The perks and pitfalls of disabled travelling
Accomable is a new app to find accessible holiday rental properties. Set up by friends Srin Madipalli and Martyn Sibley, it was inspired by a joint wanderlust and some colourful experiences of disabled travel.
I love travelling. I have had adventures all around Europe, the US, Southern Africa, Singapore and Indonesia. I have gone scuba diving in Bali, camped in the South African savannah and trekked through a snowy Yosemite National Park.
I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and use a wheelchair. I need 24/7 personal care to help with everything from getting out of bed and getting ready, to help with washing and feeding and most daily physical tasks as I can't move my legs and have very little use of my arms. I always travel with a personal assistant.
My disability makes travel much harder, but over the years I've found ways around it.
Five years ago I was working as a corporate lawyer in the City. I was having a horrid time on many levels, and as is often the case with horrid periods, you can feel like you have nothing to lose and you become open to trying new things outside your comfort zone.
I decided to take six months off to go travelling. It was the first time I had really attempted it, and while it was an amazing experience, it also opened my eyes to how difficult it is to travel as a disabled person.
Prior to that I had never really travelled. I was terrified of things going wrong. I feared my wheelchair breaking down in a land far away. I feared accommodation being ill-suited on arrival. I feared transport not being sufficiently adapted and leaving me stranded. I feared problems arising with my personal assistants and being abandoned when I needed them the most. The list felt endless and I usually convinced myself to stay in my comfort zone and never try anything.
While I had an amazing time on that trip and every adventure afterwards, pretty much all those fears I had about travel have actually come to fruition. But I found solutions.
In Sydney, I arrived after a nine hour flight from Singapore to a smashed up wheelchair that apparently had been dropped while being unloaded. I was stranded in the middle of Sydney at night. Luckily, the airport staff were very supportive and found a workshop still open and a spare wheelchair to get me to a hotel. This mechanic also managed to patch up my wheelchair temporarily a couple of days later to allow me to get on with my trip.
In Los Angeles, Martyn and I turned up to our hotel in the early hours of the morning to realise that there was a step into the bathroom, even though the hotel listing said it was step-free. We ended up having to work with the hotel porter to create a makeshift ramp to somehow get us in there and at least provide a temporary solution until the morning.
In Bali, my wheelchair charger was broken and my wheelchair only had a few hours power remaining. I had to frantically phone around the manufacturer's offices in Germany looking for local suppliers who could help. After being passed on by about 10 different people, I ended up getting a kind recommendation of a small shop in Bali that sold replica Chinese made medical equipment on the cheap, which included a charger that seemed to work.
I've had more extreme experiences too. Baboons have attack my van in South Africa (not much one can do apart from hit the accelerator), and in Las Vegas, while I was asleep, my personal assistant went for a drink and ended up getting into a drunken brawl and got arrested, leaving me stranded in my room. I was stuck in bed till late morning unable to reach my phone, forced to wait until he was released by hotel security and able to get me out.
As with most fears and difficulties, you realise when they actually happen that there's usually a way to fix it, and I believe people are fundamentally decent and helpful when you are in need.
But the travel experiences Martyn and I have had led us to thinking that travel shouldn't have to be a risk or a major leap into the unknown just because you have a disability or are elderly. We believe it is possible to create a platform to find and inspect accommodation before travelling, and to find providers of support and equipment around the world, so if things break down it never has to be a terrible nightmare. Moreover, if we can get more disabled people to travel, we believe airlines will become better at treating their equipment with care as it would become something very usual.
Accomable now has properties in 18 countries and we are constantly searching for more. We are under no illusions that we have a long way to go, but we'll keep working hard to achieve our mission to make travel accessible to all. Because travelling is brilliant - angry baboons and all.