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Guest post: Why disabled people don’t travel
This guest post is by Sid Marcos, founder of accessible travel company Outlandish.
Choosing terms to self-identify is a complex issue for many. But my identifier is simple. I am a traveller. Well, I am a disabled traveller.
The two words seem unlikely bedfellows. 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.
I used to think it was strange that I never met other disabled people travelling as I was. In the thousands of hostels I’ve spent nights in, groups I’ve journeyed together with and planes I’ve taken to get there - every time I’ve been the odd-man-out. Other, non-disabled, travellers are usually altogether perplexed by my presence. It’s become embarrassingly apparent to me that for the most part, disabled people do not travel. But why not?
The US Center for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that only 3% of all structures in the world are wheelchair accessible. My personal experience says it’s much less than that.
What’s the big deal anyway?
Some places I’ve been, I swear there has never been a disabled person in the whole of the country. Last week I was invited to an entrepreneurship competition in Azerbaijan, an infrastructurally well-developed, rich country. Yet from the capital of Baku to the western city of Ganja, I did not see one street adapted for wheelchair users. There was not a single curb cut anywhere, pedestrian crossings were marked by step entrances, and ramps inside buildings were entirely too steep to be independently utilised.
I’ve been travelling almost nonstop since I turned 18. Now I’m getting older (an aching 24) and what I once considered an unencumbered journey to discover the world, I now feel a biting bitterness with every inaccessible shop, every bus I have to be carried onto, every half-assed “accessible” accommodation. The fact is, most people don’t want to deal with the terrible unpredictability of it all.
And what about medical supplies - where do you get those while you’re abroad? In my experience, you don’t. Because our everyday items are strictly categorised as “medical paraphernalia”, our products are sectioned off to be sold in some medical supply shop 60 kilometres out of town. This alone is my greatest pet peeve.
Opening the door to accessible travel
An appropriate slogan for disabled travellers would be “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. If you do travel, the true reality of a world built for the able bodied will be glaringly apparent. If you don’t, certainly there will be no advocating for the changes needed for all the places we’ve been denied access to.
This, for me, is the truly complex issue. I don’t know what the answer is to address this social ill but I do believe that greater exposure is a major part of the solution. We need disabled leaders in every industry, and innovation in every sector.
For my part, I am using my resources and the knowledge I have gathered to contribute to the community. I started a 1:1 travel organisation in 2013 called Outlandish Travel. Every trip is 100% wheelchair accessible, and for every trip purchased, we give away a free trip to a disabled person. Our latest project is to encourage independent disabled travellers by creating socially sustainable travel guides on Kickstarter.
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.
Where is the most inaccessible place you’ve ever been? Let us know in the comments below.