I’ve worked in accessible travel for over 15 years, and in that time I’ve seen a lot of things improve, making travel accessible to more and more disabled people. My list of 6 Accessible Travel Tips You Need to Know highlights how, with a little careful planning for things like flights and insurance, you’ll be able to enjoy a wonderful trip without worrying about accessibility.
But accessible tourism is still a relatively new concept (my childhood holidays in the 80s definitely weren't accessible!), which means that some people still have a lot of beliefs about travelling by wheelchair that aren't necessarily true. Here are some of the most common misconceptions that I've come across:
That we can’t travel alone
Don’t assume that everyone who uses a wheelchair requires a carer or companion everywhere they go. Unfortunately, this is what happened to wheelchair user Shen Chengqing, who was travelling from Hong Kong to mainland China. Hong Kong Airlines denied boarding to Chengqing for the sole reason that she was using a wheelchair and unaccompanied. This was despite the fact that she had flown frequently for the past 6 months without any assistance.
A lot of wheelchair users have experience when it comes to moving around, boarding and disembarking cramped planes. Of course, everyone needs help sometimes - I've never actually flown alone, but if I needed to I'd be perfectly capable of travelling independently.
I travel by train for work, up and down the UK every week, completely on my own. Things don’t always go to plan, but I’ve learned to adapt to the situation, and ask for help from those around me when needed.
That we only prefer the company of other wheelchair users
Believe it or not, we have interests and hobbies just like any other person. Our disabilities are not the only thing we talk about, and we can socialise with other people who don’t have impairments, physical or otherwise, just fine.
In fact, that can be one of the main reasons we travel. Fellow wheelchair travel blogger Brett Heising, who founded brettapproved, stated that one of his main reasons for seeking out adventures is to meet people all over the world. He shares, "After all, the greatest gift we can give someone is to examine life from their perspective." And this is true for both sides of the relationship — we have just as much to learn from other people as they have to learn from us!
One of my favourite memories of my trip to Rome is meeting a couple in the hotel’s roof top bar. We had almost nothing in common; we were different age groups, lived on opposite sides of the world and they didn’t have disabilities. But each day after we’d wandered the streets of Rome, we enjoyed a drink together, taking in the view and learning about each other’s lives.
That locals would be intimidated by disabled people
Not every wheelchair user has experience with travel, and often it’s because we’re worried about how inaccessible an unfamiliar destination may be. One of the biggest misconceptions is that locals will be intimidated by us or will not know how to help us.
But more often than not, that’s not the case at all. Even for destinations in Asia, where wheelchair accessible options can sometimes be lacking, the warmth and helpfulness of locals can make up for many difficulties. When travelling to these countries, you’ll find that even strangers on the street are more than willing to offer a helping hand to anyone who needs them.
I met so many friendly locals during my recent trip to France’s Dordogne region. Sometimes I needed help to negotiate steps and cobbles, and though a lot of the people I met didn’t speak English, I was always assisted with a smile.
That we can’t participate in activities
Using a wheelchair doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be able to enjoy activities that are more physically demanding. Don’t assume that someone with a physical disability won’t be interested in joining a fishing trip or a hike.
An American user on Patient's Lounge shared some of the activities that fellow wheelchair users can enjoy, especially if they're into outdoor activities. You can try wheelchair hiking, hand cycling, accessible surfing, adaptive skiing, and even sled hockey! These can be a little tiring, however, and will require a certain level of fitness. But the fact that these activities are available means that there's a demand for it — proving that we don’t have to be limited by a lack of accessible options when exploring a new place and all the activities it has to offer.
A couple of years ago I tried a wheelchair abseil for the first time. I was super nervous, but I enjoyed it so much I went up for another go! Pushing outside of my comfort zone whilst travelling is one of my favourite things to do.
What common wheelchair travel myths have you had to deal with? For more on accessible travel in the UK and overseas, feel free to explore my blog.