Travelling with a wheelchair has its challenges - but follow accessible travel expert Gordon Rattray's advice and you'll have an adventure
Breathtaking is how I can best describe my visit to Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Falls. But it was the journey to reach this huge wall of crashing white water that left me truly speechless.
The last kilometre – a rough footpath hewn through lush vegetation, dodging rocky outcrops and fallen trees – is not easy wheelchair terrain. I was struggling for balance and the guys helping me were tired of pushing and pulling, so a couple of boys were sent scampering barefoot to the nearest village for two long, strong bamboo poles. These were quickly lashed to the frame of my chair, the wheels were removed, and we set off with me bobbing along comfortably at waist height (pictured, above right).Within minutes, an utterance in Amharic signalled yet another stop, then, without further warning, all four 'bearers’ simultaneously heaved the poles up onto their shoulders sending me soaring skywards. My stomach caught up only seconds later and
a feeble squeak of protest was all my shocked lungs could produce. Nevertheless, despite the vertigo, I soon got used to my heady perch, and would now recommend it for the thrill alone!
But don’t be misled; improvisation like this is unusual. Adventure travel is now a real option for all wheelchair users.
Forget feeling tied to a resort; consider instead being fastened to a bridge by a bungee cord then plummeting to certain terror. Or exploring the mind-boggling mountain ruins of Machu Picchu. Or going on safari into the wilds of Africa.
Operators in offbeat destinations are becoming aware that people with impaired mobility want to see more than pool and bar, and are catering to them. Vehicles equipped with lifts and lodgings with roll-in showers can be found from Arusha to Ushuaia, while the power of the internet brings up-to-date information about such places – and their level of inclusion – into our living rooms.
That said, stepping – or rolling – out of the comfort zone is a gut-wrenching thought for many chair users, especially those who are new to this way of life. Even simple trips such as visiting friends or family can take great courage, so the very idea of an adventure holiday might seem like a distant dream – or a nightmare.
But it shouldn’t. Once that big decision to go has been made, it might be surprising how easily the rest falls into place. With each hurdle met and cleared, your confidence will be boosted, making the next one easier. Furthermore, discovering – or rediscovering – your travel possibilities will not only be hugely rewarding in itself, but will fire enthusiasm and maybe stimulate change in many other areas of your life.
There are even distinct advantages to having a disability; for instance, reliance on others can help bridge the gulf between us, as tourists, and them, the locals. I’m often forced to ask for assistance, and people, in turn, are interested to know what caused my injury and even why Western medicine can’t cure me. The chance of meaningful encounters and conversations is increased. This is especially true if you use a local assistant, where you will spend a lot of time together; your relationship will lose a degree of its formality, becoming significantly more than the usual fleeting exchange of words and purchase of an artefact.
Of course there are limits, and surprising drawbacks. Being permanently seated does make you stand out more; although I believe this can actually help with personal security – pickpockets prefer obscurity – it can also lead to awkward moments.
I remember sitting in Addis Ababa’s Mercato (sub-Saharan Africa’s largest market) wondering how to retrieve the cash I’d hidden in my socks without giving the hiding place away to the curious crowd that had gathered around me!
So does this all mean that travel for people with disabilities has been completely tamed? Certainly not – for those who crave challenge, undiluted adventure is always possible. But even here there are positives. Local hospitality, ingenuity and willingness
to help always seem to increase the further you wander from the beaten path, meaning that even if the obstacles are greater, they are – as my Blue Nile Falls visit showed – often more easily dealt with.
Most airports are extremely accessible, with trained assistance staff and narrow ‘aisle’ chairs for boarding the plane. Book these in advance and make sure your needs are known and understood. In the airport, keep your own wheelchair until you board (this is usually possible), and in the aircraft replace the seat cushion (they’re usually just attached with velcro) with your own pressure-relieving model.
If possible, contact the accommodation or local operator directly for access information. But remember, it’s all too easy to answer “yes” to the simple question: “Is your bathroom accessible?” Instead, ask for descriptions, measurements and even photographs.
If you need more time for the mundane daily tasks – ablutions, car transfers and general getting around – then ventilate your itinerary accordingly. Don’t be persuaded that the busiest trip is the best one.
Make sure your insurance covers any pre-existing medical conditions you have plus all your equipment – including wheelchair – for your flight, your holiday duration and all activities you plan to undertake.
Choose manageable luggage bags, pack frugally to keep weight down and look into sourcing bulky incontinence material in your destination. For the flight, it is wise to carry essential medicines and equipment in your hand luggage in case your main baggage is delayed.
Carry the basic tools required to service your wheelchair, but remember that these may be confiscated from hand luggage. Take a spare inner tube or consider using solid (puncture-proof) tyres. If necessary, you can transform your wheelchair into a temporary shower chair by removing the cushion cover and putting a bin liner over the backrest.
Don’t take chances. Discuss your plans with a health advisor and be attentive to potential problems during your trip. Changing routines and doing new activities can increase risks of skin damage and pressure wounds.
“Plan ahead. Ring the airline, tell them what you can and can’t do and what help you need in getting to your seat. Personally, I refuse to let airports corral me into some fenced-off wheelchair ghetto. I travel light, hand baggage only, with a smaller rucksack now than I carried on my gap year!”
Frank Gardner OBE, BBC Security Correspondent
“If you’re on holiday with a disabled friend and dying to do something they can’t – jet-skiing, shark-diving or whatever – don’t deny yourself the pleasure. Resentment rankles – and selflessness is for saints, not holidaymakers.”
Monica Guy, former personal care assistant to scientist Stephen Hawking
Next week: Top 10 trips for disabled travellers + disabled travel guide