kernsville Dam Recreation Area in Hamburg is also a nice place to walk/roll. Last time we were there, we watched a young deer feeding in a field. Aidan loved it. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has recently added an accessible path to a scenic outlook. It isn’t very long, but the view is amazing and something that Aidan couldn’t appreciate without the accessible trail. When we go there, we enjoy the educational programs and gift shop. For people who are not wheelchair bound, but who have limited or compromised mobility, there are a number of benches along the trail to make rest stops.
Movie theaters in Berks County all offer accessible seating. For the Fox Berkshire in Wyomissing, it’s best to reserve accessible seats ahead of time.
Aidan enjoys going out to eat, and I have to say that as much as we’d like to support locally-owned restaurants, the local chain restaurants are typically more accessible. Many of the smaller locations and older buildings make it difficult or impossible for us to get in. I have to give a shout out to Friendly’s in Wyomissing. We’ve been there several times, and not only are they accommodating of Aidan’s wheelchair; they always offer Song [Aidan’s canine companion] a bowl of water.
Also of note:
Just north of Berks County, in Breinigsville, there’s Liber-Tee Mini Golf, a miniature golf course where the first 9 holes are wheelchair accessible. Aidan doesn’t have the arm strength to golf anymore, but when he was younger, the owner went out of his way to make Aidan feel welcome.
There may be other community pools in the area that have ADA pool access lifts, but we have been going to the Topton Community Pool for the past couple of years. Not only do they have a lift to get Aidan into and out of the pool, the staff is always helpful and polite.”