I recently wrote about the joys of walking, about how much more we can do when we use our own two legs and feet to propel ourselves around on our travels. Originally, I’d made mention of the fact that one doesn’t have to be completely able-bodied to be able to enjoy the benefits of being out and about “on foot.” Being on crutches or in a wheelchair doesn’t have to limit GoGirls from taking it to the streets by any means! Sidewalks are increasingly wider, making navigation on a scooter or chair easier, and more and more sites offer access ramps and elevators to the attractions “everyone” wants to see. It’s also becoming more common for public venues, including restaurants and museums, to accommodate individuals who are accompanied by service animals. In many ways, getting around on your own, regardless of ability, is becoming easier to do.
Note, however, that I said “easier,” and not “easy” or “100% possible.” Physical (dis)abilities, whether temporary or permanent, can take a lot of energy to accommodate. How many of you able-bodied GoGirls have ever been on crutches? I was, for a very brief period in high school, and I still remember how my shoulders and arms shook after each time I’d lurched my way from one classroom to another- in spite of the fact that I was strong and young. Wheelchairs take a lot of arm muscle to operate, especially when going uphill. Compensating for knee or back injuries can often mean a frequent need to sit and rest. When it’s not physical energy, it’s emotional energy, such as the sense of vulnerability and violation that can accompany a stranger’s well-intended patting of your guide dog without your consent. Or the frustration of learning that your wheels can get you into the museum, but can’t get you to all the exhibits you actually want to see. Or trying to ignore the condescending mollycoddling of the people who presume that your level of ability is synonymous with you being incapable or incompetent. Definitely not easy.
So what is the wheeled or crutched GoGirl to do? The answer, of course, is whatever s/he wants to do. Numerous companies and websites have sprung up in recent years that specialize in providing travel opportunities to people with physical (dis)abilities, and others that have been around for a while, such as Frommers, are expanding their markets. There are some obvious advantages to planning a trip through a group like Adventure Travel. For one thing, these companies have checked out the tours they offer- so you don’t have to wait until you get there to discover what the local version of “accessible” is. You get to hand-pick, in advance, the kinds of visits you want to make and what kinds of access you need, so everything from rock climbing to mountain biking to botanical gardens is an option. Of course, a major downside is that these trips often come with a large price tag. If you’re a GoGirl with a limited budget, travel agencies might be too expensive- even if the opportunities seem invaluable.
That’s the major upside of the internet. Websites exist for everyone, with reviews, commentary, and suggestions. You might have to weed through some nonsense to find the useful or interesting information, but in my experience it’s almost always worth the effort. Sites like The Disabled Traveler’s Guide to the World offer a country-by-country breakdown of things to do and see in the world, with commentary on how to get around, and while some of the countries have less information listed than others…that’s an opportunity for you to bring new information to your fellow travelers. Feeling adventurous? Give Croatia, Burma, or Botswana a try, and contribute to that and other websites that target information to people with specific (dis)abilities. Do some extra searches on Google. The North American and European tendency to marginalize people with (dis)abilities is partly a cultural phenomenon- every culture and society offers its own opportunities and challenges. And as I said in my last article, getting out and getting around on your own- whether on wheels or for a limited distance- is a great way to explore the area you’re in, at your own pace, and doesn’t require a lot of money or expertise.
For all the able-bodied GoGirls reading this, remember that this isn’t someone else’s issue. One of my favourite things about our magazine is the fact that our writers like to focus on alternative travel, opportunities for learning and growth, and like to consider the impacts that globalized travel has on local cultures, economies, and environments. So our own GoGirl team, as travel writers, should be keeping an eye out for how the places we’re visiting do (and sometimes don’t) accommodate everyone. When we’re going to museums, why not inquire what tour options are available for people who are Deaf? When we’re planning camping trips, why not research how many wheelchair-accessible sites are available? Not only can we offer more comprehensive information in our magazine, but we can also encourage the businesses and attractions we visit to broaden their horizons and their traveler base. Furthermore, when we’re looking into booking our next fancy-schmancy trips, why not consider traveling as a guide or companion? A friend of mine did this on a tour for the Blind in Egypt, and not only did she provide commentary and descriptions for people with limited eyesight, but she discovered that she noticed a lot more details in the places they visited than she would have otherwise. On top of that, she got to spend two weeks getting to know the other people on the tour.
So I repeat what I said last time: get out there. Take it to the streets. The world is there for all of us to enjoy- we just have to find ways to do it.
Thanks for this great article. It brings up a lot of interesting questions about countries and cities that aren’t easily accessible for travelers. How do residents with (dis)abilities get around? I know that sidewalks in Taipei, Taiwan are not smooth which makes it difficult for wheelchairs to navigate around the city. Every time we came to a step, my uncle and father would have to lift my grandmother’s wheelchair… What about residents who don’t have family members who can help?
Uneven sidewalks are definitely a problem- when in Philadelphia that was particularly noticeable to me! But then again, in Naha, Okinawa, the sidewalks and crosswalks have special grooves running down their middles to make their paths easier for people using canes to follow.
Your question about solo travelers or residents is good, too, and makes me wonder what each area does to accommodate those needs (i.e. is it expected that neighbours help out?). I think in a lot of ways the US has let its self-sufficiency rhetoric isolate us from each other, which makes things like a communal interest in each person’s well-being manifest in less than obvious ways (and sometimes not at all).