Written by Kate Thomas
I’ve never been very good at packing. I can never seem to win the complex game of Tetris that is fitting my clothes, shows and toiletries into my backpack. As I sit at my gate in Melbourne airport, the usual combination of excitement and anxiety rests heavy upon my shoulders. I’ve done this before: the chasing-adenture-while-carrying-a-big-backpack-on-your-back-and-a-little-backpack-on-your-front-like-some-weird-malformed-turtle thing. I crave the feeling of freedom that travel provides. But this trip is different.
The last time I travelled, I was eighteen, full of naive enthusiasm and free of adult responsibility. This time, I am twenty-one, full of the same enthusiasm but carrying something far heavier than my 22-kilo backpack. A disability.
I don’t have to declare it at customs, and neither the sniffer dogs nor the metal detectors can detect it. It doesn’t fit neatly into the allocated parameters of carry-on baggage, or the nice picture of what society views as a ‘disability’, but it feels a hell of a lot heavier than my poorly arranged backpack.
Comparing travelling with a disability to travelling without one isn’t an easy task. Everything is different. But it’s not a bad difference, nor a distressing one. It’s just, well…a difference. When I was eighteen, I travelled around India and Europe, waking up every day and wandering wherever my legs would take me. At twenty-one, my legs weren’t quite as reliable. As I backpacked around New Zealand, I found myself having to plan my day around the impact of fatigue and balance issues. This meant that I had to know exactly what I wanted to do, and set myself small goals to do it. This level of planning does have advantages, and it is also good if you, like me, are - lets call it a ‘budget traveller’; it’s a lot easier to not spend money if you know how far you need to spread your money wings.
The choice to travel is also different when you have a disability. Heat and I have a love-hate relationship. It’s super handy to make my favourite avocado-and-cheese toastie, but hot days exacerbate all my symptoms. So the climate of my desired travel destination is one of the first things I google in my planning process (Iceland anyone?). And of course there is the element of the unknown, and the fear and anxiety that it provokes. I don’t think that this is unique to people travelling with disabilities - we are all human, and the unknown is without a doubt simultaneously one of the most exciting and terrifying things you can ever experience. But when you have a disability, travel is complicated, and alongside the fear of unknown external influence, there is also the fear of not knowing how your body will respond to this new destination. And don’t even get me started on travel insurance.
At risk of sounding like a poorly worded equality campaign, the attitudes of the people around you also has an immense impact on your travel experiences. Having an ‘invisible’ disability is something for which I am both grateful and spiteful. Climbing stairs is slow and laborious, and that arsehole muttering behind me doesn’t help. And if said arsehole pushes past and knocks me, then I will likely take an unwanted trip back down those stairs (travel insurance people, get it). But I was incredibly fortunate to be travelling with a group of people who were immensely supportive, and who made my travelling experience everything that I had wished for. And the people running activities were, for the majority of the time, incredibly gracious and honest.
Travelling with a disability has given me a new perspective. Again, I don’t want to sound like a cheese-ball, but chronic illness and potentially progressive disability makes you learn to appreciate what is in front of you. While I would rather shave off an eyebrow than use #YOLO, I think there is value in the more traditional and sophisticated ‘Carpe Diem’.
Travelling is challenging and chaotic and amazing. For everyone. But when you have a disability, these challenges can seem overwhelming and unsurmountable. It’s easy to put it in the too-hard basket, and instead try to satisfy your itchy feet with idealistic Pinterest boards and YouTube videos. But the experience itself is far more messy and pure and amazing than those edited images depict. Yes, it will be challenging and things will not always go to plan. But there are things that you can do to help… (drumroll please)… I present, Kate’s Top Travel Tips for Bad-Ass Travellers With Disabilities;
- Plan and research. A lot. Be like that one kid in high school who would do three times the amount of work required for assignments. Know what to expect in regards to accessibility, weather, accommodation and costs. Know what you want to do for your trip, and try to plan your days around any rest you may need.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions or voice concerns. I know it’s super awkward to approach your white water rafting tour guide and say “Hi I’m Kate and I have MS, can I still do this?”. But these questions will help ensure the safety of yourself and others.
- Just get travel insurance. It’s expensive, but much like adding $2 avocado to your wrap, it’s worth it.
- I know that your backpack makes you look spontaneous, but suitcases can be easier to move when you are having an off-day.
- Talk to people. Not about your disability. But just talk to them. People are amazing, confusing, hilarious, heartbreaking and generous. They make better friends than the internet. And you will discover one of the most important things for people with disabilities - that you are not alone.
Happy travels my friends x