Here are some thoughts on traveling with disability.
Don’t be afraid to ask
There are things that you decide you can and cannot do. You are the expert of your own ability and your decision is the most important factor, because even if there is a system in place that can enable you, if you are not confident, there is no way you are going to enjoy it. Having said that, defer the decision on whether the experience is possible after you get there. HOWEVER, this could become especially expensive if we are talking about extreme sports or things that are time and labor intensive – say skydiving or scuba diving. So, ensuring that you always have the choice of not doing the thing becomes very difficult unless you are willing to incur a considerable expense. First, check online for videos of how other people do it. Then it always helps to give a call ahead to the tour operator and see what adaptable modes they have – different types of harness, supporting personnel or different kind of experience. In some cases, such as scuba diving, it is possible to keep the big adventure as an optional add on to an otherwise accessible tour – such as a reef-cruise or island-hopping. You decide what experiences you are going to have, but you can always maximize the possibility of having them.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Tour operators do know more than you do about how to get people in and out of risky situations. Of course, there are those who say yes simply because they don’t want to miss out on your fare, but usually such operators are more common in places where they do not encounter many disabled passengers. Don’t be afraid to check out their unconventional solutions though, because sometimes the most creative methods to seemingly inaccessible problems come from very unexpected places. In such a situation, asking for help means giving as much information as you possibly can about what you can/will/should do in terms of mobility and what kind of help you need. This last bit is perhaps the most important – because people may not instinctively understand where to hold you or what kind of support you need. It could be a matter of the timing of the assist or specific kind of force required during the assist. For instance, when the floor is wet and possibly slippery – a crutch user may not need help being held, as much as creating stable points where they can rest their crutch against. Solutions could be as easy as someone firmly positioning their foot against the crutch tip to ensure it doesn’t skid.
Don’t be afraid to turn left
This is the title of the article; and if I did not include it somewhere in the article, my analytics would shake a finger of shame at me. So yes, as simple as it sounds – every time you enter a tourist hotspot, an easy way of changing the rules of crowding is to simply turn left when everyone’s going right. You will be surprised how many beautiful sights open to you. Sometimes, it is a matter of lagging the time – finding off-peak hours when the busloads of tourists have come and gone. This matter of timing could be as broad as traveling to Europe in Winter (entered the Louvre literally without a queue) or a matter of the time of the day.At the opening hour, when everyone rushed to see the Rosetta Stone at Room 4 in the British Museum, I had a great time looking at entire rooms of Greek ceramics by myself, simply by going up to the second level.
In one of the most crowded temples at the Angkor Wat Temple Complex, Ta Prohm, I was stunned finding myself alone among the ancient ruins simply by lingering around a little longer after a wave of tourists. And thanks to the focused nature of the tourist audience, they were all quite keen on reaching the site from the movie. Considering the sprawling nature of Ta Prohm, you can find many (dare I say, more) interesting rooms that are completely empty. Be warned though, Ta Prohm, and most of the temples in Angkor Wat are uneven terrain and needs a certain flexibility to see how much of the place can be accessed.
Plan ahead, learn the maps
One of the most underrated steps of travel is getting a sense of your orientation in the city. A little knowledge goes a long distance in making your journey a lot more comfortable when it comes to city travel. Knowing which bus or subway routes are the closest to a destination and which ones are accessible, helps make your day that much more enjoyable. Getting to the place itself should not be such an arduous task that you do not really get to fully appreciate the place that you have reached.
Don’t ALWAYS trust the maps
A direct counter direction to the previous tip is to keep in consideration that maps are designed for able-bodied persons. Google maps, as much as a great advantage as it is, doesn’t always account for which side of the road you end up in or if there are steps and an overhead bridge crossing instead of a street level crossing. And in many cities, subway trains are accessible only by escalators or stairs. So you need to be very careful about relying entirely on mainstream technology. Some cities, like London, have detailed information on which routes offer step-free access. Fewer cities, like Singapore, have nearly universal step-free access. In other places you need to get creative, with the kind of transportation you get, or the kind of support you need on reaching the place. Calling the information desk or an exclusive accessibility hotline would help a lot because you can describe the exact kind of travel you need.
Don’t be afraid to get lost
This is one of the trickiest bits of advice, because being on crutches or in a wheelchair, you want to conserve your energy and find the fastest, easiest path to a place. But you need to ensure that there is an allowance for getting lost and having a few consecutive misfires. This happens to all travelers and the law of averages suggest that you will have at least one significant kerfuffle in a week. Wherever you end up, try to soak in the atmosphere and regroup on how to get about from where you are. I didn’t actually plan on visiting St. Paul’s cathedral and when I accidentally got on a wrong bus that took me there, I could take a few minutes to enjoy the view before deciding what to do next. Of course, always remember that you are one phone call away from a taxi that can rescue you from any sticky situations. Set aside some sort of an emergency fund depending on the place you are, to get yourself out at your convenience.
SPECIAL NOTE ON AIRPORT SPECIAL ASSISTANCE
Airports can be really troublesome. There is no such thing as a completely friendly and easy to use airport unless you are willing to involve the people who know the way to make it easy. Do not hesitate to ask for assistance at airport, because in many cases there are shortcuts that are not just invisible, but simply out of bounds for a regular traveler. Since many airports are designed to integrate the commercial side with the way to the gates, you will end up walking in serpentine labyrinths that could be accessed much more directly if you were to simply ask for help. Of course, not all airport special assistance places are created equally – in some places you have to endure brusque or annoyed staff members, but in most cases, they are competent enough to get you from one point to another. This becomes very important when you are making connections.
To do this, you need to come to terms with the fact that traveling is hard. It is one of the most essential experiences in our lives, but it cannot be denied that it is often cumbersome, difficult, expensive or a combination of these things in many of our lives. And when majority of travelers are able-bodied people that can be prodded and probed to the satisfaction of the airport/railway station authorities, disabled-travelers make things a little uncomfortable for them (if the authorities are not familiar with the procedures), for those travelling in the same flight as them (by holding up the line), or for themselves (your endless optimism ends when you are depantsed for yet another time in an airport). But these things are just some hurdles to the beauty of what travel can offer you on the other side of the door. To ensure that you do not arrive exhausted, avail the airport assistance facilities. You will have more energy for that bungee-jumping or scuba-diving that you wanted to do.
Remember this: The world in its scary, prohibitive and dangerous environments, is not inaccessible. Some of its features have been disabled for a few of us, but you would be surprised how quickly and creatively people respond to a call for help. The inventiveness with which make-shift changing rooms and new ways of diving into the ocean would stun you. These are not experts on accessibility, but just people who know that there is always another way to do the same thing. The world and its peoples are kind and generous, helpful and approachable. Every place has a person who will say that it’s not possible. Turn left and ask again. Every time you think that you are not going to run up a hill on a wheel-chair, remember that with enough rope and friends, you can reach the very pinnacle.
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.