13 Apr Who’s not in the room? “Disabled people don’t travel”
For anyone that has done any travelling, you will know how rewarding and enriching an experience it can be. Being exposed to new cultures and ways of life, having access to activities that don’t exist at home, and sampling the local cuisine of some far off land all contribute to a beautiful opportunity that is more affordable and practical than ever. That’s not to say that it’s without its challenges! Travelling can be arduous, stressful, taxing on your immune system, and sometimes very dangerous. Even for the non-disabled traveller, a trip to another part of the world takes preparation, a great deal of flexibility, and courage.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that persons with disabilities are rarely seen on even the most well-trodden traveller routes. Much of the world still does not give sufficient consideration for the accessibility of its services, tourist hotspots and transport. Like most enduring attitudes to disability, the field of disability rights and public accessibility is new, nuanced, and complex. The rush to accommodate tourists in an increasingly travelled world takes a very narrow view of what a tourist or traveller is. Stairs, unadapted streets, a lack of assistive devices, a lack of accessible bathrooms, and a lack of appropriate transport all stand in the way of the disabled traveller and their desire to see the world.
Statistics in this area are hard to come by due to the breadth of the issue and insufficient research. To try to put this into some context, the US Center for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that only 3% of all structures in the world are wheelchair accessible. According to many disability rights activist and bloggers, however, the figure is much less than that.
Sid Marcos, founder of accessible travel company ‘Outlandish Travel’, is one such activist. Identifying herself simply as a “traveler”, she describes her indomitable spirit as follows:
“The world is difficult enough to navigate in a wheelchair when you are in a familiar environment – why would I elect a lifestyle so averse to my inclusion? Partly because I never tire of seeing new cultures and peoples, mostly because I love the challenge.”
As a wheelchair user, Sid knows she is in the smallest minority when she travels. She often describes the perplexed look of fellow travellers when she joins their group, and she is certain of her assertion – “disabled people do not travel”. Sid speaks of her increasing frustrations with inaccessibility and “half-assed” attempts to create accessible accommodation. In her mind, the unpredictability and requirement to be flexible is at the root of people’s lack of effort in this area. Moreover, the designation of essential medical supplies as ‘medical paraphernalia’ are often difficult to obtain due to their out-of-the-way location. Often only mainstream medicines and aides find their way into popular pharmacies, leaving persons with disabilities with yet another, and potentially dangerous, inconvenience to overcome.
Difficulties that arise from travelling confirm enduring societal attitudes that we would wish to see gone. Speaking about her experience in several large cities in Azerbaijan, Sid was sure the lack of simple adaptations meant that persons with disabilities did not venture out of their homes, or that there were no persons with disabilities in Azerbaijan. Obviously this last notion is entirely sarcastic, but it does suggest a scary and possibly deliberate ignorance of disability issues. Despite being a relatively rich country with a well-developed infrastructure, Sid saw that ramps inside buildings were too steep to be used independently, pedestrian crossings were marked by step entrances, and there were no street curbs cut anywhere to allow for independent wheelchair use.
So what is the answer? It is undeniable that persons with disabilities who decide to travel will encounter a plethora of barriers and issues along the way. But without voices like Sid’s raising awareness of the issue, we cannot hope to innovate and insist on the changes necessary. Advocates are required at every turning point in history, and travelling in our increasingly globalised world should be a experience open to all. In the words of Sid herself:
“I personally believe that the most effective way to promote accessibility throughout the world is to become a relentless traveller. To learn, to share and to vocalise your experience for the benefit of the community.”
For more information about Outlandish Travel and Sid Marcos story, visit www.liveoutlandish.com.