Exploring Italy One Step At a Time

Melissa overlooking Italy landscape
Melissa DiVietri tested the limits to learn the ins and outs of traveling to another country with a physical disability. She was born with sacral agenesis which is a spinal deformity that limits mobility below the hips, and traveled to Italy while using loft arm crutches as her mobility.

Melissa DiVietri is a young social media strategist living in Detroit, Michigan. Art is her passion; but marketing is where she excels as owner of “DI Designs Studios”. While previously attending Ferris State University, Melissa came across a flyer about a summer study abroad program on art history and wine fermentation in Italy. As someone who had not yet traveled abroad, she thought, “Wow, I can gain college credits by traveling to Italy?"

"I put away travel funds for two years to cover the costs of flight, hotels, food, leisure and emergency cash. Planning a trip abroad was a lot of preparing because you don’t know what areas are accessible in Italy.”

During the planning process, Melissa met with the disability services at Ferris State University to discuss a plan on how to participate with the class without reliable transportation.

“We did the best that we could to think of all avenues for traveling with a disability, but when you go abroad, it becomes real – I had to be ready to test the limits.”

Melissa took responsibility to call the airport to make sure they would have the seating and airport assistance she needed. Airport staff met her with a wheelchair when she arrived to the airport to get her through airport terminal and safely on the flight. She flew from Detroit to Boston and hopped on an international flight to Italy. During the second flight, the staff upgraded her to first class so she could be more comfortable with leg room and bathroom entrances.

The study abroad group of 20 classmates stayed in hostels throughout the country. In some places, the first six floors did not have accessibility to elevators because of the age of the buildings. She planned ahead with the program to pay a premium rate to accommodate a first floor bedroom with bathroom.  

“I was careful to bring extra cash for taxi, trolley, tips - literally whatever was necessary to make accommodations, so I didn’t have to exhaust my body. I try to be as independent as I can be without showing a sign of struggle. I’m strong and strong-willed, but by the end of the day I don’t want to feel like I have something different.”

At the historic Colosseum in Rome, Melissa was not able to use the elevator due to restorations happening at that time. So, she looked up at the unwieldy stairs to the top of the colosseum. The staircase was so narrow and each step so tall and steep that, as someone with a physical disability who uses forearm crutches, she knew she couldn’t get safely carried up.

“I asked someone to stand behind me, and then I began pumping up each stair with force. It was like someone I’ve never seen before. I get to the top and people behind me are like ‘You’re the strongest woman I’ve ever seen.’ And then I just collapsed. I just needed to sit down. I knew I would regret missing this view if I didn't make it to the top. My arms were aching but the sight was worth every muscle relaxer that I had to take that night.”

At times when she just couldn’t keep with the pace of the group, one of the professors walked in the back with her. He would offer breaks and share his knowledge of the area because he traveled every year to Italy. This experience became a private tour. She also experienced “special permissions” which is a classification used in Italy if you have a disability. Because of her disability, there were times when she was bumped up the line at tourist sites or a space made available for her to sit in the front for transportation. She wasn’t afraid to ask for help, to take a break, or ask to be moved somewhere more accommodating. Her classmates assisted by carrying her luggage, food and even her – when the hills were too steep!

“I’m a person who doesn’t like to ask for help; but I will if I need it. I am grateful for the class that I traveled with to Europe – a great group of people. It was really nice to make those friendships and everlasting memories.”

Her entire experience is full of memories: wine tastings at an elegant Tuscany villa, nightclubs and shopping in Florence, historic art museums in Rome, and the chairlift on Capri (see her YouTube video in Related Links). If she could relive the trip again, she says she would have brought her portable scooter to reduce the amount of time she relied on arms and increase the time to enjoy everything around her.   

“There’s no obstacle or challenge that I can’t try. Traveling abroad was one experience on my bucket list. Traveling is good for your soul because it makes you open to trying new things, cultures and life. I’m already planning my next adventure.”