07 SEP 2010: If you ever have a yen to be invisible – and don't we all from time to time – try a wheelchair. You'll simply vanish. Taxi and bus drivers drive past you, waiters and clerks look past you to ask your companion what you'd like for lunch.

And travel? Get set for impassable train and plane aisles, daunting door sills, toilets too small for the wheelchair, out-of-reach light switches, inaccessible places that trumpet their 'accessibility'.

But the times they are a-changing, especially in Quebec where Keroul, the non-profit advocate for mobility-challenged people is opening doors (and roads and washrooms) not only for wheelchair users but for anyone with vision, hearing or developmental challenges. It's also a boon for travel agents and tour operators, who now have dependable facts for their disabled clients.

Keroul was founded in 1979 by Andre Leclerc, who still heads the organization. Initially, he arranged mobility-friendly trips but since forging a partnership in 1987 with the Quebec Ministry of Tourism, the organization has spread its wings.

These days, Keroul surveys and evaluates the province's tourist establishments for accessibility, and provides guidance to developers and operators to help them meet mobility needs. Their 'Welcoming Ways' training programme sensitizes tourism personnel, teaching them how to cater to persons with disabilities.

Recently Keroul launched the fifth edition of 'The Accessible Road', a bilingual planning tool and map for both travel industry and public. It identifies 150 accessible sites spanning Quebec's 12 tourist regions, that have passed Keroul's screening process.

Besides pinpointing and describing each property, the map includes a listing of buses, cars and taxis adapted for wheelchair use plus sections on accessible museums, parks and gardens. There's also an overview of what accessibility means – paths, doors, corridors and rooms big enough for a wheelchair to manoeuvre, grab bars in washrooms and much more.

The Accessible Road, in French or English, paper or online, is free from infos@Keroul.qc.ca or www.theaccessibleroad.com.

To showcase the new guide, Keroul and Tourism Quebec invited travel writers to sample accessible sites in Montreal and Quebec City. The three-day tour ranged from hotels and restaurants to churches, historic sites and outdoor adventures.

We started at the Montreal Botanical Gardens, a vast and venerable park of 75 hectares, 22,000 plant species and cultivars, and miles of pathways. We wheeled merrily through lush tropical greenhouses, rose gardens, the enchanting Chinese garden – soon to be aglitter with thousands of glowing lights during the Chinese Lantern Festival (Sept. 10 to Oct. 31) – and finally the garden of the senses, a wondrous collection of scented, perfumed and textured plants providing touch and scent experiences that vision-impaired people especially enjoy.

But it was Canyon Ste-Anne, 40 km. east of Quebec City, that delivered real chills and thrills. A mighty white water torrent plunges 74 metres down this deep and rocky canyon, which is spanned by two suspension bridges, one of them soaring some 60 metres. Smooth broad pathways line either side of the canyon and an oversized golf cart whisks wheelchairs from lookout to lookout to revel safely in the spectacular view below. For the ultra-courageous, there's even a zip-line.

Two churches proved easy to navigate. The mammoth Basilica of Ste- Anne de Beaupre, just minutes away from Canyon Ste-Anne, has been welcoming the sick and the lame for nearly 400 years.

Steep stairs rise to the front door, but a spacious elevator through a ground-level side door and broad mosaic aisles – motifs in the central aisle represent the seven deadly sins, so beware! – lead to the gleaming altar and the huge statue of Ste. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary and patron saint of sailors, whose shrine, ringed with abandoned crutches and canes, has seen and perhaps cured many a disability.

Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal has a broad entry ramp and wide centre aisle where wheelchairs can park beside the pews without disrupting traffic.

Until year-end, a dazzling sound and light show dramatizes the 400-year history of both church and city, a marvel of moving screens, projectors and curtains, interpreted in English, French, Spanish and Mandarin via headsets.

Details: www.basiliquenddm.org.

More recent Montreal history awaits at Chateau Dufresne Museum on Avenue Jeanne d'Arc, a World War I mansion richly adorned by painter and stained glass artist, Guido Nincheri. Formerly the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts, the Chateau now hosts art and history exhibitions, open to wheelchair users, thanks to its elevators and large rooms.

Old Montreal, the city's birthplace 400 years ago, is more challenging, thanks to narrow sidewalks and cobbled streets, with huge construction barricades. But many smart restaurants boast ramps and lifts, including the Intercontinental Hotel's spacious Osco! with its gracious staff and Provence-inspired menu.
Hotels present the ultimate mobility challenge. At Montreal's Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 'Give Peace a Chance'' suite, lavishly decorated with photos and memorabilia, continues to attract fans, 13 of the 1,037 rooms have been adapted – Braille signage, roll-in showers, a warm welcome to service dogs, accessible gym and pool and several staff members trained in sign language .

Three Quebec City hotels are welcoming disabled folk.

Loews Hotel Le Concorde offers a panoramic view of the city from its revolving rooftop restaurant, L'Astral, a nifty spot for brunch. The hotel is now updating all of its 406 rooms, with several slated for increased accessibility.

Chateau Bonne Entente, a member of 'Leading Hotels of the World', doesn't stint on service, decor, fine food or the little luxuries that make life lovely, including lush gardens, pools and a waterfall to please the eye, plus ramps and elevators to accommodate the wheelchairs.

The First Nations Wendat have created a four-star hotel, with an unusual museum showcasing the history, crafts and customs of the Huron-Wendak Nation. The hotel's 55 spacious rooms, all facing the St. Charles River near Quebec City, are well adapted to mobility challenges. They're decorated in Aboriginal themes – lush beaver pelts on the beds (reminding me of my beloved and much missed cats), wolf hides draped over chair backs, framed weapons, tools and crafts adorning the walls.

So what's the bottom line? Adapting for accessibility isn't cheap but statistics from the Ministry of Tourism suggest it's worthwhile. Just one per cent (nearly 1,300) of Quebec's 13,672 tourism businesses were fully or partially adapted in 2008. But visits from physically disabled travellers climbed from 16,000 in 2008 to 23,000 in 2009, and the totals are expected to keep on rising as increasing numbers of disabled people take to the open and accessible road.

Quebec Images by Isobel Warren:

Image captions
Left to right from top:

Lush jungles with wide smooth paths greet visitors to Montreal Botanical Gardens -- Keroul'S Isabelle Ducharme (left) and artist Michelle Amerie with Magalie Boutin of Quebec Tourism and Marie-Jose Pinsonneault of Montreal Tourism.

Wheelchair elevator whisks Michelle Amerie from VIA train to platform.

Accessible buses and taxis make life easier for wheelchair users. Keroul's Isabelle Ducharme descends gently from an accessible tour bus
in Quebec.

Undaunted by the height and the rocks and rapids below, Isabelle Ducharme negotiates the suspension bridge at Canyon Ste-Anne.

Suspension bridges cross high above the roaring rapids that plunge 74 metres down Canyon Ste-Anne.

Media group enjoyed exploring Keroul's Accessible Road. Group included (front, l to r) Quebec guide Elyse Busque, journalists Barbara Silverstein and Isobel Warren, Keroul's Isabelle Ducharme, artist Michelle Amerie; (back) Abilities Magazine publisher Raymond Cohen, Magalie Boutin of Quebec Tourism, Helene McNicholl, co-owner of Canyon Ste-Anne.

An oversized golf cart fitted with on/off ramps scoots wheelchair visitors, including artist Michelle Amerie, around the wilderness of Canyon Ste-Anne.

Ste-Anne de Beaupre: Statue of St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, towers over supplicants asking for miraculous cures at Basilica of Ste-Anne de Beaupre, east of Quebec City.

At Chateau Bon Entente, one of the Leading Hotels of the World, a mighty bowl of seafood was just the first course of a splendid farewell feast.

Broad ramps make Montreal Botanical Gardens accessible to wheelchairs. Here at the Chinese Garden, now preparing for its Lantern Festival, Marie-Jose Pinsonneault of Montreal Tourism gives artist Michelle Amerie a ramp ride.

Scented herbs and textured plants make the Montreal Botanical Gardens' Garden of the Senses a novel experience for everyone, especially those with limited vision.

Chateau Dufresne's exquisite paintings by Guido Nincheri depicting Greek legends, proved too racy for priests who came later. They painted over the works which were recently restored.

Native influence permeates First Nations Wendat Hotel with its tepee-shaped museum of Wendake history, decor relying on Native art and artistry and menu featuring Native cuisine.

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Derrick Bloch

A regular contributer to Travel Industry Today, Derrick has been recognized by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 80 travel agents in North America. 

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