A group of Spanish pilgrims with Motor Neurone Disease are lobbying for improved access for wheelchair users on the Camino de Santiago.
The 60-strong group, including volunteer helpers, have delivered a 30-page travel log, noting the places on the Camino where access for wheelchair users needs improving, to the Pilgrim Office in Santiago de Compostela.
At one point on their seven-day journey through Galicia, the group was forced to travel along a main road because a bridge on the official Camino route could not accommodate wheelchairs.
The organiser, Carmen Martin, told the Archdiocese of Madrid’s Alfa y Omega that she hoped Camino authorities “would at least take a look” at their complaints.
She said: “Probably not everything can be fixed in one go, but things could be improved bit by bit. It would be very sad if we came back next year only to come up against the same hurdles.”
Most of those on the CompostELA 23 pilgrimage had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS – known as ELA in Spanish), the most common form of Motor Neurone Disease.
Martin is campaigning for a “Camino de Santiago that is universal, accessible and inclusive”, and gave a 40 per cent rating to the Camino’s current accessibility for wheel-chair users.
Of the 344,969 pilgrims in 2023 to have obtained a Compostela – a certificate stating they have travelled at least 100 km to the shrine of St James – 150 have come in wheelchairs.
“I have heard that sections of the last 100km from Sarria [in Galicia] which aren’t suitable for wheelchairs. Fortunately, a lot of the Camino runs close to country lanes and quiet roads though, so these are what wheelchair users and cyclists use when the terrain gets too difficult. We recommend wheelchair users may wish to buy cyclist guide to the Camino Francés to see where these sections are.”
Diaz-Pinto added: “Wheelchair pilgrims have said in the past that the municipal pilgrim hostels tend not to offer accommodation to those with support vehicles. However, with private hostels there’s never a problem.”
Pilgrims may now complete the first 25 kilometres of their journey to Santiago outside Spain, including along the St James’s Way in England. David Sinclair, a CSJ volunteer told The Tablet that for English pilgrims in wheelchairs on this 68.5 mile route from Reading Abbey to Southampton the terrain was often difficult.
“The main challenge is that farmers’ fields often have stiles, kissing gates and swing gates making them difficult to cross without a number of helpers. The St James Way’ certainly has a lot of these field boundary obstacles as it passes through countryside villages in Hampshire. There are stretches though that could without much, or no effort, accommodate wheelchairs.”
He added: “I wonder if at some stage a petition could be presented to councils to assist with opening sections fully to wheelchairs.”
Tony Lemboye brings half-a-dozen young people from mainly care home backgrounds on the Camino every year for his charity, Young Star Mentoring.
In 2017, the group included a 21-year-old man whose leg was amputated below the knee. He suffered from Chronic Pain Syndrome and while occasionally able to walk with crutches, he also travelled by wheelchair.
“Helping him was a good experience and a focal point for the team,” said Lemboye. “Sometimes the wheel of the chair fell off or the ground was uneven.”
He says any wheelchair user planning to travel Camino hiking trails will “need two or three people to help you. But even if you are being pushed in the chair you are going to have to work hard too.”
Lemboye advises wheelchair-using pilgrims to “try and be prepared. You can practice in the UK on the North or South Downs with the team that will accompany you on the Camino. And think about where you are going to place your kit.”
Another tip is for pilgrims to choose a Mountain Trike wheelchair whose wheels are adapted for all terrains.