Dec 4th, 2017, 08:55 PM

Traveling While Disabled

By Imani Barbarin
7 tips and tricks to plan your inclusive holiday.

Being born disabled and in need of accommodations in this world is kind of like being born a fish out of water constantly hoping that some of those fish swimming will notice you long enough to throw water on you occasionally. When it comes to traveling as a disabled person, each “pond” seems to have its own rules and regulations regarding what reasonable definitions of disability and accessibility are. Regardless, I believe travel to be an enriching experience, and with that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of travel tips and tricks for disabled people and their allies.

1. Protect your mobility device

If traveling requires your mobility device to leave your sight and be checked as luggage, take a photo of it before you leave and take notes about what condition it’s in. Airlines are infamous in the disabled community for destroying disabled peoples’ wheelchairs and leaving them stranded in foreign cities without them. So, make sure you take into account what your wheelchair looks like and how it’s functioning before departure in case there is any damage in transit and legal claims need to be made. Also, learn the word for your chosen mobility device in the language of the country you’re traveling to.

2. Plan, plan, and when done planning, plan some more.

For many disabled people, spontaneity is the death of all things fun. Nothing strikes dread quite like the phrase “it’s right around the corner.” (stop lying to us, this feels like I’m climbing Everest!) As a disabled person, I am an expert at budgeting my physical energy for the entire day, so aimless wandering can take its toll and could mean me skipping some activities out of fatigue. I suggest a practice I like to call “cluster tourism.” Pick an activity, cultural site, or attraction you want to see and plan subsequent stops in the area around it. Consider how much energy it would take to get from each one and budget your time accordingly. For instance, taking photos at the Trocadero in Paris requires a lot of standing, so take a break afterwards with a coffee at a café across the street before heading to the Palais de Tokyo. All of these points are within a fifth of a mile of one another making it feasible to get to each of them without expending more energy than necessary.

3. Bus Maps are your friends!

There are many reasons to love bus maps. Firstly, buses are generally more accessible than metro systems. Even if you enter into a metro at an accessible station, there’s no promise you’ll be able to exit through one. Trust me. (Cough, Rome, Cough) Second, especially in urban centers, bus routes can point to more accessible walking paths. Buses normally have to travel streets with enough room for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic, so usually these same routes can accommodate the standard wheelchair width. Lastly, buses will often get you closer to your destination than metro systems. (Bonus: most public transit systems with apps have accessibility filters that, when turned on, minimize the amount of walking during a trip)

4. Ask about “steps” not accessibility

“Accessible” is a loaded concept when it comes to travel. Countries have varying definitions of what disability is, therefore what they consider reasonable accommodation varies as well. I will go over booking a place to stay next, but when it comes to calling ahead of visiting attractions and eating in restaurants, ask property owners how many steps there are and not whether they’re accessible. In many places, one or two steps at the entrance are a considered completely accessible so you’ll likely miss this detail if your question is merely about accessibility and not steps.

5. Be wary of home-stays.

Companies like Airbnb and HomeAway may offer consumers a wide array of options regarding where to rest your head for lower prices, but even they realize that accessibility isn’t understood the same way across cultural contexts. Turn on their accessibility filter and you’re greeted with a liability waiver. The thing about staying in home shares rather than hotels is that most accessibility initiatives address for-profit industries like tourism and not the lives of citizens living in those areas. Therefore, it’s rare to find appropriately modified homes, whereas accessible hotels are much easier to book. Should you decide to go the home share route, I suggest you be in constant contact with your host from the beginning and couch your expectations.

6. Know thy toilet.

I’m going there. Finding accessible toilets is a crapshoot. (yeah, I said it) so plan your bathroom breaks with places you know will be accessible in mind. If it’s accessible on the outside, the more likely it is on the inside. Many restaurants around Europe have bathrooms in the basement down a flight of stairs and even of they do have accessible bathrooms on the ground floor, they’re being used as storage and may not have running water.

7. Pick a Paralympic city to visit.

Since 1960, every city that hosts the Olympics hosts the Paralympics as well. Because of the influx of hundreds of disabled people at the same time, and not wanting to miss out on any tourism dollars, cities generally make substantial changes to infrastructure to incorporate them. In some cases, like Barcelona, the push towards accessibility has been a real source of pride. While many years have passed since the city has hosted, Barcelona still boasts about their beaches, which are completely accessible by wheelchair.

Whether you’re planning to traverse the globe or book a room for a staycation, I hope these tips and trick help you plan a perfect inclusive holiday.