Solo Travel with a Disability
by Scott Rains
Rolling Rains Report
This article was first published by Janice Waugh on Solo Traveler where Scott was invited to be a guest blogger and share his unique insights on traveling solo with a disability.
Janice Waugh exposed the heart of solo travel in her free eBook Glad You're Not Here: A solo traveler's manifesto. She found that solo travel is colored by whatever life stage the traveler is navigating.
Disability can make one life stage intrude on another when design and policies create barriers that limit one's independence. They complicate both the how and the why of travel. The skill is to anticipate collisions when they are predictable or embrace them with grace when they are not.
Solo travel can be a spiritual practice, a rite of passage, a time for reprioritizing – but Maslow's Theory of Development reminds us that basic human needs must first be met. For many people with a disability the motivation for solo travel is the same as for their non-disabled peers but the logistics can be many times more complex.
- Wayne Teasdale embodied the archetype of solo travel. As a Ganges-bathed sanyassin – a wandering monk – teaching was his calling. My wife and I were able to provide him with hospitality and companionship along his chosen way of spirituality until cancer brought him unexpected detours.
- Steven Dawes moved to a different call but from a similar depth. Shortly after going blind he turned inward from the coast near Sydney and began a solo Walkabout in the general direction of Ayer's Rock – Uluru. Over Australian quantities of beers in Perth he poured out his story and shared the depth of his motivation to test his new limits and explore his potential.
- Craig Grimes fell out of a tree. Discharged from the hospital in the UK he set out, backpack slung behind his wheelchair, to explore Europe. We met in South America, and then India, and later in Florida.
The simple truth is "nobody stops moving". Whether it is moving through space, or time, or relationships travel is both metaphor and a concrete reality. A few of us have dedicated significant portions of our lives to making travel possible for those who experience disabilities. Here is what we have discovered.
We can create the built world around a more realistic and inclusive image of what it is to be human. Meanwhile we work with what we cannot change about our bodies and do the same things as everyone else – but sometimes a bit differently.
We call what we are promoting "Inclusive Tourism". We mean social inclusion; full participation.
The moral impulse for social inclusion is enshrined in national laws like the ADA, various Anti Discrimination Acts, and the UN's Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The practical tools for achieving this inclusion flow from the seven principles and eight goals of Universal Design.
Universal Design is "a framework for the design of places, things, information, communication and policy to be usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design". As we succeed in convincing more and more destinations that it is not only the "right thing to do" (even where laws don't mandate it) we show them the studies documenting that it is the profitable thing to do. With the industry coming to an awareness of how it can profit from us as customers – the US market of people with disabilities spending $ 13.6 annually (OD Market Study, 2002, 2005) – solo travel becomes physically possible.
Disability – a motivation for travel
Sometimes the very predictability of daily activities related to a disability is enough to spur one to travel. Consider these routine-breakers:
- If regular kidney dialysis is part of your lifestyle then taking one of several dialysis cruises available each year might determine your itinerary – at least until Endeavour Safaris is able to secure funding for a planned fully accessible game reserve lodge with dialysis.
- If you want to cruise but need oxygen, or a machine to help with breathing, Special Needs at Sea specializes in what you are looking for.
- Your solo travel might be limited to a few stolen moments in port but, if you are Deaf, the annual RCCL Deaf Cruise provides hospitality unrivaled by any other experience on the water – with the possible exception of chartering your own yacht through Waypoint Yacht Charter Services.
- Trekking and backcountry camping offer a wrap-around silence that is appropriate to solo travel. If you have a mobility impairment maybe you want a Eureka wheelchair-friendly tent designed by Blue Sky Designs combined with a Marvel Wheelchair, the Kilmanjaro-climbing wheelchair used by Jesse Owens, or SideStix super-strong sport crutches. Consider carrying the Spot GPS device for safety.
- Adventure sports are a good antidote to stereotypes about disability. White water rafting in Canada, hot air ballooning in the UK, wildlife safaris and bungee jumping in South Africa, elephant rides in Thailand, or zipline trips in Brazil are all easy to arrange.
These days there are many specialist travel agents, tour operators, and publications to help with trip planning. I always suggest starting with Candy Harrington's work including her Emerging Horizons web site and magazine. She also has several books including "Barrier-Free Travel: A Nuts And Bolts Guide For Wheelers And Slow Walkers.
Going the distance
"Step over the finish line." That was the advice coming from the radio as I sped northward alone toward the Canadian border at dawn. Travel writer Rick Steves was interviewing Norman Fischer author of the mythic solo travelogue "Sailing Home". Steves' point was about being transformed at the end of a journey. When you get to the destination , Steves said, "Go beyond the souvenir shop. Go over the finish line. Discover what only that place has to offer".
Captivated by the radio dialogue, passing not far from Rick's home at the time, I was on my way to oversee modification of a 42 foot catamaran in Bellingham Washington. The project added a bosun's chair so that, with some help, I could "sling myself over the finish line" onto the boat and sail out onto the bay.
Too often the logistical barriers of travel become handicapping for someone with a disability. Little energy, imagination, or finance remains to wander beyond the finish line and be immersed in the spirit of a place. With projects like this catamaran my 89 year old father, and friends from his assisted living community, will be among the first to use the bosun's chair as they take the new "aerial route" aboard. A physical barrier is removed and a new set of life-enhancing possibilities becomes available to a whole community of people.
There's a paradox to solo travel. It is there in the value we call inter-dependence which forms the heart of disability culture.
Unfamiliar environments remind us that even the simplest activities require us to rely on others. Environments that were never built for people with disabilities in the first place open that level of awareness to us permanently.
Solo travel, from the outside, looks like the ultimate in asserting independence. Yet we know from the inside that it is really a way of deeply connecting with persons and place. By paring travel down to the essentials the solo traveler feels the consequences of their individual choices with a new immediacy. Solo travel is a lot like living with a disability.
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