Sensing the world differently: How the disabled experience travel

Sensing the world differently: How the disabled experience travel

Shedding light on the travails -- and surprising joys -- of traveling with a disability

Boarding a plane, finding a toilet, fitting through the door of a hotel room. For travelers with disabilities it’s often the more mundane elements of travel that can make or break an experience.

There's rarely a moment when a wheelchair user isn't worrying about steps, or usable power points, or damage from careless baggage handlers or when a visually impaired traveler doesn't need some assistance in a new place.

But the flipside is a range of experiences many able-bodied travelers won't get.

Tom Hart, a blind traveler based in Cape Town, South Africa, says his experiences can be better than what able-bodied people might expect.

“I had vision until I was 18 years old,” says Tom. “But now, even though I’m blind, I feel I often experience sensations more acutely than people who can see.

“On a safari trip in Zambia a few years ago the rest of the passengers were miserable because we hadn’t seen any lions or cheetahs.

“For me however, the sensation of heat, isolation, quietude and hearing just the hiss of the cicadas and the groan of the insects was enough to leave me feeling absolutely blissful -- a state of mind I don’t think any of my fellow travelers had, as they were so preoccupied with what they could or couldn’t see rather than the other sensual elements that make the African bush so special.”

Pragmatics no barrier

Emma Tracey, a radio producer from Ireland who is blind, now residing in London, describes a recent cruise.

“What I noticed was the air. It was so clean and fresh and I could feel it blowing more freely as it wasn't blowing through anything,” she says.

“When we stopped at port, it was like being on a regular holiday. My partner would describe the different vista in each place but I could have been anywhere.”

It’s easy to think the pragmatic elements of disability and the equipment people with disabilities need make regular globe trotting impossible.

Martyn Sibley traveled Europe in a wheelchair to prove it could be done. Martyn Sibley, a travel blogger with a disability, fiercely refutes this attitude.

“I’ve been on holidays to Australia, the United States, Singapore, Mexico and parts of Europe. I just love new adventures and experiences and I guess this all sounds pretty normal,” says Martin.

“But when you factor in my 150-kilo wheelchair, battery charger, 24/7 personal care assistant, technology to lift me, accessible accommodation and transfers, the mind boggles.

“I decided to take a more challenging road trip around Europe last year with my aim being to discover wheelchair access in nine cities, interview disabled people living there and showcase disability in a positive light.

“I took my adapted car and I have to admit I struggled to find accessible accommodation.”

Yet Martyn’s resilience paid dividends.

“Those three weeks were the most challenging, exhilarating and rewarding of my life. I think my trip showed the power of a vision, hard work and the goodness of people, but equally our public access should be improved vastly.”

Cut the queues

Kate Monaghan, founder of a British TV production company and who has arthritis, highlights how even small perks can be enjoyed.

“Flying can be the best part of the trip,” she says. “Without having to pay any extras, wheelchair users skip the queues at check-in and security and get ushered through to the gate and onto the plane first. It's like being a celebrity without the hassle of being paid all that money and having all that inconvenient fame stuff!”

Traveling with a disability is slower, harder and requires more organization, but whether it’s sailing across the ocean or just reclining in the African outback, the experiences of many disabled travelers can be equally memorable to those of able-bodied holiday makers.

As Tom Hart points out: “We’re all inhabitants of Planet Earth. Just because your legs or eyes or something else may work differently to most people, that doesn’t mean anything other than your experience of a place or a moment is unique.”

The opinions expressed in this comentary are solely those of Rob Crossan

Do you have a disability? Tell us how you approach travel in the comments below