Eléonore Vern reveals that she ‘died twice’ during her severely premature birth. 

She failed to breathe for eight minutes, an event that caused lasting neurological damage and partial cerebral paralysis and which means Eléonore uses a wheelchair.

The sophrology relaxation therapist lives in Lyon (Rhône-Alpes) but was born and grew up in Montpellier (Hérault) and studied journalism in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône). 

She is also an avid international traveller, having visited more than 20 countries so far, including Canada, Spain, the United States, Great Britain, and Costa Rica. 

The more she navigated foreign cities in a wheelchair, and the physical challenges they put in her path, the more she realised she wanted to do more and go further. 

Ms Vern now plans to travel the world solo with her wheelchair. 

Read more: Free wheelchairs do not go far enough, say French disabled groups

She has started a fundraising campaign on the website La Cagnotte des proches to buy an all-terrain wheelchair. Without this equipment she cannot embark on her ambitious project.  

She plans to leave in the winter of 2024, following the rising of the sun in New Zealand or Australia by way of Asia, before the second part of her trip in the Americas, from North to South. 

The Connexion spoke with Ms Vern about her impending travel plans and her experience navigating France’s public transport. 

She explained that Great Britain is far more geared to wheelchair users than France, and was pleasantly surprised by her experience in New York.

How did you come up with the idea for a wheelchair World Tour?

It came to me gradually during my nine years of travels. I realised that I wanted to see more of the world. 

As I travelled, my plans for a World Tour began to take shape, and I started to believe it could be possible. 

I want to show people who use a wheelchair that they can travel the world and break the mental limitations that hold us back.

Are there many of these mental limitations? 

We are all full of them. 

So many people who walk on their own two feet come forward to tell me they do not know how I manage to travel all by myself. 

At the same time they confess to me that although they are physically able, they cannot find enough courage within themselves to travel as far as I intend to. This doesn’t include all the people who actually use wheelchairs. I am doing this for all of them.  

Why not a Tour de France first before taking on the world? 

Because I am fascinated by other cultures and languages. 

Of course, I will face greater and more varied obstacles than I do in France, such as in Thailand or India to name but two. 

I just tell myself that I need to explore these countries to show that anything is possible.

Read more: New app helps disabled drivers find parking spaces in France

How are you preparing for the trip? What are you focusing on?

Firstly, fundraising for the wheelchair. There are two options. A wheelchair with no engine costs around €10,000, a figure which then doubles for a model with an engine.

I am currently fundraising for a wheelchair without an engine.

Why? I have tried ten wheelchairs with engines and not a single model has convinced me. The advantages they bring do not outweigh the constraints. 

They are either too heavy, too expensive, or too cumbersome. 

Right now, I will be relying on the engine of my own body, even though this is not ideal.

What I am looking for is a wheelchair optimised to handle the many environments and landscapes I will face. The one I have chosen is made of titanium, a material that is almost unbreakable and rust-proof. 

Right now, I am also looking for sponsors. We will see.

Read more: Map: Where in France do people give most to charities?

Are you scared? Anxious? Impatient? Far-sighted? 

Scared, no. Anxious, no. Far-sighted, yes. The ability to forward plan is one of the perks of living with disability. 

We anticipate, check and verify everything in order to avoid trouble, even though we know there always will be. 

I’m becoming increasingly impatient the closer I come to being able to do this trip.

Is France adapted to people using wheelchairs?

No. From my experience, Lyon is one of the big cities making the most effort. 

It is harder to move around in Montpellier than in Lyon. Marseille is a nightmare and Aix-en-Provence is even worse. 

I absolutely hated living in these last two cities and even became depressed after feeling constantly so curtailed in my movements. 

I had come back from a year abroad in Spain, where urban areas are far better adapted. So jumping from that sense of freedom to obstruction was extremely difficult for me to experience. 

France is completely ill-adapted to wheelchair users.

I would have thought that the Paralympic Games in Paris would have changed things in the capital, but the city remains completely inaccessible to me. 

If I were to be offered my dream job there, I would be forced to decline because of that very reason. 

For one thing, virtually no Metro station is adapted to wheelchairs.

Please, go on. How does it manifest on a daily basis?

Buses have handrails and platforms to help me get in. Well that is when they work. 

Pavements are either too narrow, too smashed up, or obstructed by objects like rubbish bins, terraces, cars etc. 

There are steps everywhere, and some shops remain inaccessible. 

Cobbled roads, last of all, are impossible to travel across. In Paris it is very difficult.

Read more: ‘French society is built around the economy not the right to dignity’

Among the 20 countries you have travelled to, how would you rank France for its accessibility of public areas to people moving around with wheelchairs? How does it compare to Great Britain for instance? 

I would argue that Great Britain is ahead of France from my own experience. It is not perfect, but it is better.

I have a recollection of London taxis being lower than French ones, and that they are surprisingly accessible to wheelchairs. I was able to get in the taxi while staying in my wheelchair. 

The wheelchair was not secured, so I would probably have died if we had had an accident (laughs), but my memory is an experience of being able to do more things than I could attempt in France. 

The countries best adapted for wheelchair users are Switzerland, Spain, and northern countries such as Sweden and Denmark. 

But there is also another cultural aspect to it. In Spain, for instance, people are more helpful and caring. 

I happened to fall on the ground in France and waited five minutes before someone picked me up. That would never happen in Spain.

Read more: Ryanair and Bordeaux airport in row as disabled woman left off flight

What about the United States? I have a recollection of Boston, where I asked myself the same question, as to me it looked so inaccessible for people using wheelchairs.

I can only speak about New York where I was pleasantly surprised. There were lots of revolving doors, for example. 

But the greatest experience was when taking the bus. I was prioritised in a packed bus, where the bus driver asked people to step out of the bus and wait for the next one because I had to get in. 

People calmly left the bus without complaining or moaning. This would never happen in France.

If you want to support Ms Vern’s campaign for an all-terrain wheelchair, you can visit her fundraising page.

Related articles

‘I set up an invisible disabilities media company after my diagnosis’

Models with disabilities are focus of photographer’s new French show

Can you use a French disabled parking badge in the UK?

Source link