Traveling while disabled
I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.
Jay Abdullahi bucks the stereotype that you have to be white, wealthy, and from a developed country to travel. At 27 years old, she has traveled throughout North America and Europe while having polio, focusing her lifestyle around making her trips work for her and inspiring others with physical disabilities through her journey and blog, Jay on Life.
Mama Cax was born in Brooklyn in 1989 and was raised in Montreal & Haiti. At the age of 14 she was diagnosed with bone & lung cancer and given three weeks to live, but beat the odds with an experimental drug and luck. Surviving cancer came with a price; she had her right leg ampuated. Today, she walks with a prosthetic leg along with two forearm crutches. She traveled to Costa Rica at 17 and has never been able to get rid of the traveler’s bug. Since then, she has been to 20 countries throughout 5 continents.
The writer of this piece, Bani Amor, lives with chronic illness, chronic pain, and (what is designated in Western medicine as) mental illness. They have been traveling with disabilities as a queer person of color of little means for years and believes it’s high time we talked about this shit.
Bani Amor: Yay! So introduce yourselves however you like.
Jay Abdullahi: I’m Jay and I’m a disabled woman of color who has a travel blog called JayOnLife about traveling with a disability and all that that entails. I focus on the race aspect as well as the disability aspect.
Mama Càx: I’m Cax, most know me as Mama Càx. I’m a travel/lifestyle blogger and also work as a program manager at the Mayor’s office here in New York. I hope to one day work in international development focusing on disability rights.
Bani: That’s dope! I love how social media can connect us and uplift us in these ways that didn’t seem possible just a few years back. Travel blogging by POC, especially WOC, *especially* disabled Black+non-Black WOC was just not around when I got into it.
Jay: Yeah, true talk. At the risk of sounding like a Dramatic Debbie it did seem like it was just me. Although, as I have polio, it’s mostly just me and a bunch of old people. Polio is pretty much wiped out and I was the lonely one just chillin’. But in terms of travel blogging, when I decided to start up, all I saw were white folks climbing mountains, skiing, and saving starving African babies (with the obligatory hug photo of course — pics or it didn’t happen!) And in terms of black people traveling, they were never disabled, and the disabled travel bloggers were always white. Then lil’ ol’ Black cripple me came along.
Cax: I sometimes find myself getting hesitant to even call myself a blogger. You guys have probably been doing it for a long time, but for me I just wanted an online journal. I figured if my friends are reading they’ll be expecting updates and frequent posts, so it was a way to hold myself accountable and push myself to write more. But then people started messaging me saying they’d never seen a woman of color with a prosthetic leg before. So my blogging became more about showing people who I am through my travel and that I do the same things they do. And I agree with Jay; I felt the need to join women or POC travel blogs but they were clearly not inclusive.
Jay: That’s so poignant, Cax, because I feel like the issue I have with my blogging is that I don’t get deep enough, as I rarely delve into how I FEEL about my polio and how it actually affects me from the day to day, to when I travel.
Bani: I was once invited to speak on a ‘diversity’ panel at a travel conference. It was all POC, but the LGBT and disabled panels were all white. I am all of the above. So these status-quo-led diversity (groan) convos seem to only be available for one ism at a time, effectively erasing us at the intersections. Seeing content out there for disabled Black+nbWOC travelers is just rare. How do you conduct your trip research? Did either of you search for other disabled travelers?
Jay: Yeah, I definitely agree, Bani. I started a couple of posts about this on my website as the disabled famous people I could think of were always white. Like, ALWAYS.
Cax: There’s 3 parts to it:
- Knowing if I’m safe as a woman and that resources are available to women
- Knowing if I’m safe as a dark Black person
- Seeing how accessible things are
I’m very mobile. I have a heavy prosthetic leg and two crutches but I get around. From climbing to three-hour walks, I can push myself physically but there are days that I just can’t. For example when I traveled to the Ivory Coast recently I wanted to know if there was electricity 24/7 since my leg requires battery. In all, if I feel safe everything else is secondary. I’m more of an off-the-beaten path traveler which poses additional challenges for someone with a disability. I mostly look into general blogs and guide books while keeping in mind my added hurdles (gender, race & disability).
Jay: Nine times out of ten I legit have no clue and I believe I take such a careless attitude because I do not have a wheelchair. I can do stairs. They’re annoying and tiring as hell, but I can do them. In my search for disabled travel bloggers, I found one white guy in a wheelchair. Then another white guy in a wheelchair. Then a different white guy and girl in a wheelchair.
Bani: I feel you. The great majority of ‘is x country safe for women?’ content is by and for white women.
Jay: At the risk of sounding completely obtuse, I have never seen the point in such posts. Cuz let’s be real, you could die anywhere. I went to Jamaica and people told me to be careful out there. The people were nothing but lovely. Same with South Africa. Beware, it’s so dangerous etc. I felt nothing but loved. And I recently came back from Brazil and had the best time. Like, stop trying to scare muhfuggers. I know that traveling as a disabled woman of color is not the easiest. And sometimes, I have felt a bit iffy…
Cax: Yes, but I think everyone has a different experience. Some countries like Jamaica are hot spots for tourism so they know how to deal with foreigners. But someone who is LGBTQIA+ will not be welcomed and it can even be dangerous for them.
Jay: I get what you mean about the sexuality comment, Cax. While being disabled can suck and does leave me vulnerable. Unless someone has bad intentions, they are more willing to help, and go above and beyond, if you know what I mean. But I can’t even begin to imagine what some people in the LGBTQIA+ community have to go through. There’s like a deep hatred which I can never understand. Like, mind your fucking business.
Cax: I’ve had different experiences traveling in Christian countries vs. Buddhist countries, not to the point that I felt unsafe but that the attitude is different. The former people pity you and want to pray with you (I hate it) and the latter… it’s almost as if you don’t matter because you brought this upon yourself a.k.a. “Karma.”
Jay: I have had people trying to pray for me, only ever Christians, but I never noticed the Buddhist-Karma-thing. Maybe I just wasn’t focusing.
Cax: And unfortunately in some places my disability overshadows my race or even my gender. Other Black travelers get treated badly but I’m seen as this disabled fragile thing. I’ve noticed it outside of big cities.
Jay: Yes, the way that different cultures around the world consider disability can be very ableist. Do you get the feeling that people think you’re going to fall over and break any minute?
Cax: Oh yeah, the carefulness and offering help every two seconds… of course it’s always up to me to stand my ground. Once I let it be known that I’m a grown-ass woman and can take care of myself all becomes well. They all thought they cured my cancer through vodou and prayers.
Jay: Well, growing up in a religious African home, they’ve been trying to pray the disability away for some time now. Also random helpful Christians I don’t know. It’s always infuriating, Cax. At the risk of sounding like a creeper, but from the photos I’ve seen of you, you’re much taller than me. So I feel like they would sooner listen to you than me. Nobody is trying to acknowledge 5’2 baby face me. Like, leave me alone, I’m okay.
Bani: Let’s talk accessibility. What are the biggest challenges when traveling?
Cax: For me it’s the physical environment. Hills, sand, and ice are not easy to maneuver.
Jay: I am a victim to the weather. Rain makes life harder, and ice is just a no.
Bani: That presents more challenges of course. What do you do when the conditions aren’t optimal? Stay in?
Jay: But I have found that sometimes I think I am okay with a building or whatever, and I am not allowed to complete it because of people that work there, such as the Eiffel Tower. But I do try to push myself as hard as I can. Sometimes too hard, like I’ll climb to the top of a hill and have no idea how I’m getting back down (haha). That has happened one too many times, but I have killer upper body strength!
Cax: If the conditions aren’t ideal I work with it. Sometimes that means leaving my prosthetic leg in my ho(s)tel. I may complain but when I look back, overcoming those challenges is what ends up making my trips so special to me.
Bani: How do y’all navigate and feel about disability inspiration porn?
Cax: What’s that? I’m on a work computer I won’t be googling hahaha!
Jay: I think it’s looking at folks like us for inspiration.
Bani: No there isn’t any actual porn (well there is but that’s a topic for another day!), just a figure of speech.
Cax: Oohhhh, got it hahaha
Jay: I personally think it’s stupid, but if folks want to adore me, I’m not about to stop them. That’s on them, not me. Worship away. But I will counter to say that I can kind of see where they may be coming from. You have no idea what you can do until you have no other option.
Cax: Oh boy I get that a lot. People stopping me to say how I inspire them or shouting out [amen!] and of course I try to be polite but I hate it. I don’t see how I can inspire you if you don’t personally know me. Someone once told me I inspire them to wake up and conquer the day as if my whole existence is enough. As if because I have one leg I should be sad, depressed and if I’m not then I’m special.
Jay: I’ve had polio since I was a baby so I don’t know any different. But for others, it’s a bit much to wrap their heads around.
Cax: I agree with you. Many in my situation would have fought like hell and moved on. We are humans, we fight for survival. But alas, when I hear [you inspire me] I respond with a thank you… I can’t go out and educate everyone. In that sense it gets too tiring. Thank you is shorter and ends the conversation.
Jay: Nah, who has time for that? Just smile, nod and keep it moving.
Cax: Some guy once told me, “Even though you’re cripple, I’d still fuck you.”
Jay: WHOA. Are you serious?! He actually said that out loud?! To you?!
Cax: Yes he did. I’ve heard several fucked up comments…
Bani: I’m sorry. That’s beyond fucked up. Yet that mentality is all around us.
Jay: Fucking shit. Should have whacked him with your crutches.
Bani: Have you found some places more hospitable, convenient or accessible than others? And have you faced any kind of discrimination in some places more than others?
Cax: In some countries people tend to stare and keep their comments to themselves where as other countries people are intrusive with their questions.
Jay: I have found some places absolutely amazing especially in terms of transportation: Lisbon, Athens, Stockholm, Berlin, Rio. I agree with the intrusive comment. In some places people are polite about their wonderings. Whereas in Istanbul, some dude who I was not even next to, had no dealings with, just said, “What happened to your leg?” Like, really? In my head I always come back with “What happened to your face?” But I just say [polio] and keep walking.
Cax: I love big cities because people tend to be more educated in that sense and they have exposure to diverse people and therefore more opportunities to learn about different people. For example, in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, people stared, but in a coastal town like Sihanoukville people were touching and rubbing my skin and seemed to be amazed that my brown wasn’t rubbing off.
Bani: As people who aren’t white, aren’t men, aren’t ‘able-bodied’, what does it mean (to you) to travel? And write about it?
Jay: I just like to get my thoughts out there. But I do have issues getting deep. Like, there was an incident on my birthday while abroad. And I am still trying to wrap my head around how I feel about it.
Cax: I understand how the world works and that some people only see dark-skinned people on TV. It’s simply ignorance. So as a traveler you just brush it off. As a black woman who happens to have a disability, traveling and sharing my stories with others means someone else who fits that same criteria knows that they shouldn’t set boundaries for themselves and that they can do the same. I always like to be transparent about the challenges as well because the same world that has kind people that make my day and help me through my journey also has mean-spirited, uneducated, and ignorant people.
Jay: But I love traveling and seeing the world and letting the world see me. I am a sight to behold, damn it.
Cax: I just hope that when I get old and am no longer able to go on adventures I can relive the beautiful times through my blog posts and pictures. I do it for myself first and foremost.
Jay: Totally agree. The body, whether disabled or otherwise, has a time limit and I intend on enjoying it while I can.
Bani: I hear that.
This interview was first published on Bani Amor, Decolonizing Travel Culture and is reposted here with permission.