As travel facilities expand to cater for all, crossing continents has never been easier. Disabled traveller Elspeth Knight shares her tips for getting off the beaten track
Everyone is nervous about going to new places – even the most experienced traveller. While disabled travellers have additional worries and needs on top of the usual concerns, never let it stop you from travelling or make you choose a different destination to the one you really want to go to.
Whether you want to watch the sun rise in Serengeti, snorkel with manatees, visit Mayan ruins, or help wash elephants at a rescue centre, these will be some of the best experiences of your life. You may need some extra help and the methods used to get there may not always be conventional, but you won't regret it.
There are a few companies now operating accessible tours to exciting destinations (and hopefully more to come soon), so check online to see if your dream destination is one of them. Otherwise, go with an open mind and remember there is always the option of independent travel, which can allow more flexibility with your itinerary.
Whether you’re deaf, visually impaired, or physically disabled, we all know how much planning and thought a simple trip to a local restaurant can take. However, this makes us the great planners that we are, so transfer those skills to travel.
Utilise online resources and book accessible hotels, buses and destinations in advance – making sure to reserve accessible rooms as early as possible, due to limited availability.
For specific queries, contact the local tourism board and disability groups in the relevant country. Not only will answered questions put your mind to rest, but it’s a great opportunity to make friends and get first hand advice from locals.
Remember not to take the internet at face value. You may have read how inaccessible Guatemala or Venice are for example, but did you know that Venice has accessible route maps avoiding all bridges and you can hop on and off the flat water taxis for little cost? Or that in Guatemala everyone will offer a helping hand to lift you up steps and onto boats? Not to mention that ground-floor budget hotel rooms often have huge bathrooms and showers, which are ideal for wheelchair users.
If you struggle to find information online about accessibility, it doesn't mean you can't get there, it just means you may have to use your initiative.
Ring or email hotels and ask the questions specific to your needs, and ask museums if they have a service lift or printed guides. Heading to a national park? See if they have a ranger or tuk-tuk service that you can get a lift with. For a more exhilarating experience ask for horse or camel riding options, remembering that people will be able to help you up.
If you don’t find all the answers before you go, don’t worry. Solutions often pop up from unexpected sources on arrival.
It can be hard to realise that you need a bit of extra help at times, like getting up unexpected steps and across cobbles. But try to embrace alternative ways of doing things. The world is slowly becoming more accessible, but until it is, people are generally kind and want to help.
You may find that you have to do things in unconventional and less comfortable ways, but bring a sense of humour with you. It makes a huge difference and can transform a stressful situation into a great story.
Don’t be afraid to let a venue or park know that a ramp, signage, or handrails would be of help to their next disabled visitor. Seeing things from a different angle means you can make a difference. But bear in mind that some countries do not have a lot of money and rely more on human support systems, than on physical or technological solutions.
People may tell you their hotel is accessible because they're willing to lift you and your wheelchair over the steps at the door. So demand your rights but be open to trying new ways of doing things. Just remember to ask questions in advance, to make sure you are comfortable with the access provided.
You may find your bag weighed down with supplies related to your disability, leaving very little space for clothes. But you only need about four or five outfits, as there are usually cheap laundry services nearby. Make a list of everything you need on your trip, including medical supplies and equipment for the whole duration. It may seem a lot to carry but unless you are sure you can get refills or hire appropriate products in the country you are visiting, it will be worth it.
If you’re planning a trip to a non-English speaking country, download translation apps. These are not only fantastic for translating language in a foreign country, but can usually be voice activated or typed, giving people with visual impairments or lack of hand dexterity the option to speak into it. For deaf people and those with speech impairments, the option to type gives them a voice and ears in both English and unlimited languages.
While motorised wheelchairs are fantastic and offer independence, manual folding wheelchairs with pop-off off-road wheels are highly recommended for travel in less developed countries. Not only do they fit into taxis with small boots, but they also fold into buses and boats, and can even be strapped onto the roof of vehicles with a bungee cord.
You can even add a small portable motor, like a SmartDrive to turn the chair back into an electric one on suitable surfaces, allowing you to regain independence. For those who can't self-transfer or push themselves, a friend, portable hoist and travel shower/toilet chairs will do wonders in opening up your options.
There are a range of foldable, lightweight travel products out there to cater for different needs.
Your trip may not turn out to be as smooth sailing as you’d imagined. ‘Accessible’ hotels may turn out to be inaccessible and you may need to find a different option. But learn to embrace alternative plans.
What appears to be disappointing and frustrating at a time when things aren’t going the way you wanted, may also be a chance to seize new opportunities.
Continue dreaming. There is a world out there waiting to be wheeled on, spoken to and signed with. The more that you travel and demand accessibility, the more accessible the world will get. But don’t sit at home waiting. Pick your destination, plan, pack (don’t forget your sense of humour), be prepared to accept a little help, and go for it.
Elspeth Knight is an avid traveller who has MS and epilepsy. Having visited over 50 countries so far, she runs EnCompass, a disability travel consultancy helping the adventure travel industry to make their trips accessible.
For more information visit: disabilitytravelconsultant.com
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