May 25, 2011
“A barrier is of ideas, not of things” –Mark Caine
I can confidently say that the largest barrier that inhibits people with disabilities from traveling abroad is attitude. In preparation for going abroad, many travelers with disabilities worry and are often overwhelmed by the perceived physical barriers associated with disability, whether it be lack of ramps, lack of Brailled signage, lack of accessible public transport, or communication barriers to getting around. Though all of these barriers are valid concerns for the intrepid disabled traveler, they are surmountable—plywood can be put down over steps, signs can be read to a person who is blind and one can request assistance on public transport. Yet attitudes are not as easily adapted.
As a traveler in a power chair who has crisscrossed the world, climbed up part of Annapurna III in the Himalayas on the back of a man and went through Central America on a motorcycle, I truly believed that traveling around Spain was going to be a piece of cake. I had planned a trip from Seville to Granada wherein I would travel by train. As any somewhat organized disabled traveler would do, I called the train station the day before to make sure the train was accessible and equipped with a ramp/lift, and they said absolutely.
So, I arrived at the train station with a prepaid ticket in hand, iPod charged and my luggage attached to the back of my wheelchair, a traveler ready to go. I wheeled to the platform and stood at the doorway with the universal blue wheelchair sign and waited. Then the conductor came up to me and said I could not take that train. Dumbfounded, I asked why. He clearly and concisely responded by saying that he did not want a woman with a disability travelling alone. At first I thought he was joking, I laughed and made my way to the train doorway wherein the conductor grabbed my wheelchair handles and pulled me back.
Needless to say, I did not travel to Granada that day, not because of an inaccessible train, but rather an inaccessible conductor.
Though there are others like this conductor who may, out of ignorance or discomfort, refuse to change their attitudes about travelers with disabilities, from my experience, I would argue that there a far more people who can be reasoned with or are open to learning more about our abilities.
Here are my top tips when encountering attitudinal barriers:
- Use reason and logic. In a firm but positive voice, start with “I understand your concern, however, I am more than able to travel independently…”
- Think creatively. If there is a barrier that someone feels is insurmountable, offer creative solutions, like using bricks and plywood for ramps.
- Be persistent!
- Be flexible. Sometimes you might have to go above and beyond what you feel is fair to fight for your right to participate.
- Know your rights before you go. See http://www.dredf.org for international laws.