In some ways, accessible travel has become much more possible since the pandemic. It’s not necessarily due to Covid per se, but it seems the industry has woken up to people with access requirements.
I have been a wheelchair user since I was 18 years old, when I was involved in a car accident that left me with a spinal injury. Now I work mainly as a TV presenter, which allows me to explore the world, but it was a particular time in the desert that got me hooked on traveling.
My first stop was Morocco, where I had been before. I found Marrakech surprisingly accessible, even though it is bustling and crowded in the souks and cobbled streets are everywhere. But I remember looking at the Atlas Mountains and feeling like I had only scratched the surface. He wanted desperately to go up there, but he didn’t know if it would be too challenging.
The problem is that as a wheelchair user there is a barrier to experiencing the same things as everyone else. You feel like you can dip your toe in a bit but overall you’re on the periphery. Typically, you’re seeing other people get a lot more out of it, especially with truly authentic travel experiences.
Then I was introduced to Access Morocco Travel Consultants. I told them my travel agenda wasn’t just about having a good time on a vacation, I wanted to explore accessibility options properly, then record and share the information with other disabled travelers. They were totally on the same page so I got the best of what they offer which included riding a camel in the Sahara in a one of a kind adapted saddle. It was life changing.
I realized that I needed to think creatively about telling other people with disabilities about their travel options. Very often someone has done the work, such as creating a modified saddle or researching the feasibility of an area, but the disabled people just don’t know it. Of course, there’s a lot of work to be done to make places more accessible in the first place, but now I’m telling people about places where that’s not the case.
Having caught the travel bug from that experience in Morocco, I headed to the Maldives next. It is a place that I never thought I would visit as a wheelchair user due to the nature of the environment and of course the price. It really is a luxurious experience. Maldives is a place to save, a true bucket list destination.
I stayed at the Amilla (villas from £1033), which has a commitment to inclusion like I’ve never seen before. For example, I had just learned to scuba dive, so as you can imagine, I was very excited to be in those crystal clear waters. There was no lift to get me out of the boat and into the water, but the team had designed a really crude sling so I could dive. They really went above and beyond to accommodate my needs, and I was honored.
The hotel staff are passionate about making sure guests with disabilities are comfortable, but are also honest when they can’t accommodate every need. Realistically, we are talking about a sandy island, so there are fixed limitations. However, it’s the thought that counts: the staff do their best to be inclusive and open to talking to guests about what they need in particular.
It seems that often, amid well-intentioned health and safety checks, there is just too much fear surrounding people with disabilities. There’s this constant worry that we’re going to get hurt, which means we’re metaphorically wrapped in cotton. I could have fallen off that camel in Morocco, for example, but so could anyone else. Then it seemed even more amazing to me that the Amilla team had created something especially for me.
After the Maldives, he went to California. It is remarkable how much being in the United States, where I currently reside, has improved my mental health. Wheelchair access in the US is regulated and enforced, which is not the case in the UK. At home, before traveling I have to call locals to find out if they are accessible.
I have to ask if there is a ramp to go to the bathroom and deal with incredulous people on the other end of the line. That couldn’t be further from the truth in the United States. It’s a weight off my shoulders like you wouldn’t believe; it will feel like a half life when you return to the UK.
However, it’s not just the accessibility that is eye-opening. Driving through Joshua Tree National Park was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It’s like going to another planet. The pictures really don’t do it justice: I’ve never seen a shortage like this, and it’s especially remarkable that this desert can be found just hours from a sprawling city like Los Angeles.
These experiences have been amazing, but I really want to leave the door open wherever I go for people to follow me. That could be through consulting with people on the ground or retrospectively giving advice on how to make a place more accessible. I want other people with disabilities to feel like they can travel adventurous too, and that starts with visibility. Often people are unaware that these options are open to them.
Part of how I’ve made my travels easier is through Airbnb, which now has a new “adapted” filter on its Airbnb.com site. That is a game changer. The website has selected a list of more than a thousand homes that have characteristics such as not having steps, having adapted bathrooms or being directly accessible from a car.
This has really transformed the way I travel. It is the first tool we have had as a disability community that allows us to take care of each other: we no longer have to depend on hotels, tour operators or anyone else but ourselves. We speak to each other in a language we understand. It finally looks like the future is bright.
Perhaps most importantly, I recently met the host of one of the Los Angeles Airbnbs that I stayed at. She also uses a wheelchair and we have become good friends. We are going to exchange houses, Holiday style, because we know that we can facilitate adapted trips between us. All I need now is to meet my own sexy Jack Black.
As told to Sophie Dickinson
‘Living Wild: How to change your life‘, hosted by Sophie Morgan, begins February 11 at 8 p.m.