Known as the guru of accessible travel, Candy Harrington is the founding editor of Emerging Horizons, and the author of several best-selling guide books for disabled travelers, including Barrier Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. She also blogs regularly about accessible travel issues at www.BarrierFreeTravels.com.
Women on the Road: Can a woman with disabilities travel on her own?
Candy Harrington: Well that depends on her disability, her level of independence and how much assistance she needs. Generally speaking if you need assistance with personal care and getting in and out of bed at home, you will also need it on the road. But to be honest, in many countries you can hire an aide for a fraction of what it costs in the US. And with the internet, it's easier to find these services in advance. With proper planning, in most cases it can be done. But I would caution women to try a short trip close to home to work out the kinks before embarking on a two-month backpacking adventure.
WOTR: What are the main travel challenges facing women with disabilities?
Candy: Finding truly accessible transportation can be problematic. I'd say that in most developing countries you need to be able to accept physical assistance (carrying and lifting) where physical access is lacking. If that's a problem for you, I'd suggest you stick to some of the more developed countries.
Safety is also a factor. It's a factor for all solo women travelers, but it's even more of a concern when you have a disability. The best advice I can give on that is to be aware of your environment and pay attention to that little voice inside you that says "this isn't right". For example, it might not be that good of an idea to have a male aide help you into bed. Try to find a female one instead.
WOTR: Which countries would you recommend for the most accessible travel? Candy: Certainly Western Europe, New Zealand and Australia are at the top of my list. Actually New Zealand is beautiful and one of my favorite countries to visit. The people are helpful, there is a high level of access and there are many accessible backpacker hostels - you can search for them on Budget Backpackers Hostels. The accessible ones are marked with the international access symbol, but of course you should inquire directly about the specific access details before you book a room. One of my favorites is Globetrekkers Lodge in Omapere.
WOTR: And are there any places to avoid?
Candy: That would depend on you adventure quotient. Most developing countries lack physical access but personal assistance is readily available. Eastern style bathrooms in some of the more rural places in Asia may also present problems but there are work-arounds. For example you can carry a female urinal if you are unable to squat. But again, this takes some advance planning. Many of the travel personal hygiene tips for women generally will apply.
WOTR: When women with disabilities travel, what special arrangements should they make if they're traveling solo?
Candy: First off I suggest that they network with a disability organization in their destination country. With the internet it's pretty easy to do. The International Disability Alliance has some good links, but you can also contact your national organizations to see if they have a counterpart in your destination country. The goal is to find someone there who can tell you more about access and perhaps give you a few resources for finding a personal care aide.
Mobility International can also be a good resource. Although they specialize in international exchanges for people with disabilities, they have a lot of good resources and information on their website useful to solo women travelers who are disabled. Another source of information is Hostelling International as many of their properties are accessible. You could also stay in a monastery. Monastery Stays has a number of properties that are accessible: just look for that little blue wheelchair symbol.
Whatever accommodations you choose, always ask folks to describe their access, as standards vary greatly between countries. It's also a good idea to ask them to e-mail you a photo, because a picture is worth a thousand words - maybe even more when it comes to access. And last but not least, avoid yes or no questions. In many places in the Far East it's considered rude to answer any question with a no, so you might get some misleading information if you go that route.
WOTR: Can women with disabilities travel in developing countries?
Candy: Considerable effort has been made locally in some places. Access might not be up to Western standards, but physical assistance is always available. India comes to mind as one of these places. They are making huge strides in making things more accessible, yet it’s still rough going in some remote areas. Is a trip there possible? Certainly, but you need to go in knowing what to expect. The same goes for Thailand.
WOTR: What advance preparations are needed?
Candy: First, I advise future travelers to play a healthy game of "what if". In other words ask yourself what you would do if you encountered a variety of obstacles on your trip. For example, what would you do if your wheelchair broke down in Kuala Lumpur? A possible solution would be to find a wheelchair repair facility there that can service your wheelchair. Take that number with you when you travel, so you'll have it close at hand when you are on the road. Oh, and if you can't find a wheelchair repair shop or medical equipment outlet, then look for a bicycle repair shop. Bicycle mechanics are usually quite versatile and can at least make some temporary repairs to most equipment.
I also advise emergency evacuation insurance that does not exclude pre-existing conditions. I'm not a huge fan of trip insurance, especially on budget trips, but if you have an accident, medical evacuation can cost up to $100,000. So buy a yearly policy directly from a trip insurance company. If you have any questions ask your insurance agent, not a travel agent. The former will usually get you a better deal on a policy that will suit your specific needs.
Of course, make sure you have enough of your prescription medications to last the entire trip, and never carry them in your checked baggage. And carry a copy of your prescription. It may not be valid outside the US, but at least a foreign doctor will know what to prescribe.
And of course, carry a small wheelchair repair kit with you. This needs to go in your checked baggage as it will likely be confiscated from you at the airport security checkpoint.
And last but not least, learn the basics of wheelchair travel, find out what you can expect and learn how to protect your equipment when you fly.
- Interview conducted in August 2009. Resources updated May 2015.