Navigating the airport. Boarding the plane. Finding an accessible bathroom. Getting into taxis. Finding a hotel room that meets my needs. Cobblestones and no curb cuts. Steps and stairs.
Suggest an international voyage to a person in a wheelchair (or other mobility device), and the list of obstacles above often starts a chant in his/her head. Many wheelchair users have never left their home states, let alone their home countries. Sometimes it’s a matter of expense or medical logistics, which can be very difficult to overcome. But sometimes it’s just a matter of fear. Fear of getting hurt, fear of getting lost, fear of not being able to get help…fear of the unknown. But fortunately for you, my intrepid would-be adventurers, fear IS something that can be overcome.
Before you start reading my list of steps you can take to overcome this fear, there are some things you should know about me. First of all, I am a veteran, so I approach challenges with tactics and a battle plan. Second of all, I’m a control freak, so I feel more secure when I have the most information possible. Hopefully the combination of these two things will emerge in my list and help you overcome your own fears of traveling in your wheelchair.
- Research, research, research. Knowledge is power. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to find out as much as humanly possible about your potential destination. Yes, it is unfortunate that we have to do so much homework as wheelchair users about the accessibility of destinations around the world. But it’s a small price to pay in order to feel safe and comfortable and some of the worlds most beautiful places. Google will become your best friend. Read blogs; read travel forums; read reviews. Find the accessibility sites for your destination’s municipal government.
- Start locally. Practice makes perfect! While it’s tough to practice boarding a plane, there are likely some places near you where you can practice getting in a cab, for instance. Or getting on a bus or a local tram or train system. Of course, accessibility is going to vary from US city to US city, and certainly between countries. But you can start to challenge yourself in a safe place. Go to an area of your town where you can practice navigating over rough sidewalks, or have your companion figure out how to help you deal with a sidewalk with no curb cut. Spend the night in an inexpensive local hotel so you can practice using an accessible tub or roll in shower. Try visiting new restaurants and shops, particularly ones that may be older, so you can figure out how to navigate things like tight spaces or smaller bathrooms. Push your equipment – and your courage – to the limit so you know what you’re capable of doing.
- Consider spending more for expert assistance. There are many tour companies out there that specialize in disabled travel – like mine at Spin the Globe / travel! They can offer everything from wheelchair accessible tours to transfers between airports, ports, and hotels, hotel and cruise reservations, and complete tour packages for groups. However, these services often don’t come cheap. Not everyone can afford them, but if you have the budget, sometimes it’s worth it to let somebody else worry about making all the accessible arrangements for you in a new place.
- Insure EVERYTHING. Before I started traveling with my electric scooter, I never got travel insurance for anything. I thought it was a complete waste of money and just some kind of scam. However, now that I have multiple sclerosis and there is a much greater chance that something might happen to me physically to prevent travel unexpectedly, I insure absolutely everything, from plane tickets to cruises. One of my biggest fears is that I will get sick or hurt abroad, especially when traveling alone, which I do often. Having travel insurance gives me peace of mind that I won’t become penniless if I have to be hospitalized or otherwise cared for in another country. It goes without saying that your wheelchair and/or other medical equipment should be insured in the unlikely scenario that it gets damaged en route to your destination.
- Accept that not everything will go as planned. I will be the first one to admit that this is the hardest thing for me when I travel (see control freak mention above). I’m not a big fan of change, the unexpected, or short-notice anything. However, there are some things you just can’t plan for when it comes to travel. This is why it is crucial to have a positive attitude. Instead of saying to yourself, I can’t do this!, ask yourself, How CAN I do this?
- Be flexible. This is more or less a continuance of number four above. Your success in being flexible has a lot to do with your personality, your comfort zone, and your sense of personal space. For example, I’m a HUGE fan of helicopter tours. They are definitely not the most wheelchair accessible things around. But if someone has to pick me up and throw me over their shoulder to toss me into a helicopter in order for me to land on a glacier somewhere, I’m perfectly willing to let somebody do that. Not everyone feels comfortable with being picked up and transferred by a total stranger. But if your priority is to get somewhere and see something amazing, try reconsidering your boundaries.
- Increase your confidence through experience. I used to think that I was addicted to just travel. Then I noticed a trend in my travel choices. With every trip, I become a little more brave. I’m picking places where English is not the primary language, or where I have to rely more on public transportation than accessible taxis. I have become addicted to the rush of overcoming my fears through experience. The more you travel, the more confident you will become for future travels. The blogs of other wheelchair using travelers will be on your browser’s favorites list. You will know Metro system layouts like the back of your hand before you ever arrive in a city. You will learn exactly how to ask for the type of hotel room you want while talking to someone who isn’t exactly sure what “accessible” means. And most importantly, you will learn what your hard limits are, and when you can challenge yourself to do more.
- Have faith in humanity. I consider myself to be a pretty cynical person, but there has been no better cure for that than my travels. I am continually surprised by the almost unlimited kindness of strangers in almost every corner of the world. Of course, you will come across cultures and people who don’t really know what to do with us, but they are largely in the minority. Ask for help if you need it, and 99 times out of 100, people will bend over backwards to make you feel included and get you where you need to go.
I really hope this eight step guide can encourage you to step outside of your comfort zone and explore some of the amazing accessible spaces this world has to offer!