Writer and editor, Jay on Life and Triple Cripples
I was born in Nigeria, where I contracted polio. It limits my mobility because my left leg is smaller and shorter than my right. I’ve had it since my first birthday, so it’s all I’ve ever known. Scoliosis was also an issue for me and I had to wear a back brace until I was 18. I moved to London when I was four but it wasn’t until my late teens that my parents even allowed me to travel on a local bus on my own. Now, it’s important for me to be able to travel by myself. I get around using crutches but post-polio syndrome can come years after the initial attack, when symptoms become worse. I recently turned 30, so I feel like I have a giant clock hanging over my head. I’ve been bungee-jumping, scuba-diving, skydiving, paragliding, all this crazy stuff, because I know that there could be a day when I have to use a wheelchair. I’m currently living in Palencia, Spain, teaching English, so I can learn Spanish. It’s pretty good for accessibility because the town has an older population.
My first trip was to a small town just outside Stuttgart, where I stayed with a friend. It was huge being able to experience what other people experience. For so long my world had been London, and only a small part of it, so from then on travel opened my world.
I work to travel and once quit my office job to go to India. Travelling around was tough, especially in tuk-tuks, but I was able to do it. I lived in California for a while when I did an exchange in my second year at university, during which I travelled solo for two months to different states, as well as Canada, Jamaica and Argentina – to see Iguazu Falls. I love the Argentinian side of the falls as you can get closer but it was wet and slippery so not something I should have done on crutches.
I love Stockholm because it is accessible for my needs. And Lisbon, because even though there are lots of hills, the metro is accessible and efficient. I would love to revisit Salvador because there are a lot of Afro-Brazilians there who trace their heritage back to Nigeria.
Although an anomaly, there was an awful incident in Shanghai, on my 28th birthday. I wasn’t allowed into a club and it felt like a double dose – of ableism and racism. It was the first time I’d encountered someone saying that it’s because of who you are that we don’t want you here. They suggested I may get injured but there was a lift – so it was just a way to fob me off.
For many with disabilities, you often have to take what travel companies tell you at face value. There will be times when you get somewhere that is meant to be accessible and there are two steps before it becomes accessible, which haven’t been mentioned. But that’s two steps too many for some. When people say accessible, I need to know exactly what that means. In some areas it’s actually better to be a wheelchair user. If it’s often raining, like in the UK, it can be dangerous using crutches. I’ve gone flying before because of wet leaves, and if it’s cold and icy, the incline of a ramped entrance can be a nightmare.
I’m always on the lookout for cheap flights (a favourite is secretflying.com). I also use Euan’s Guide, which started in Scotland and now has reviews, by those with disabilities, of attractions and sites around the UK. Accomable, which was created by two British wheelchair users, was recently incorporated into Airbnb, so there are listings reviewed by people with disabilities, to confirm features such as a hoist, a roll-in shower, step-free access etc.
In terms of the travel industry, there needs to be multi-pronged attack – from governments, airlines, tour companies – who should seek out advice from people with a variety of disabilities. We need to continually challenge them to make sure disabled people are thought about in all aspects of life. Blasting people online is the way to go. In the UK, the disability act has been around for a long time, so there’s no excuse. Unfortunately, shame is the game.
Writer and editor of Me, the Man and the Kids, mum of Oli (9), Dylan (6) and Charlotte (5)
About Emma and her family
Dylan was diagnosed with autism at two, after he began to regress, stopped talking and eating the right food. Before the diagnosis I felt like a fraud using the term autism but it was obvious something was different about him. Every autistic child is different, and most are unpredictable. He’s non-verbal but he lets me know when he’s sad or content. Now he’s getting older he’s dealing with things a lot more; although I have to be wary of choosing places where there will be food for him as he has a really bland diet. The more we travel the better he gets with new environments, so we can be more adventurous in the future. We continue to adapt and I’m not letting it define us.
We used to do a lot of UK staycations, such as last-minute caravan park breaks by the coast, and used it as a base for exploring the area. We currently live in Limerick, Ireland, which is an autism-friendly city and have done lots of day trips to the nearby coast.
Long-haul flights are better than short-haul for us – as you get more space. We did our first big family holiday abroad three years ago, to California and Disneyland, which offers special-assistance fast-track passes if you take documents with you. We went to New York the year after, in February, and were lucky with the weather, so we did lots of walking with Dylan in the pushchair. He still uses a stroller now, because he likes the security of the straps. I’d read how unfriendly the subway was to wheelchair users but the stations we used were better than in London, with elevators to platform level.
On the way to California airport security was nerve-wracking. Because we were taking more than 100ml of melatonin through (for Dylan, to help him sleep) we needed a prescription for it. I remember at Heathrow, breaking down in tears when they were questioning me about it as we didn’t know this at the time. Managers were called over and were really nice about it and, after testing the liquid, let us take it through.
Sometimes people stare, and you hear them asking why you’re getting to go first. It’s an invisible disability, so he looks like a “normal” child. At the same time, it’s an almost seven-year-old boy in a pram, so he looks huge. Airports are amazing, but airlines can be hit and miss. On one trip to Ireland, an airline had given us access to the priority queue but it wasn’t on the ticket, and a member of staff at the gate told us to move and got nasty. That was one of the few times I’ve shouted at someone about hidden autism.
After booking flights let the airline and the airport know that you need special assistance. Airports usually have information online about applying in advance. It involves being able to get through security stress free, via a reserved section and you get a hat, lanyards or a piece of paper with a symbol on to identify you. You can then board first, and will be met at the gate and helped onto the plane. Our local airport in Shannon is amazing and has a sensory room, where Dylan plays while we wait for the gate to open. I think every airport should have one.
Writer and editor at Wheelchair Travel
I was fresh out of grad school and teaching at a high school when, in 2012, I had a car accident. It switched up things in my life and put me on a new path. I began corporate travel consulting, before working in accessible travel and starting a blog. Before my accident I was an avid traveller. I’d jet off for the weekend any free moment I had. So travel wasn’t a new concept for me, like it can be for those with a lifelong disability. I just had to learn how to adapt. I’m more of an urban do-it-yourself traveller because I like to be as independent as possible.
We can often rely on the people around us to be our safety net. I’ve had strangers in Moscow push me through a museum in a manual wheelchair; and in Cambodia people carried me up steps to a church. I’m not saying you always have to be carried over barriers but I think that just about anything I’ve wanted to do has been possible. Germany as a whole has invested a lot on infrastructure; Berlin is particularly accessible. Hong Kong is one of the most accessible places in Asia.
My trip to Cambodia made a big impact on me. The country was only recently made accessible, due to the development of a wheelchair-accessible tuk-tuk. It’s a simple but ingenious innovation, with a ramp on the back and removable seats. As a triple amputee, I feel a particular attachment to Cambodia. Because of the land mines that still exist from the Khmer Rouge regime, it has the highest number of amputees per capita of any country. In general, it has poor access but in some ways I like that – because I can be a traveller who is really exploring off-the-beaten path.
I found Cairo to have the worst accessibility of anywhere I’ve been. The sidewalks have no ramps, many of the museums are inaccessible. But I wanted to see the pyramids and ride a camel, so I accepted the limitations.
I’ve been on a lot of trips without knowing what I would find when I arrived. My first international adventure was to Beijing – four months in to my travels as a wheelchair user– and I wasn’t sure I’d even be able leave the airport. I didn’t have any prearranged transportation because I couldn’t find an accessible taxi, which even now is difficult. I’d heard that Beijing had invested in accessibility on the subway for the 2008 Olympics and arrived hoping it would pan out – but ready to hop on a flight to another destination if not. Access on the subway gets worse every time I visit there. The infrastructure is not maintained, although some investment is being made in things such as curb ramps. When I first visited Tiananmen Square I had to weave my way around streets just to find an accessible route, and ran out of battery on my powered wheelchair on the way back. It was difficult to find someone who spoke English but luckily a Malaysian man offered to push me back to my hotel.
One of the most vivid memories I have of being upset was in Copenhagen. The bus wheelchair ramps are manual but the drivers don’t get out to help. Most people riding the bus didn’t know what to do, and often the driver would leave me behind. I felt so disrespected, and that I was a nuisance. It seemed odd that it would happen in such a progressive and forward-thinking country.
Start small and take a trip in your own city or country, ride the bus across town, or get a taxi on your own. Do not be deterred by things that go wrong, challenges will always present themselves. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. People generally have good intentions when they offer assistance. The best accessibility requires as little intervention from others as possible, so information is the most important thing. Hotels and transport providers should put up photographs and describe access. I’m still amazed that so few tourist boards have an accessibility page online. In many cities, I have to ride the entire subway to work out which stations are accessible. Yet it is so easy to put up a list of the stations in the network with an elevator. I often use Google Street View to work out access, city bus routes, sidewalks and so on.
Writer and editor at Rexy Edventures and the Deaf Traveller
I was born with profound deafness and by my mid 20s the hearing in my right ear disappeared and I could no longer hear with a hearing aid. I had cochlear implant surgery, which proved successful and gave me my life, confidence and energy back. Brought up in a family of backpackers and adventurers, I’ve always wanted to travel. However, due to my deafness, I didn’t feel confident enough to do it on my own. I went on holidays with friends and family but only began backpacking round the world solo after the surgery. Eight years later, I’m happiest when in a new destination exploring the local way of life.
I try to take a trip every month and two a month during spring and summer. It’s usually city breaks in Europe, with my best friend (met through travelling). We also take about three weeks to go backpacking every two years. I’ve been to 25 countries in Europe, the US, South America, south-east Asia, Australia, the South Pacific Islands, Africa and – my favourite place in the world – New Zealand. I’ve been campervanning in the Australian outback, got lost in rural Laos, ziplined across valleys in Pietrapertosa, Italy, helped to build a school in Murchison Falls national park in Uganda, partied at the Rio carnival, and hiked Mount Srđ in Dubrovnik.
A hearing aid and cochlear implant do not “cure” deafness, so I still struggle in situations such as noisy environments and big groups. Going through airport security and passport control can be stressful, as sometimes I can’t make out what staff are saying. As long as I have all my maintenance equipment, I can keep my hearing aid and cochlear implant ship-shape, along with using assistive technology, such as vibrating alarm clocks to put under the pillow and induction neckloops to listen to music (equipment that can be found on Action on Hearing Loss). While in Bangkok, someone flicked off my cochlear implant, which was then broken by someone stepping on it. As I bent down to pick it up, my wallet was gone from my pocket. For five days I listened with just my hearing aid until a replacement was sent to my accommodation. It was fine, as I was with fellow backpackers who understood my predicament and had great deaf awareness.
Everyone in the travel industry should be trained in deaf awareness and communication tips. A little can go a long way: for example, making sure your face and mouth are visible at all times. Millions of people around the world have some form of hearing loss and the travel industry should acknowledge that. For travellers with disabilities, my advice is don’t dwell on what you can’t do. Smile and be patient – every destination and situation will require educating others around deaf awareness. For instance, look at me while you’re speaking or wake me up in person if there’s an emergency in the middle of the night.