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The Hard And Humorous Truths Of A Disabled Traveller

Written by: Donna Oberg, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Donna Oberg

I love to travel! I’ve been lucky to do a lot of it, both for pleasure and for business. Even though travelling when you have a disability is not always easy, it is totally worth it and has provided me and my companions with some of the funniest and most epic moments in my life. It also happens to be 6 in the wisdom from seniors that I wrote about in my last article.

A photo of a woman's back looking in the beach.

In my book The Art of Falling: Lessons from a lifetime of trips, slips and Faceplants! (Amazon), I discuss some of my most epic falls and what I learned from them. Luckily, falling wasn’t my only experience as a disabled traveller with Cerebral Palsy (CP). I was gifted with beautiful, sometimes frustrating, and often funny adventures and life lessons. The life lessons are probably more appropriately called Aha moments. What makes some of these Aha moments so impactful is that they weren’t just my own, but they happened to my companions and complete strangers.

cartoon character thinking and writing

I considered writing a piece centred around tips I’ve uncovered while travelling the globe. However, while researching for this article, I found many thorough and engaging bloggers/influencers who do a great job of that and very helpful sites of organizations specializing in assisting with travelling with special needs. So emerged the first Aha Moment. Instead of writing tips, I could champion disabled travelling simply by sharing my quirky, eye-opening, and wonderfully surprising adventures. Before I do that, I’d like to highlight some of my blogger research.

Four sites that captured my attention

Disabled Accessible Travel – Founded in 2004, Their mission is to provide barrier-free travel to slow walkers (yep, that’s me) and wheelchair users. I wish they had been around when I started travelling in the late ’80s.

Curb Free with Cory Lee – Cory seems adventurous and up for anything. His detailed and descriptive stories grab your senses and make you feel like you are right there with him.

Jennifer Allen– A mom of a disabled child determined to show her son that he can do anything he puts his mind to. She reminds me of my mom in many ways.

Simply Emma – Her determination to live a full life and share with others resonated deeply with me. Disabilities span a wide range of challenges, visible and non-visible and degrees of severity.

There are many ways to define what disability means. For now, I will note the definition used in the Canada Accessibility Act “ including a physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive, learning, communication or sensory impairment—or a functional limitation—whether permanent, temporary or episodic in nature, or evident or not, that, in interaction with a barrier, hinders a person’s full and equal participation in society.” That’s a mouthful. Did it occur to you the reality that this minority group is one that anyone can join at any point in their lives? Aha Moment. Another critical point to note as we get into my stories is that with a wide range of disabilities come a wide range of experiences, needs and challenges. In my case of CP, I am considered ambulatory as I walk with a pronounced limp aided by a cane to help with my sometimes-unpredictable balance or lack thereof.So, my challenges may differ from Cory and Emma, who travel in a wheelchair. The act also defines a barrier to accessibility:

Barrier means anything physical, architectural, technological, or attitudinal, anything that is based on information or communications or anything that is the result of a policy or a practice — that hinders the full and equal participation in society of persons with an impairment, including a physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive, learning, communication or sensory impairment or a functional limitation (obstacle). Canada Accessibility Act. This definition of barrier is enough to make abled-bodied people wary of travelling; throw in a disability, and you’ve got a whole bunch of reasons to stay cozied up in your safe house.

But luckily, things like that have never stopped me from doing what I love, travelling the world, or anything else. If I had let that deter me, I would have missed some of the most extraordinary experiences of my life and deprived other unsuspecting people of some important aha moments.

Who knew flying premium meant sitting in the luggage space?

The year my mom, sister, and I travelled to Belize, we were to take a plane from the mainland to the island of San Pedro. On the day of our flight, we arrived at this tiny airstrip right out of a movie, and we eagerly walked to the gate (there were no terminals. It was all outside) to see that our plane was this tiny two-prop engine with four seats and a place in the back for suitcases. As we walked up to the plane, me with my pronounced limp and cane, I could see the two men waiting for us whispering to each other. I soon realized why. The only way to get into the plane was to step up quite high onto the wing and then in through a small door, if you want to call it that.

My situation provided a challenge in that there was no way I would get up on that wing and through that door. The two gentlemen looked at me, then the plane, back to me, then the plane again; pretty sure they scratched their heads, and there it was, The Aha Moment. One of them pushed the back of the plane down (yes, the plane was that small) and opened a bigger window while the other gentlemen lifted me into the back, where I sat with the luggage. It was like I was in an Indiana Jones movie.

After I got over the shock of being put into “cargo,” and once we were in the air, I looked out the window to see the most spectacular views! That turquoise water and white sandy beaches lined with coconut-filled palm trees are still etched in my mind.

Taking a longer boat cruise to the island would have been more practical, but I would have missed collecting one of my most quirky and beautiful memories. I also believe that by showing the pilots that I was determined to do this, I created a space of learning for them, and perhaps they were more prepared when faced with a passenger like me in the future.

Building codes and true accessibility are not always equal, especially when travelling

When travelling for pleasure, I’m usually with friends, or more often with my mom and sister, people I trust and rely upon to help when faced with a dreaded real or perceived barrier.

But in my corporate life, I often had to travel on my own, leaving me to my resilience. Being born disabled, resilience is a critical skill to develop and a skill that many disabled people share. In fact, for many of us, it’s one of our Superpowers! That, sprinkled with out-of-the-box thinking, which I apparently share with two pilots in Belize.

When travelling alone, I will always request an accessible room in the hotel to make it easier during my stay. Accessibility in older hotels is definitely not the same as it is in newer, more progressive hotels, especially in countries where disability awareness is still in the beginning stages.

The door I dread most to open is the bathroom door, in fear that I won’t see a walk-in shower, but one that requires a step up, or worse, the dreaded tub with just a grab bar. For me, accessibility as an ambulatory person is less about whether a wheelchair can fit in the room and more about the bathroom experience.

Never fear; after a few mishaps trying to step into or out of raised tubs (details that are TMI), my problem-solving skills have taught me that if I drag a stool or chair(without wheels is critical here – don’t ask), position it just so, I can sit on it and swing my legs in and out without belly flopping across the bathroom floor! Phew! Not to mention it’s an excellent workout to push the stool into the bathroom.

End of story? Nope.

You see, the cleaning staff, unaware that I use the stool to climb into the not-so-accessible tub safely, would (as they are trained to do) move it back into its original spot at the far end of the room. So, each morning I’d perform my stool-pushing exercise routine to have my shower. I know what you are thinking, why didn’t you leave a note for them or call the front desk? In some countries, the language barrier didn’t always make that a viable solution.

Inevitably, one morning the cleaning staff would see me trying to extricate myself past the heavy room door with my laptop hanging over my neck and cane slung over my less functioning left arm. Yep, you guessed it, the arrival of the Aha moment that transcended any verbal communication. They inevitably run to my aide and help me through the door with a smile and eyes that tell me they understand (not pity but understanding; trust me, I know the difference). From that day on, the stool is neatly kept by the tub with a fresh towel (and sometimes a towel animal) set upon it.

Little did my colleagues know that I had already engaged my best problem-solving skills by the time I got into the office. Aha

That moment of understanding and connection, especially when it happens in a country where disability awareness is in the beginning stages, is intensely gratifying for me and fills me with purpose and joy!

From aha moments to not-so-subtle hints

Sometimes as a disabled traveller, you wait for those Aha Moments to happen naturally; sometimes, you must give it a nudge!

On a flight back to Canada from Singapore, I had a scheduled stop in Japan at the Narita International Airport. I transited there on the way to Singapore, and everything had gone perfectly smooth, wheelchair assistance and all.

On the way back, Mother Nature decided to throw a curveball and, long story short, after much false hope, we were told our flight would be delayed overnight. After much confusion and staff huddling and talking in Japanese, the representative announced they were sending all the wheelchair users on their own on the train to a hotel. It took me a minute to register what they said, it was 2 am, after all, and my brain was not firing on all cylinders. I looked at our group in wheelchairs, and it was clear to me that this option was not safe for any of us. Especially unescorted. Coming from a company with high safety standards, I knew I had to speak up, so I called one of the employees over and not personally speaking Japanese; I hoped I could convince them of a different solution. Between me trying to rationally discuss an alternative and a few angry outbursts from other passengers, offended for our group, it was decided that vans would be called to transport us instead. Aha or Nudge?

Before leaving the airport, we had to go through immigration, and when I was wheeled up to the desk, the agent gestured to me that I had to put my two index fingers into a machine for fingerprint identification. Well, that wasn’t going to happen because my left hand, affected by the CP, is curled up, and I wasn’t going to get that index finger in the machine properly. I asked if we could just do the right one. He kept insisting I had to do both, so as a last-ditch attempt, I looked at him and asked, “What would we do if I was an amputee?” Before I knew it, he had looked at the agent beside him with that all familiar Aha expression; I was suddenly blinded by a camera flash and was ushered through the line. Easy Peasy with a little Nudge.

When I returned home, my boss encouraged me to write a letter to the airline to detail my experience, hoping that this type of situation would be handled with more care and consideration in the future. I suggested developing protocols for these situations in partnership with the airport authorities. I received a response that acknowledged discussions were in place, but they would not share any findings.

At the time, I knew I was a bit irritated. Still, reflecting on it, it’s unreasonable to assume that someone without this disability will fully understand my abilities, limitations, or needs. I’ve grown into accepting my cerebral palsy, even finding gratitude for the gifts it has given me. With this acceptance and gratitude is my awareness that I can be a part of the solution of accessibility, breaking down barriers and championing inclusion by helping people and companies to understand what that looks like for people with disabilities, particularly the one that is most familiar to me. More importantly, to encourage them to go beyond definitions and adherence to building codes into building exceptional experiences that will keep people wanting to come back and share with their community.

Change starts with you, me, us

To my fellow disabled champions, awareness, education, and advocacy starts with us. We are in the best position to know what we want and need. I know from experience that it can be hard to speak up and sometimes feels unsafe, but it does get easier each time we muster the courage to do so. And we move the needle a little more each time for us and the next person. Connect with me if you’re ready to learn how to use your voice and be heard!

To employers and customer-facing companies, accessibility, exceptional experiences, and belonging start with you. According to the World Health Organization, “1 in 6 of us” or “1.3 billion people experience significant disability.” WHO Disability Key Facts. Leveraging your disabled staff’s knowledge will require creating a space of belonging and safety to speak their truths. Creating exceptional customer experiences will require accessibility beyond building codes, tapping into out-of-the-box thinking and going the extra mile in your customer service proposition. The disabled community is a growing base of highly loyal customers with significant discretionary income to ensure a return on your investment in them. Contact me at my Website or LinkedIn if you are ready to create or empower your disability employee resource group.

If you enjoyed these adventures, stay tuned because I plan to share more of these amazing, eye-opening, beautiful, life-changing experiences in future articles!

If you are ready to live life to the fullest, follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn or contact me on my Website.

Donna Oberg Brainz Magazine

Donna Oberg, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Donna Oberg, Author, Certified Flourishing Coach, Nutrition Coach, Wisdom Coach and Disability Advocate, was born with Cerebral Palsy. Living an adventurous and fiercely independent life with her disability has taught her many powerful lessons, including the power of being grateful for her disability. Donna’s mission is to inspire others now to become the person they were meant to be in the life they were meant to live.



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