I always say that I work to live and, for me, a big part of living is about travelling. Like most globetrotters, this means having memorable adventures, experiencing different cultures, seeing wildlife and surviving minor disasters (we won’t mention the time the brakes failed on my mobility scooter on a steep slope in Yosemite).
My travel highlights so far include bear-watching in Alaska; travelling on the Blue Train and going on safari in South Africa; exploring California’s beautiful national parks; and city breaks in Rome, Paris and Barcelona. All are classic bucket-list experiences that demand a not-insignificant amount of pre-planning, but because I have a mobility disability, these trips involved much more than the usual amount of research and planning. And nowadays, with additional travel companions (a disabled son, and a non-disabled son and husband), booking holidays for my household is quite a feat.
However, I’m not alone in my love of and determination to travel. It’s getting increasingly easy to tap into the knowledge of fellow disabled travellers via a growing number of online forums and review sites. This means you can get advice and information on specific countries, as well as recommendations for accessible hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions in your chosen destination.
It’s a significant demographic. The disabled consumer market comprises over 10 million people and this group together spends over £80bn a year. For an average business, disabled people may account for up to 20% of its customers.
According to travel association ABTA, disabled people travel regularly, are often accompanied, tend to stay longer and spend more per trip than able-bodied travellers. Consequently, there’s a growing recognition that it makes good business sense to meet their needs. Plus, there’s help out there for those providing travel services. ABTA’s media relations manager, Sean Tipton, says, “Accessible holidays are a growing sector of the travel market, particularly due to an ageing population. Whole families benefit from accessible holidays and are more likely to travel if they’re confident their needs will be met.
“We’ve drawn up lengthy guidelines for tour operators, travel agents and frontline travel staff, including a checklist that they should go through with customers with a disability, whether physical or invisible, such as dementia and autism.
“Other countries don’t necessarily have the same attitude towards accessibility, or the legislation that we have, so it’s important that the agent booking their hotel, for example, checks that it’s appropriate for them.”
The growing accessible travel market means there are now a number of specialist disability travel companies. Sean says: “It’s worth considering using a specialist company as it will take the trouble to ensure that the travel booked meets the client’s needs precisely. Also, they’ll have been to many of the destinations, so will know first-hand about travelling to those particular airports and hotels.”
That said, mainstream travel companies are also improving their services. Virgin Holidays, for example, has its own dedicated special assistance team and many tour operators have information on their website about fulfilling access requirements. Nevertheless, I do a lot of research online, unearthing access information on websites and in reviews, and I also contact hotels directly. Meanwhile, subtle improvements, such as being able to book airport assistance online and taking a mobility aid to the aircraft door, are helping disabled people to travel much more independently.
A pole apart
With their notorious sub-zero temperatures, the Arctic and Antarctic might not sound like ideal destinations for someone whose disability leaves them prone to feeling the cold. But Michael McGrath, a wheelchair user who has muscular dystrophy, represents the extreme end of the disabled traveller spectrum, being the first disabled person to have reached both the North and South Poles — adventures that inspired a new career as a motivational speaker.
So why did he decide to venture to the opposite ends of the earth? “They’re two of the most extreme places on earth, so I thought what better places to learn about myself, my strengths and my weaknesses,” says Michael. “I also wanted to elevate people’s understanding of muscular dystrophy, which is all too often confused with multiple sclerosis.”
Preparations included three months of life coaching to help Michael address his fear of failure, and he learnt to endure temperatures of -25C in a frozen food distribution centre. “I don’t do shivering, as that requires muscle action, so learning how my body would react to the cold was really important,” says Michael. “Also, figuring out how I’d move once I’d put on all the gear — five layers, insulated socks, polar boots — this all helped us to understand what my capabilities would be.”
Michael’s expedition teams also had to experiment with how he’d travel across the ice. In Antarctica, this involved lashing his manual wheelchair to a rigid plastic curved sheet, the size of a door, which was then dragged across the ice like a sledge.
While that might sound like it makes for a smooth ride, the sastrugi — wave-like ridges formed by the wind on the surface of hard snow — caused Michael’s sledge to tip over multiple times, leaving him certainly more vulnerable to the cold. Being reliant on others to ‘right’ him and having to ask for help generally were additional challenges for him.
Michael managed to walk the final few metres on both trips, though he admits that reaching the South Pole wasn’t the euphoric exercise you might image. “I couldn’t feel my legs or toes, I felt nauseous, my head was pounding. When I got there, I broke down due to the combination of emotion, exhaustion and cold, and because we had finally completed our mission.
“Then I made the most expensive phone call of my life — $102 for one minute — to tell my wife, ‘Babe, I’m here’.”
ACCESSIBLE ADVICE: TIPS & TALES FROM TRAVELLERS
A remedial therapist running her own business, Alison is blind. She has always been interested in geography and learning about different places and cultures, but before last year, she had only been abroad twice: skiing in Austria as a teenager and a long weekend in Brussels. On both these trips, she was sighted.
A few years ago, she heard about Traveleyes, a tour operator that specialises in organising multi-sensory holidays for mixed groups of sighted and visually impaired people. “I initially booked long weekends in the UK: to Stratford-on-Avon, York, Cambridge and East Anglia,” says Alison. “The trips are always multi-sensory and incredibly varied. We went on a boat trip on the river Avon, had an audio described performance at the Shakespeare theatre, heard Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in York Minster, had a tactile tour of the museum at Sutton Hoo and made chocolate in the Rowntree’s chocolate factory.”
Reassured, she went on her first holiday abroad with Traveleyes — to Sorrento in southern Italy — last year. “We did so many amazing things, including a walking tour of Sorrento, a challenging climb up Vesuvius, attending a wine-fuelled cookery school, a cruise round the Amalfi coast and a ‘touch tour’ in Pompeii. Guides described the landscape and what’s going on, which really brought the trip to life.” Alison’s next planned trips are to New Zealand and Japan.
A genetic scientist-turned corporate lawyer-turned entrepreneur, Srin is a powered wheelchair user. He took time off to go travelling in late 2010 and has since visited 27 countries. After a six-month adventure touring around Europe, the USA, Africa and Asia, he was inspired to encourage other disabled people to travel more and to help make it easier for them to do so. In 2015, he co-founded, with fellow wheelchair user Martyn Sibley, Accomable, a website billed as ‘Airbnb for disabled travellers’, after finding that websites such as Airbnb and Expedia fail to provide sufficient access information for disabled people.
The website features the lowdown on accessible accommodation in over 60 countries, and the database is growing daily. Accomable also oversees the Accessible Travel Club group on Facebook, where disabled travellers share personal accounts of places they’ve travelled to all over the world. “Nothing beats getting first-hand experiences from the accessible travel community, who have direct insights into the many challenges faced,” says Srin.
He has stayed in an adapted safari camp in Kruger National Park in South Africa, has been adapted scuba diving in Bali and gone on adapted trails in national parks. “It’s possible to be just as intrepid as a non-disabled person,” he says. “But you do need to spend time planning and researching to make sure you don’t end up being stranded or stuck.”
Founder of Sminty Ltd, a successful disability and diversity consultancy working with major corporate organisations in the UK and abroad, Simon is a keen traveller in his own time and has made multiple visits to the US, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia and France to name a few.
Being short statured with a mobility impairment, Simon’s suitcase always has a few extra things in it — like a step stool and a grabber (a stick with a hook). He also takes his own mobility scooter wherever he goes, but this can be a challenge, particularly at airports. “The lack of consistent procedures means I have to be the expert explaining to a muddled official what needs to be done just to make sure my scooter arrives in the same place that I do,” he says.
Earlier this year, after years of deliberation, he went to Thailand. He says, “I won’t say it was easy, but access was better than I thought it would be — there were dropped kerbs, even makeshift ramps. Surprisingly, people weren’t especially interested in me. Some felt they had to take photos, but I decided I couldn’t spend all my time trying to prevent this, as it would have ruined my holiday. Most people were polite and helpful. On one occasion, four strangers picked up my scooter and lifted it over an obstacle before I’d even considered if it was possible!
“I’m hoping to go to India or South America next because they will be unlike the places I’ve already visited. I suspect they’ll blow me away.”
Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)