Travel has always called to me. We didn’t do tons of it when I was a child, but what we did do had an impact on me. My parents took us on some epic trips as a child. One of my fondest trip memories as a child was when we traveled, by car, to Disneyland. There was no air conditioning traveling by car with 6 people in it (we had taken with us my 16 year old aunt), we were camping along the way in a tent trailer, and we traveled all the way down the Pacific Coast Highway from Vancouver to Tijuana playing the game “up up up we go, down down down down we go” the entire way. Not sure if you know that car game, but if you have ever driven along that coastal highway, you will understand the game well. What an amazing coastline it is too! Having been only six years old at the time my memories are few and really more adequately described as feelings rather than memories, but I do recall some precious moments. One in particular was walking on the Oregon coast beach, battling the ferocious waves, my feet getting sucked into the sand as the waves tried to push me over so the sea could swallow me whole, or beach combing those same beaches with my dad and discovering the largest crab I had ever seen in my experience as a six year old girl! My dad was brave enough to catch it for me and bring it back to our campsite to scare my mom, which may or may not have been at my suggestion. Memories like this are priceless. The travel bug had wormed its way into my soul.
Fast forward 12 years to my highschool graduation year. I was ready to set out on my own and see the world. I wanted nothing more than to get some education, to grow through experiences such as those precious ones I remember as a child, and to make some more of my own. I was young, able, and ready to backpack to the big unknown places in the world. I was eager and unencumbered. I trekked halfway across Canada, making it as far east as Montreal, I encountered my first exotic adventure in Fiji, experienced the overwhelming humid heat and claustrophobia of Hong Kong, I submerged myself into the spectacularness of New Zealand and transversed the vastness of Australia in its entirety! I’ve had some amazing adventures. What I didn’t realize was how lucky I was to just be able to get up and go.
Fast forward another 20 years. I met Tyler and Tyler has a spinal cord injury that left him a T4 paraplegic and using a wheelchair full time. We had only known each other for three weeks and he was asking me if I wanted to go to Mexico with him for a vacation. I had never been! The answer was pretty simple for me, YES! This trip was one of the best in my history of trips, nothing will quite compare to it in my eyes. It was a trip of firsts for our relationship, and one of the reasons it will remain so special in my memory. I wasn’t involved much in the planning side of this adventure due to Tyler having already been to this particular resort so there were few unknowns for him. I didn’t realize at this point, what traveling to unknown parts of the world meant for someone with a spinal cord injury and in a wheelchair full time. What I did come to learn through planning and discussing future trips though, whether they were for a cabin in a neighboring town in BC, a hotel room the next town over, looking at a resort in Mexico, or discussing travel to far-reaching places such as Thailand or parts of Europe, was that this part of life in a chair was difficult and a bit scary.
I had no idea what it took to plan out a simple trip. What used to entail booking a flight, picking out where to stay, and choosing which landmarks you want to see, changed. Dramatically. Now you have to take into consideration things such as, is there a wheelchair accessible bathroom at that landmark, will there be ramps, is there going to be wheelchair accessible vehicles to get around on, will his chair fit through the door at the hotel, will he be able to access the bathroom, or if he is able to get in the bathroom, will he be able to access the tub/shower? These are things I have never had to consider before and let me tell you, there are more barriers than you realize. Next time you are out and about in any area of this world, try to notice sidewalk curbs and if there is a curb cut nearby, stairs and if there is a ramp right next to them, entrances to buildings – in Mexico most have a step up into the store, restaurants are the bathrooms accessible? Try to take notice of these things everywhere you go.
We have poured over thousands of pictures to try to figure these things out before committing to a location because let me tell you, everyone has a different idea as to what ACCESSIBLE even means! We have been told that we have an accessible room to find that what some deem ‘accessible’ actually makes life more difficult.
Take for instance, this resort in Mexico. This resort, that believes that a bathroom counter should be less than two feet off the ground in order to be wheelchair accessible… We are still not sure who thought that was a good idea? When a guy has no core muscles, leaning over to brush your teeth, wash your face, or wash your hands over a sink like the one in the picture above, made these simple chores quite the challenge! Other issues that we have encountered include beds that are too tall, too much furniture cluttering up the room making it difficult to navigate around the small space, or travelling with our girls and not being able to find an accessible room that had two beds. This last one frustrates me. It is as though it is assumed that people who use wheelchairs do not have families?! Why is this never a thought?
Tyler is lucky in that he is a pretty able guy for being a disabled guy. We have been able to manage regular hotel rooms, for the most part. On one of our trips to Mexico, he was able to roll up to a super-narrow glass partitioned toilet stall that required transferring 180 degrees -from facing the toilet to sitting on the toilet- without much issue, other than the toilet seat breaking and landing in the toilet bowl during one transfer at the most inopportune time, but that is a story for another time! We are usually able to manage with a regular room, as long as we can have a couple of simple questions answered that would make our stay much easier. We have often encountered staff at hotels that think that a wheelchair means you need ceiling lifts and wheel-in showers. While this can be the case for many people, my point here is that staff often come to their own conclusions as to what you require when they hear you are in a wheelchair, rather than listen to you about what you are telling them you require. We have had a difficult time explaining to people that if they can explain to us what the bathroom configuration is, we could tell them if it would work for us or not. For example, if the bathroom door swings open against the bathtub, chances are, he will not be able to get in the bathroom and be able to shut the door, due to the width of his chair, in order to be able to use the tub/shower. In cases such as this in the past, we have actually just removed the door entirely (off the hinges) and that has allowed him full access to the bathroom. We have found that if staff are able to answer simple questions such as that one, we have been just fine with a standard hotel room. But sadly it isn’t always this easy. We have had a cabin resort here in the Thompson Okanagan tell us straight out that they were not the place for us, without even listening to what we were able to work with! All they heard was ‘wheelchair’, made assumptions, and then told us their resort would simply not be able to accommodate us. Ableism.
Travel is still important to me, and it is something that Tyler and I both have aspirations to continue to do. The world of accessibility puts a factor of difficulty into the planning, but it’s doable and attainable and well worth the extra effort. Planning is super important to Tyler and I imagine to most people who travel with an SCI for a number of reasons. The more you know, the better you can expect or try to predict the unexpected as well as have some solutions at the ready, but this is quite tricky to do when you have never been to a destination before. In my internet searches, I have found websites that advertise all accessible travel which is exciting at first glance, but then when you try to access and view the options, you are met with disappointment because they either charge you for access to their options and/or charge you 3x the price or more than the average traveler would pay, just for the privilege of your wheels. Accessibility is expensive. I hope to one day come across a website that highlights accessible travel fully stocked with photos, reviews and detailed descriptions. One that explains where to go, where to stay, how to get around when you travel to an area. A site that posts pictures of the accessibility offered, the ramps, the rooms, the bathrooms, all the features that we attempt to pinpoint while pouring through those thousands of travelers photos of the resorts and locations we are interested in visiting on sites like Tripadvisor (which we are so thankful for!). We have literally spent hours upon hours searching through them looking for accessible beach access points, at bathroom configurations, at whether or not there are stairs to the restaurants or bars at a particular resort and so much more. So if you know of a good website that does any of this please share in the comments!
Travel is exciting. Travel offers new experiences, fun, relaxation, discovery. To me, travel is a feeling. Travel used to be simple, but when I fell in love with someone who happens to live with a spinal cord injury, the ease in which travel came to me in the past suddenly became a challenge. The planning and research that now must happen prior to embarking on a new adventure is so much more than before, but that doesn’t make it any less of an experience. Travel for me remains exciting, fun, relaxing and full of discovery and adventure! Wheels don’t have to be a reason to not fulfill your wanderlust!