I WAS BORN WITH AN EXTREMELY RARE genetic disability that affects every joint in my body from head to toe. At birth, I was one of only four individuals to suffer from my particular syndrome in the whole of the UK. The way in which my disability impacts my day-to-day life includes such things as being unable to straighten my legs past a 90-degree angle and having extremely limited neck movement.
At the age of 15 I decided that I wanted to see the world as I grew discontent with my everyday surroundings and ever more determined to not let my disability stand in my way. Fast-forward by 10 years and after shrugging off the naysayers and all those who warned me to be careful, I finally got to fulfill my wishes; I boarded a plane and ventured beyond the borders of Europe for the first time since a family holiday to California, aged six years old.
Here are six things I learnt whilst traveling with a disability.
1. The phrase “it’s okay, I can manage thank-you” doesn’t mean jack sh*t in Asia.
“It’s okay, I can manage thank-you.”
I can barely remember a number of times I uttered this phrase whilst on my travels. Contrary to the pre-fed stereotypes I had brought with me from the UK, the general public throughout most of the Asian countries I’ve visited have been extremely helpful. A little too helpful in fact. All too often someone would come up behind me and begin pushing my wheelchair without stopping to ask first if I needed some help. Every time this happened it left me with one of three options. 1) flail my arms around in the hopes that they’d notice I was unimpressed and then stop. 2) grab my wheels causing my chair to abruptly become stationary and have them walk into the back of me, hurting either themselves or I as they did so. Or, 3) just sit there, glum-faced until they got bored and stopped pushing me. It became seriously annoying. People fail to realise that quite often, help is more of a hindrance.
2. The politically correct society that we have in Britain really doesn’t extend everywhere else.
In parts of South East Asia, I felt like I was stepping back into the 90s. In Bangkok especially I was from time to time reminded of the days when people would view a physically disabled as automatically having a learning disability to match. One platform assistant, for example, give me instructions, mouth pressed to ear, in a very slow and painfully loud voice. You know, just in case I didn’t understand?
Another horrendous incident happened whilst having my VISA checked at the Cambodian border control. A government official came within five metres of me and without a stitch of shame, pulled out his mobile phone and started recording me whilst chuckling away to himself. Clearly he had never witnessed a disabled foreigner making his way through passport checks. I wasn’t terribly impressed with my new celebrity status and I made sure to give him the dirtiest look I possibly could whilst passing him by.
3. Pavements inaccessible? No worries… you’re on the road, son!
The only country I’ve been to in Asia so far that had pavements that were fully accessible was Hong Kong. Everywhere else and it was only a matter of time before I was switching to the roadside and heading into direct traffic because the pavements were either non-existent or too dangerous/difficult for a wheelchair user. I soon got accustomed to the madness. I began to feel a little bit like Moses, parting the red sea, as motorbikes and cars whizzed past, brushing the hairs on the back of my arms as they go.
Vietnam was especially notorious for this. I soon stopped looking where I was going at every possible moment and became confident that no matter what route I took on the main road, the traffic would move out of the way for me. I was taught that the No. 1 rule in Vietnam is to not make eye contact with the scooter drivers. Apparently it is only then that they become distracted and accidents occur. I took this advice and can safely say I am the master of navigating busy streets in my chair.
4. Don’t take no for an answer.
Sometimes in life you’ve got to fight for your rights. Make your voice heard and don’t take no for an answer. Much in keeping with point No. 1, it was often the case that people tried to stop me from doing certain things because they felt I was unable or that I was putting myself in unnecessary danger. If you feel confident and capable of doing something and somebody else tells you it’s a no go, then set them straight. It takes a little guts, but believe me, it’s worth it because otherwise you may miss out on something you always wanted to do.
One of my examples comes from when I finally got the chance to visit the Mekong Delta. One of the huge things on my bucket list was to take a small boat down one of the ravines that stem off from the main Mekong. The lush overgrown vegetation and the opportunity to see how people live on the river was something which I was unwilling to miss. The tour guide, however; had other ideas. It took two hours to convince him that I wasn’t leaving until I got my ride on a small banana boat. I had to prove to him on other larger boats that I was able to hop out of my wheelchair and get myself from A to B on my hands and knees. Once he agreed and I got to fulfil my own wishes, it really struck home to me just how much I would have missed if I’d just sat back and listened to the guides concerns just two hours previous.
5. No two airports are the same AND you’ll constantly be worried about your wheelchair.
I dread that look on the faces of airport staff when I roll up to the counter ready to check-in. The general protocol is that they stick you in an oversized wheelchair which is too large to independently move, all while they bundle your precious wheelchair onto the luggage belt as you watch it drift slowly away, before the panic sets in. It’s always a gamble as to whether your wheelchair will arrive in one piece at your next destination, or even if it’ll arrive at all. Thankfully I’ve never had such problems… yet, but I know a fair few people who have!
6. When you think you’re finally out of the comfort zone, push a little harder.
The biggest life lesson I’ve learnt from my travels so far, and one that encompasses all the points listed above is that life is only worth it when you’re testing yourself to the fullest. If you feel like you’ve reached the breaking point and you’re so far from comfort that you don’t know your way back again then you may as well keep going and push on. Don’t let anything in life stop you.
Without pushing yourself you’ll never open yourself up to growth. I once heard a quote that simply said “do something that scares you, every single day” and it’s something which we should all try to adopt.
My ultimate goal is to visit every single country in the world. I haven’t set a deadline yet, but I’ve staked my claim and I’m on my way. If I can inspire others as I go then that’s fantastic, but if not, no worries, because I know I’m inspiring myself.