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Accessible Adventuring (for YOU)

2018-09-19 Posted By Jenna Reed-Cote


It’s a bird! it’s a plane! OMG - it’s A PHOENIX!

Wait! False alarm - it’s not a phoenix, it’s just Jenna’s wheelchair (with flames on the wheels) falling out of that plane. Wow, she must’ve gotten an Express Door Tag for her wheelchair – it parachutes out early before landing so it’s all ready at the door of her plane - fancy! …Ok, now I feel guilty - there is no such thing as an Express Door Tag for your mobility device, just a regular door tag. All joking aside, though, everyone wanting to try some air travel and have their own mobility device, ask for a door tag when you check in! Otherwise they send your device to baggage claim and you have to trust a complete stranger’s driving skills with a communal chair (and I’ve been dropped down a flight of stairs, being “helped” off a plane before - but that’s a story for another time).

On that note, welcome to the ever-evolving world of Accessible Adventuring (trademark pending).

Learning to adventure while needing accessibility can feel intimidating, daunting, even impossi-… damn near impossible. There are times you feel stuck (literally) in a world created by the makers of Candid Camera and the Mission: Impossible movies. Oh, and did I mention you’re working without a net? (For now, that is.); My goal is therefore to help you learn to create your own safety net – one that works just. for. you.

How’s everybody feeling about facing Accessible Adventuring so far? Calm? Confident? Optimistically musing to yourself, “Really, what’s the worst that can happen?” Wanting to crawl into a hole and never leaving what you know?

I JUST came back to Vancouver after a week in London (England!) with my mom and it was the trip of a lifetime! Yes - trip of a lifetime! While I was away, I was getting a lot of love and support from all of you on social media, including questions about tips and tricks for traveling - when accessibility is paramount to your ability to adventure. Did everything go according to plan? No. Did I get discouraged? You betcha! Did I want to retreat to my safe, accessible room instead of facing the possibility of more frustration on the accessibility front? Multiple times a day. On every trip for as long as I can remember, I’m just slowly learning to weigh the benefit of staying in my comfort zone and the potential regret of missing out on life for the sake of not getting hurt.

There is no universal magic formula for accessible traveling because what “accessibility” means for me, may be different for you. Some of the best advice I can give you is to learn what works (and what doesn’t) for you, and practice asking for it without apologizing. I know - easier said than done. Of course there are times where you have to be flexible, but even that threshold is different from person to person! So, whether you’re thinking about traveling by plane, train, bus, subway, car or a Havanese-drawn carriage, know that it’s ok to ask questions about what your surroundings are going to be; clarify every detail if you have to. Same goes for hotels, hostels, your third cousin once-removed’s house, even commonplace tourist attractions. Know what you need, that it’s ok to ask for it, and if these conversations don’t go as planned, it doesn’t mean the outcome is going to be the same every time.

Some people in the service industry want to do whatever they can to offer you respect and dignity. Some people in the service industry work within the “it’s good enough” range. Some people in the service industry will go out of their way to make you feel like an annoyance for asking so many questions, creating a bigger power imbalance. However, when you learn to effectively advocate for yourself (which takes practice - sorry), all of a sudden the same people who made you want to cry or scream are determined to change their tune.

Even though traveling has honestly been more or less traumatic for me my whole life, I’ve recently discovered that I have been learning little tips and tricks along the way that have somehow come together to create a much more confident and competent traveler in me. Funnily enough, I think having Spina Bifida (L3/L4), Hydrocephalus and the need to travel with my own wheelchair ultimately made me a more resourceful traveler.

I’ve become almost fluent in airport speak; I’m increasingly looking for an opportunity to tell people of authority, who aren’t being accessible-savvy, that my parents are lawyers (this can get me into a lot of trouble or help the situation - it’s 50/50)! Basically - Airport, I know what I need, I know you have it, and I can LITERALLY sit here all day with you to make sure that my accessibility, my dignity and respect are stored safely in my overhead compartment before we take off. Capice?

I’m really not a hard-ass. In fact, I (usually) HATE confrontation. I’m also wired to really want to believe people are fighting battles for reasons that we may know nothing about. Alas, when dealing with issues of accessibility, respect and dignity for myself and others (in 2018), I very rarely stand for it!

No matter how hard it was to travel for me - body, mind and spirit - it was clear from the beginning I wasn’t going to be able to escape it. Growing up in Canada, I was beyond fortunate to have parents who invested in an American counterpart for every Canadian specialist I had – particularly because Spina Bifida is a pretty thorough condition that likes to make no body function feel left out! You have to admit, this sounded like it had potential! I remember thinking, “Wait, so we’re not going to the hospital for my appointment (I thought Sick Kids Hospital was the only hospital)?! We’re going on a trip to have my appointment?! Maybe I’ll get a doctor in Disney World!” Regrettably, there were no specialists in Disney World, Hawaii, or Vegas *sigh*. Nope, my American appointments ended up just being day trips to New Jersey (before Jersey Shore and GTLing), Chicago and Pittsburgh…

There were going to be several obstacles in the way of this little munchkin learning to love travel, but traveling to go to the doctor (in Pittsburgh) could’ve been what ended my willingness to continue traveling altogether.

Even my parents needed years to hone their proficiency in accessibility cross-examination while traveling with me. I get it; we can’t know everything about everyone’s needs. But when you’re in the service industry, try to be willing to put yourself in other people’s shoes (if what we need sounds complicated and annoying, try living with those needs)! If there’s nothing else to realize about the reality of traveling with accessibility needs, it’s that we all need to get better - better at communicating clearly, learning when we both can be flexible, and figuring out what’s not worth our energy and letting go.

Letting go can be hard, especially if it has to do with travel because so much has to go into planning a trip. You feel like you’ve worked hard to cover all your bases, are getting excited about different opportunities, and then something goes wrong to do with accessibility. I’m serious, it can really hurt. However, I’ve been learning and practicing recognizing - when I’m ready - that my hurt and anger can be turned into energy to create new opportunities (and maybe even an opportunity to help promote long-term learning for others…if you’re into that kind of thing).

For some people traveling is relaxing - a time to rejuvenate. Some of these people were born without having obstacles to a nice relaxing vacation, and some people have to work at it - body, mind, and spirit - figuring out the best possible solution to what you can control (which isn’t everything). What are you willing to do? Are you willing to go the extra mile?


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“Overcome the notion that we must be regular... it robs you of the chance to be EXTRAORDINARY ”
Uta Hagen
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