Researching Spain’s Vibrant Past and Present
As a history major at New York University, I earned several academic honors before graduating. Among the honors was the prestigious Coca-Cola Spanish Study Grant awarded for original research projects.
This grant enabled me to travel to Madrid, Spain, and conduct primary research on Juan de Mariana, a Jesuit priest who lived and worked in Spain in the late 16th to the early 17th century. While conducting my research, I had the opportunity to explore the rich and vibrant culture of Spain.
Before I could even prepare an agenda of activities, I had to do extensive research to plan my trip. This was going to be my first trip to Europe, and as a person who uses a wheelchair, there was much preparation necessary to make my trip a success. This included searching for a suitable hotel that could accommodate my needs; discussing with my physician possible health risks that I might confront while in Spain; equipping my chair with necessary parts for emergency repairs; and investigating alternative transportation. This process was worthwhile because it revealed to me the untapped wellspring of organizations that offer services to the disabled community. There are dedicated travel guides for people with disabilities, financial support for education, employment opportunities, and many other resources available, if one is willing to take the time needed to track them down.
I learned that Madrid’s transit system provides wheelchair accessible vans that must be arranged in advance. I felt it would be most convenient to rent a car. Realizing I would have to rely on others for more assistance on this trip, I chose to take my manual wheelchair instead of my motorized chair. Then I would have the needed flexibility to fold and store the chair on the plane or in the car, and it would be easier to maneuver in the narrow library stacks where I would conduct part of my research. My brother and my mother accompanied me in order to provide assistance.
We left New York for Madrid in mid-July for the three-week adventure. Since we are all fluent in Spanish, language would not be a barrier. When I purchased my ticket, I notified the airline that I would be using a manual wheelchair. I was advised to arrive at the airport early for a special pre-boarding procedure. After properly instructing the flight attendant to disassemble my wheelchair for storage, I was lifted onto a narrow aisle chair and taken to my seat. Upon arriving in Madrid, we settled into our wheelchair-accessible hotel room and the kind concierge at the hotel was attentive to all of our needs. Then following a good night’s sleep, I was ready and eager to begin my exploration of Madrid.
While planning my trip and later in conversing with some Spaniards, I learned that Spain’s capital has steadily been implementing policies in an effort to make the city more accessible for people with disabilities. The transportation system is gradually being modified to include lifts on buses and walk platforms that lead directly to the subway and train stations. Hotel personnel informed me that newly constructed buildings or even those being renovated must include rooms and other facilities that are accessible to people with disabilities. The awareness of disability rights is evidently ubiquitous in Madrid. When I visited the famed museum, El Prado, I was told by museum officials that up until recently, it was not entirely equipped with ramps. This meant that if I had gone some years ago, I might not have been able to view Spanish masterpieces by the celebrated artists Diego Velazquez and Francisco Goya.
In la Plaza de España, I had the opportunity to meet with a Madridian and we talked about the changing status of people with disabilities in Spain. Although she felt Spain initially lagged behind other Western European nations in advancing disability issues, she now believes that Spain is indeed closing the gap with its neighbors. This transformation can be attributed to the largest and most influential disability rights group in Spain, La ONCE. La ONCE is an organization dedicated to promoting and advocating disability issues. I also learned that La ONCE coordinates workshops and activities that are open to the public to raise awareness of disability rights.
While experiencing these remarkable changes for disabled people, one must remember that Madrid is one of the oldest cities in Europe. When my brother drove us into the heart of Spain’s capital, I was in awe of the grand and extravagant architecture left by the kings and queens of years past. To me, Madrid seems like a living museum! The baroque and classical-style edifices dating back many centuries are prominent throughout the city. These buildings were once occupied by the ruling class and now some of them serve as government offices. I conducted my research at the Jesuit Library and in the archives of the National Library, as well as at places outside of Madrid where Juan de Mariana had traveled and worked. In researching his life, I found myself at sites 200-300 years old with the rare honor of handling and reading ancient books.
The oldest part of Madrid is better explored on foot — or in my case, on wheels. Traveling through this part of Madrid with its cobblestone streets, I was enthralled by the sheer immensity and opulence of centuries-old palaces. I imagined myself in an earlier time tracing the footprints of Spaniards who walked on the same streets when the city thrived with lively markets. In parts of the old city, I encountered knee-high sidewalk curbs. My sense of adventure and determination helped me to overcome the obstacles. If the curbs were too high, I would locate a lower rise that my chair could climb. Other times, I would ask for assistance. I noticed that sometimes people seemed hesitant about helping me. This might have been the result of their preconceived notions about what people with disabilities can and cannot, or should and should not do, or perhaps their inexperience in meeting individuals in wheelchairs. But after I explained what assistance I needed, people felt more at ease and were very willing to assist. Communicating ideas clearly helps people realize that a person with a disability is no different than any other human being and not someone to pity.
What the city of Madrid lacked in accessibility, its citizens made up for in their warmth and courtesy. For example, there was a store that had several steps to enter. A customer and an employee saw us approach and rushed to help my brother lift me into the store. In a restaurant where I could not fit my wheelchair under a table, the manager who witnessed my predicament immediately exchanged the table with another that accommodated my chair. It seemed that whatever circumstance arose, it was resolved easily and immediately.
The experience I had in Madrid was tremendous. It reaffirmed my belief that whatever formidable hurdle exists, with perseverance and diligence it can be conquered. The trip broadened my understanding of another culture, its values and traditions. I cherish the opportunity to have encountered people filled with renewed energy each day, and to study the life of a historical figure. The heart-rending aspect of my trip was that I had to leave the people who embraced me and the city that I fell in love with. Nonetheless, having experienced the accommodations provided for disabled people in Madrid and having had such a memorable journey, I have no misgivings about my ability to duplicate many more such wonderful experiences.