Life sitting down doesn’t have to mean life staying put. If you or someone you know is a wheelchair user, Rachel Johnston has some insight and inspiration for life in l’Hexagone
Buying a property in France can be a minefield for even the most physically able, so if you’re a wheelchair user you may justifiably feel overwhelmed. However, disability can often be a surprising aid in narrowing down your options and making your househunt really focused. And, with the power of modern technology and the 2007 ruling by the European Court of Justice that disability benefits are exportable within the EU, there’s not as much standing between you and your French property dream as you might think.
If you’re based in the UK, France is of course a straightforward destination geographically, with excellent provisions for disabled travellers on cross-Channel ferries, Eurostar and the whole of France’s rail network. Those who rely on an adapted car at home may choose to travel by ferry or Le Shuttle in order to have it with them in France.
There is also the option to hire an adapted vehicle when you arrive, via a new online platform (www.wheeliz.com/fr) launched by French entrepreneur and wheelchair-user Charlotte de Vilmorin. This service allows car owners to list their vehicle for hire with a suggested price of €50-70 per day, approximately a third of the cost of hiring one through conventional rental companies and altogether simpler.
Wheels in motion
Once you’re in France you will want to be able to head straight to a property that is perfectly set up for your needs, so before starting the househunt, make a list of non-negotiable criteria. Taking travel into consideration, where in France would you like to be? What about the immediate surroundings and access to amenities? And what features must the property have, or have the space and potential to include? Ground-floor bedrooms, a wheel-in wet room, ramps or a lift, or plenty of level outdoor space?
A certain stigma still exists about the appearance of wheelchair-accessible properties, with many believing their choices are limited to modern or ‘institutionalised’ bungalows, devoid of character and feeling more like hospices than homes. Of course, the original, rustic features of an old property that many of us fall in love with – narrow doorways and passageways, uneven stone floors or spiral staircases – are impractical for wheelchairs, but there are in fact hundreds of houses on the market that offer clever adaptations without compromising on authentic French charm. Whether you want a farmhouse in Charente, a barn conversion in Lot or a villa in Provence, it’s all possible in France, with no marked difference in price compared with non-accessible properties.
For snowsport fans, purchasing an accessible chalet apartment in the Alps is equally viable. Careful research is necessary to ensure not only your property, but also the resort, caters for disabled skiers, but any French resort with the label adapté should offer a certain level of handiski, encompassing the use of sitskis, uniskis and dualskis.
Wheelchair users should also look for relatively flat resorts with clear, wide streets, and beware of steep driveways to chalets. Although there is still a great disparity between resorts in terms of disabled facilities, newer ones are required by law to build a certain percentage of adapted accommodation and some, for example Les Arcs 1950, offer chairlifts that run right into the village centre.
If you have a large family you may not wish to restrict your search to single-storey homes, instead focusing on those with an accessible ground-floor bedroom and bathroom for your use, with further accommodation upstairs. Lifts can be costly and complicated to install but are an option for larger houses, to allow maximum useability of the whole property.
Ramps – set at the correct gradient – are the best option for short or shallow staircases or to navigate split-level floors. If live-in help is required, a large number of properties have a separate maison d’amis which would provide both you and a carer with privacy as well as proximity to each other.
A wheely good life
If you’re not quite ready to commit to a purchase, why not try a holiday in a wheelchair-friendly gîte or chambres d’hôtes? It can be a great way to test out facilities and find out what does – and doesn’t – work for you. In a chambres d’hôtes you would also have the opportunity to talk to the owner about the adaptations they made and pick up useful tips for your own property.
Look out for the keywords logement adapté (adapted accommodation) or accessible aux handicapés (disabled access) when searching for accommodation, but be sure to speak to the owner on the phone before booking in order to guarantee suitability. Every individual’s needs are slightly different and photographs do not always give the clearest impression of the space and facilities.
Perhaps you aren’t a wheelchair user yourself but have a friend or family member who is, or wish to set up a business to cater for such guests. As there is such a proliferation of gîte businesses in France, offering accessible facilities can be a great way of carving a niche for yourself and, if set up and run correctly, could lead to valuable repeat custom.
Look out for properties with readymade accessible gîtes, or outbuildings suitable for the purpose if you don’t mind doing some renovation work, and don’t overlook the details: well-considered worktop and cupboard heights, power socket levels and grab rails will make the difference between a reasonable residence and an excellent one.
Finally, the French website J’accède (www.jaccede.com) is an invaluable online directory for disabled travellers, listing accessible venues across France from cafés and restaurants to hotels and shops. Many départements take out initiatives each year to make more venues accessible and this site is your best resource for up-to-date information to make your holidays – or indeed your retirement – that bit easier.
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