We’re about to dive into how are disabled travelers wandering the world, obstacles that appear in the way, best destinations, what traveling the world can teach us… Among many other things. We’re doing it relying on two different testimonies.
We have talked to John Morris, the man you see avobe and the one who is behind the great website Wheelchair Travel, which is a useful starting point for planning your trip if you’re a disabled traveler who wants to get to know our beautiful world in the easiest way possible. And you can trust him, he has visited 27 different countries! He’s all about destinations, tips and information based on personal experience!
Our second testimony is Mirjam Versteegh, from Disabled Accessible Travel, a company based in Barcelona that offers accessible services to visitors from all over the world to have the smoothest trip ever and completely knows what are the best solution for each person.
What are the main obstacles disabled people have to face when traveling (physically and mentally)?
John: The accessibility of the built environment varies widely from place to place, and especially from continent to continent. Wheelchair users in particular rely heavily on common-sense adaptations like level entry and barrier-free transportation. Without these basic accommodations, it can be difficult to organize an accessible trip.
From the mental and emotional standpoint, facing the uncertainties of travel with a disability can be scary. Will the hotel room meet one's accessibility needs? Will transportation be available? Will the attraction be open to everyone? And, what happens when things don't go to plan? Many of these concerns can be curbed with adequate research, but the availability of such information remains sparse.
Mirjam: In my opinion, the main and initial obstacle for disabled travelers wandering the world is the mental state when people believe they ‘can not’ participate due to a disability, or are slightly hesitant. However, when they find the belief and strength to step over this barrier, more and more will they find that exploring the world is still very much within reach.
The variety of information available online by people in a similar situation is a great help with this and in general offers recent and accurate information.
When traveling, especially abroad, is it possible for them to go by their own?
John: While I do not travel with a personal care assistant, every traveler relies on other people. Whether it is the bellman who carries our bags, the bus driver who gives us directions, or the housekeeper who cleans our hotel room - every traveler, every person, relies on the assistance of others. We need to demystify carers, who make life possible for many of my peers in the disability community. There is no shame in getting the help that makes our lives easier.
Mirjam: It depends on each individual personal situation and physical state. We often assist people that travel with their partner.
However, we also work a lot with people travelling alone, and they also do fine! We sometimes help with means of transportation and renting certain equipments on site, in order to assure as much independence as possible.
What countries are the best ones at adapting sports for disabled people?
John: The United States and the United Kingdom are leading the way in this area, particularly with regard to adapted cycling and skiing. In the USA, I've met many groups of wheelchair athletes participating in sports like basketball, hockey, tennis, rugby and softball.
Other unique opportunities, like horseback riding and zip lines are popping up as well. For those interested in accessible sport, reaching out to local disability organizations and groups is a good first step. Demand is growing for these opportunities worldwide.
Which are the cities around the world that are best adapted to disabled travelers?
John: I believe the most vital component of an accessible world is the availability of transportation. Cities that excel in this area typically have a disabled population that is much more active and demanding of greater accessibility in other areas. I'm a big fan of Seattle, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; Washington D.C.; London, England; Munich, Germany; and Hong Kong, China.
Each offer accessible public transportation and wheelchair taxis that make getting around easy and stress-free. Restaurants, attractions and hotels also serve people with disabilities well in these cities.
Mirjam: There are so many that I do not want to make a choice as that would be diminishing others. What I do find is that there is a continuous growing mindset that accessibility is not a favor, but a right. However, this mindset is changing very very slowly, although legislation is there. A lot of work is still be done, advocacy is needed.
In U2GUIDE, we are very focused on living the local experience, getting in touch with locals, learning about their way of living. How would it be possible for disabled travelers to live this kind of experience? (Visit small markets, hidden spots…)
John: Tourists interested in taking part in the local experience should skip the chain hotels, restaurants, etc. They might also want to avoid major metros like New York and Paris, where tourism has really covered up the local history and life experience.
I've found that my best experiences in interacting with locals and understanding their genuine lifestyles have occurred in Asia - from Cambodia to China to Malaysia. Last year, in visiting Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I stayed at a locally-owned hotel, rolled through the street markets in my wheelchair, and ate local cuisine in restaurants and in street stalls. This was by far one of my most genuine travel experiences, and it really touched me in a special way.
Mirjam: In my opinion, this should be the same for every traveler, disabled or abled or whomever. It all comes down to an open mindset, flexibility and a genuine interest and curiosity in meeting new people, new cultures, new food and new habits. Without judgement and prejudice.
The most important thing is to be open to new perspectives. This is often more limiting, than being impacted and/or hindered by a physical disability, of any kind.
Which is the main thing that traveling has taught you?
John: Travel has opened my world to new ideas, people and perspectives. When you travel as often as I do, you learn to appreciate this diversity. If you stay in one place and watch only local news, you'll be conditioned to fear the world.
But I've learned that the world actually is not a scary place, whether you find yourself in Europe, the Middle East, Asia or Africa. And the diversity of people and cultures is addictive. I've learned to appreciate the beauty that exists in places where I might not have recognized it before.
Mirjam: The sky's the limit, aim to think in opportunities and new experiences rather than barriers.
What advice would you give to people in a wheelchair that want to travel the world but feel “limited”?
John: Take the risk. And trust in the goodness of other people. With every challenge I face as a wheelchair traveler, there is always a solution within reach. On my very first international trip as a wheelchair user - to Beijing, China - my wheelchair's battery died one night on a secluded street, blocks from my hotel. It took a few tries to find someone who spoke English, but a wonderful man offered to push me back to my hotel, and to electricity.
In this wonderful world of humanity, you'll quickly find that someone always has your back, and oftentimes that person is a total stranger. So, have faith, take risks and experience the beauty of the world and the people within it!
Mirjam: With regards to traveling the world, do not only accept what is on offered and presented to you. Keep thinking outside of the box, keep asking questions, as there are way more possibilities than one would ever think and imagine!
As you can see, traveling is what fulfills your heart the most, no matter how “limited” you think you are, this is just your mind and fears talking. There is always a way for you to learn, visit and share experiences wherever you go, you just have to embrace opportunities and let go. I hope you, disabled travelers wandering the world, found these words useful and that they will make you go a little bit further. Looking forward to meeting you somewhere in the word!
Main picture: Wheelchair Travel