I once worked with a man named Victor. We forged a friendship that was contingent upon a shared penchant for searing social criticism, ironic humor, and good food, (though not necessarily in that order).
The evening we decided to go out for dinner to indulge all three interests was a watershed moment for me.
As we waited outside for the handicap ramp to be slid over the restaurant’s steps, and as Victor rejected my offer for help, using his calloused, dusty hands to heave his wheelchair over the lip of the ramp, I thought about how much effort Victor had to exert every day just to move his paraplegic body from point A to point B.
Years later, I thought about Victor as I watched tourists with walkers and wheelchairs try to navigate the uneven cobbled streets and narrow sidewalks of my adopted hometown of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, and I began to think about the accessibility of travel for people with disabilities.
How are the challenges of travel exacerbated by disability? How are the joys possibly tempered? I could only imagine how difficult travel must be for disabled people. But I was wrong.
Walt Balenovich and Dave Wilkins set me straight. These intrepid travelers and travel writers recently spoke with me about their experiences in the air and on the road. Both men are seasoned backpackers whose passports are well-inked with the evidence of their intercontinental journeys.
Here are the highlights of our exchange about traveling with disabilities.
Walt: I had polio when I was 12 weeks old and spent the first 5 years of my life in the hospital. I used to walk on crutches, but when I was 27 I moved into a…wheelchair full time. Far from confining, the increased mobility freed me up to travel.
Dave: I had a brain hemorrhage in ’97 which has left me with no feeling on the left side….I have balance problems and can’t see anything coming from the left. I also suffer anxiety….My scrambled brain cannot cope with noise, large crowds, and rapidly changing situations.
Julie: How do you go about choosing your destinations? Do you look for places that are disability friendly in terms of transport, accommodations, and the like?
Walt: I just decide what continent to go to. Usually access doesn’t enter into it. I am backpacking the world alone, so I have to rely on help sometimes.
Dave: Where I go is certainly NOT disabled friendly! I chose Ecuador as my first destination as I knew the country and lacked the confidence to try somewhere totally new at that time. Then to SE Asia because it had always attracted me. In recent years I have concentrated on West Africa because I have been bitten by the Africa bug and can’t ignore the continent!
Julie: Do you tend to travel independently or as part of a tour or package?
Walt: I travel independently. I love doing my own thing. I like going when and where I want in my own time, so I usually avoid long tours, though I do go on boat tours often. Those are good because you can watch the sights float by!
Dave: I have never traveled with a group and would never consider it. I hate the idea of having to fit in with someone’s wishes…I need to concentrate on looking after myself.
Julie: What kinds of challenges have you encountered as a disabled traveler?
Walt: Mostly just stairs and washrooms… sometimes a place to sleep, but not often.
Dave: Have you got all day? My life is a never-ending challenge from getting up and having to get washed and dressed, to eating/drinking/moving about, to getting to bed at night.
Magnify these by adding the novelties of a foreign country, customs, language, and food, to finding a means of traveling to the next destination, fighting off crowds, suffering bouncing journeys, and hunting out a bed that isn’t too bug-ridden and with water for washing…. (Dave’s personal best for a long-haul vehicular journey is 52 hours in a 7 seat taxi with 13 passengers plus luggage).
Julie: Among the places you’ve visited, which ranks best for the disabled traveler?
Walt: Iguazu Falls in Argentina, on the Brazil border. The upper track of the National Park is fully wheelchair friendly and you are suspended over the gorge and surrounded by over 100 waterfalls in the beautiful tropical Amazon basin.
Dave: Laos is my favorite destination… however I fell in love with a dusty little village in Cameroon that doesn’t appear on any map. I return there are least once a year….By no means is this place disabled-friendly, but I love it.
(He loves it so much, in fact, that he’s started a charitable organization to promote women’s rights and children’s health in the extreme north of Cameroon).
The Verdict on Disabled Travel
Walt and Dave agreed that while it might be nice for more places to be accessible-especially with respect to transportation systems, they also insisted that people with disabilities need, in Walt’s words, to “get out there and be visible.”
Dave acknowledges that meeting the needs for diverse disabilities isn’t feasible in many cases-“the cost would be astronomical,” he says, “and it would adversely affect the beauty of such places.” Both men hope that by traveling without limits, they can inspire other people with disabilities to travel anywhere in the world.
Increasingly, it is becoming easier for people with disabilities to travel.
John Weaver, of the company Special Needs at Sea, explains that advocacy groups such as the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality have been instrumental in uniting disabled travelers and encouraging them to travel, as well as representing their interests and needs by working with local governments and private businesses to understand accessibility needs and improve practices.
SATH authored a Code of Conduct towards travelers with disabilities that was adopted by the World Tourism Organization in 1991.
Weaver also reports that certain segments of the tourism industry are improving accessibility significantly, noting that cruise ship companies are becoming increasingly accommodating of disabilities.
Many ships now have signs posted in Braille and in December, 2007 Royal Caribbean realized just how much of a boon disabled travelers can be for business when more than 3,800 deaf and hard of hearing passengers set sail together on a cruise that was specifically designed to meet their needs.
But for those adventure travelers with disabilities who aren’t willing to wait for the tourism industry to adapt to their needs, Walt and Dave say that the world is waiting for them.
Most people on their journeys around the world have been friendly and helpful, and both have learned that few places are totally inaccessible to them.
Visit their blogs to read more about their experiences, and check out Walt’s recently published book, Travels in a Blue Chair.
Inspired by Walt and Dave’s courage? Got a story of your own to tell? Please join the conversation by leaving a comment below!