Travelling when you're disabled

To ensure a pleasant holiday for tourists with disabilities, it's crucial that they are able to access public amenities and use them safely. - Filepic

People with disabilities can travel the world. All it takes is some smart planning.

THERE'S a famous quote that's been used and abused over the years to urge people to travel to other countries and meet other cultures. Basically, it says that "the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page."

It's an interesting quote - and while there is some truth to it - it can be argued that it smacks of privilege. I mean, there are many among us who can't travel or find travel exceedingly difficult due to different reasons. Some of us can't travel and tour because we don't have the money to do so.

And there are those who find travel challenging because they or their loved ones have to overcome the obstacles that physical disabilities throw their way. However, having said that, I have come to learn that travel is not impossible for a person with a disability - such as a wheelchair user - as long as you're willing to plan ahead and do your homework ahead of time.

This is something I've learned the hard way, having been a caregiver and travel companion of a wheelchair user in the past. And from my experience, good planning begins at least two months before the holiday kicks off; I would often contact the airline - ideally by email to have everything in black and white - approximately eight weeks before the flight to ascertain what documentation we would need to prepare, such as doctor's letters and other medical forms so that such paperwork could be completed in time for the flight.

At first glance, this might sound excessive. I won't dispute that. However, I have learned from experience that you really don't want to leave anything to chance, and the added time will give you and the airline some breathing room should surprises pop up in the weeks leading up to the trip.

Chargers for powered wheelchairs can burst into flame or even blow up, unforeseen incidents could force changes to the dates of important pre-flight tests and checkups; I've learned the hard way that it really does pay to have enough time to accommodate such surprises.

Additionally, such advanced planning has allowed for more careful pre-departure packing. It's allowed my travel companion and I to stock up on the right tools and spare parts for emergency wheelchair repairs, essential medication - basically to plan ahead to accommodate any contingencies that could crop up when we're away from home.

And I am not alone in taking such cautious steps, as I learned when speaking to spinal cord tumour survivor and artist Poesy Liang.

For her, planning also begins way before she boards her flight.

"When I go on a trip, I purchase my flight - usually with an airline that I am familiar with as I have tested out their services before - and then I will inform the airline's office that I need special assistance," said Liang, who relies on a mobility scooter to get around.

I asked her what she does when flying with a new airline, and Liang said that she reads a lot of reviews of the airline and speaks to friends with disabilities from the airline's home country.

She also stressed that it is important to get all accommodation in order before kicking off on the trip.

"For accommodation, if it is through Airbnb, I will go through quite a number of properties and message every prospective rental in advance to discuss my needs, including using the scooter and bringing it into the house to charge at night. I will also try to find the most accessible Airbnb rentals; that includes being close to public transport that is easily accessible," said Liang.

This is something that I also did for both Malaysian and international holidays, as it really paid off to get in touch with the hotels at least a month before the trip begins to make sure that the hotel can accommodate a wheelchair user.

And as for attractions and activities, it really helps to do your homework beforehand about those too. Google and call or email - ideally email - the right people before you set foot in that theme park, museum or monument if you don't want to run into any nasty surprises.

"If there are any special events during the trip, I would research ahead to see if the venue I am visiting has easy access for wheelchairs and also I would try to be informed of accessible entrance/porter drop off, if different from regular entrances. I try to check this for all venues that I already know I am going to, such as airports convention halls, hotels, malls, commercial buildings and other areas," said Liang.

So yes, travelling as a person with a disability or travelling with a person who lives with a disability isn't impossible. It just takes the right mindset and a good pre-departure strategy.

As the saying goes - if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.


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