Podcast: The Truth About Travel and Accessibility

In our fifth episode of “Unpacked by AFAR,” we hear from travelers with disabilities about what it’s like to embark on trips, and explore how a more accessible world benefits all travelers.

A colorful illustration shows two travelers, one disabled and one non-disabled, exploring nature.

A more accessible world benefits all travelers.

Illustration by Barry Lee

This story is part of Unpacked, a series that explores some of the biggest questions about traveling responsibly. Read more columns here—and be sure to subscribe to the podcast.

In our new podcast, Unpacked by AFAR, we explore the world of ethical travel in a friendly, accessible—and dare we say—fun way. Every other Thursday join us as we answer your ethical conundrums from how to engage with animal tourism (“I know I shouldn’t ride an elephant, but can I swim with dolphins?”) to travel that doesn’t harm the Earth (“What is zero-waste travel—and is it even possible?”). Here’s the transcript from our August 11 episode.

CHRISTINE GRASSMAN: To me, accessible travel means being able to go somewhere and not have to face any sort of doubt or problem with accessing excursions, activities—no barriers or concerns about people stopping you, allowing you to decide what you’re capable of doing.

KEVIN ANDREWS: Access looks different in different places. If you can get folks to understand in a kind way that, “Hey, for me, I need to be able to touch things, tactile experiences are incredibly meaningful for me,” you can get creative. It takes a bit of finesse, it takes work, and it takes conversation.

EMILY LADAU: Accessible travel is, to me, not just about an environment that I can physically navigate, although that’s obviously crucial for me as a wheelchair user. More than that, it’s really about feeling welcome in my surroundings.

QUDSIYA NAQUI, HOST: Welcome to Unpacked from AFAR. I’m your host, Qudsiya Naqui, and today, we’ll be unpacking the question: How do we make travel accessible? You just heard from three disabled travelers—Christine Grassman, Kevin Andrews, and Emily Ladau—about what accessible travel means to them. It’s about coming into physical spaces that are designed to meet the needs of their bodies and their minds—whether that’s a ramp, Braille menus at a restaurant, a sign language interpreter at a theater performance, or an encounter with someone in a new place who is welcoming and open to learning about new ways of being.

In this episode, we’ll dive deeper to unpack the word “access”—specifically, what access means for disabled people as they move around their communities, in nature, and around the world.

I’m no stranger to this topic. I have my own podcast called Down to the Struts. It’s about disability, design, and intersectionality. I talk about things like access and inclusion with experts on topics like education, the arts, migration, voting, the legal system, and much more.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1 billion people experience some form of disability. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities enumerates the rights of disabled people across the world, and those rights include the right to live independently and be included in the community; the right to personal mobility; and the right to participate in cultural life, recreation, leisure, and sport.

Despite these rights, we continue to live in a world that, for the most part, is not designed with the needs of disabled people in mind. A world where access remains elusive for so many. Especially when it comes to leaving our homes and exploring the places and spaces around us.

As a blind person, I’ve experienced these travel access barriers firsthand. Here’s an example from a story I developed and performed with Story District in Washington, D.C. in March of 2020 about what it’s like to be blind in an airport:

“Being in an airport can really suck sometimes, right? So you’ve got flight delays, being felt up by the TSA, but it can suck even harder to be a blind person in an airport.

“So, you know, it’s true. There’s been a lot of progress in terms of making the world more inclusive and designed for blind people: We have artificial intelligence. We’ve got text to speech. And yes, I can’t wait: self-driving cars.

“But airports are still lagging a bit behind. So we, blind people, often have to deal with well-meaning airport attendants who want to help, but often don’t ask the blind person what they actually need to be helped. So case in point: Once I got in a screaming match with an airport attendant. He was trying to force me to sit in a wheelchair, even when I insisted, quite vehemently, that that is not the best way to get me to the gate.”

This is just one of many mishaps and misunderstandings I’ve experienced as a disabled traveler, and it’s similar to stories I’ve heard across the disability community. But there is so much we can do to change the systems, structures, and attitudes that have erected barriers between disabled people and the world around them.

First, we’ll hear from Bani Amor, a writer who explores the intersections between race, place, and power. Bani peeled back the layers of complexity that converge when disabled people of color seek to cross the threshold of their homes to travel.

BANI AMOR: My name is Bani Amor. I use they/them pronouns. I’m here in Queens. It’s Matinecock, Canarsie, and Munsee Lenape land right now. And I’ve always been writing. I’ve always been traveling since I was very young. I just eventually put them two together to have a job that fits my transient lifestyle.

QUDSIYA: Bani defines travel as any kind of movement. Any kind of migration.

BANI: We’re all crossing and moving. Almost all of us have travel in our DNA, literally, in a lot of ways. I don’t, again, just think of travel as a leisurely thing. I think when we only talk about travel in that way, it really robs us of having a larger conversation about travel culture, power, and all these kinds of dynamics that clash up against each other.

QUDSIYA: I asked Bani about how the design of physical spaces affects disabled people when it comes to travel.

BANI: A lot of us live in inaccessible housing. How do you even leave your place? There’s two steps to get out of and into my building, and with my wheelchair, it’s impossible. It’s just a mess.

Literally, going outside of our homes is just this political thing because we physically can’t do it a lot of the time, so imagine leaving the state and the country and all of these things.

QUDSIYA: Bani explained the challenges that disabled people encounter once they are able to problem-solve the initial hurdle of getting out the door and into the neighborhood or city where they live, as well as the places and spaces that might be a flight or a train ride away.

BANI: My train station is two blocks away, and it doesn’t have an elevator. Going to Manhattan is a problem like going to any other place in New York City. Air travel is so complicated for a lot of disabled people, especially if you’re a wheelchair user. It’s a really huge problem how airlines destroy wheelchairs all the time and the rules that are around disabled people getting out of flights.

It’s very dehumanizing experiences that actually lead to death. You can definitely look that up to see what people go through. For me, air travel is just this torturous experience that takes so much planning, and then there’s what happens after that.

QUDSIYA: Many of the barriers that Bani describes when it comes to accessible travel have very real consequences for disabled people. For example, according to reporting from the Washington Post, the largest U.S. airlines damaged roughly 29 wheelchairs per day in 2019. And that’s the first full year of reporting to the government. Wheelchairs are highly specialized and customized mobility devices, and a damaged wheelchair can mean months of waiting for repair or replacement, not to mention high costs for the user depending on insurance coverage. Having your wheelchair broken en route could leave you immobilized without a support system in place.

Bani also talked about other social and economic barriers that disabled travelers, especially BIPOC disabled travelers, encounter.

BANI: When it comes to affordability when you’re a BIPOC, that’s just a thing because disability will impoverish you, so it’s like most of us are poor.

Most of us are on social services, specifically people who are physically disabled, and you can lack support, which is a huge thing. The affordability is the biggest thing, so who’s getting time off of work and the fact that a lot of us who are on Medicaid or other social services or SSI or disability can’t make a certain amount of money.

You only get a little bit, and if you work or do something, you can get in so much trouble and be kicked off of your insurance. Even getting the funds, if you have that, you’re not supposed to make enough to be able to travel.

QUDSIYA: Layered on top of these financial challenges are the complexities of being Black, Indigenous people of color and disabled while traveling.

BANI: Being disabled, you might not communicate yourself in a way that other people want you to and that could be strange, or maybe you are nonverbal, or maybe the way that people navigate kinds of social situations and communication can be from a very abled perspective and just those small things, it really does heighten policing for BIPOC, especially Black people.

Really, already having problems at the border. You’re going to experience more of that oppression trying to get into a place. Even, you have so many stories of Latinx people who are from countries who have their citizenship being told at the border, “We don’t have Black people in Mexico,” while your friends even of the same race are just being let in, and that’s with a U.S. passport.

When I’m talking about entering and leaving countries, all these borders, all these places of transit, are where power is really concentrated and stark. You can see who is in what line, right, and all these things, whose passport allows you to do what. So those are just the ways that some of these things clash with each other and increase barriers to access, to even be able to leave, and when you do, that experience is informed by those different oppressions.

QUDSIYA: When it comes to access, information is power—knowing what access barriers you might face allows you to be prepared and to creatively problem-solve ahead of time. Maayan Ziv describes how lack of information about accessibility really limited her ability to fully participate in the world around her. Maayan is the founder and CEO of AccessNow, an app that allows users to share information about the access features of places like restaurants, hotels, museums, and other destinations around the world.

MAAYAN: Yes, so I’m based in Toronto, I’ve kind of lived here throughout my life. I am a power wheelchair user, and I have always been someone who loves to travel, someone who’s pretty adventurous and loves to see new places.

Often when I’m showing up at spaces, whether they be indoor or outdoor, whether they be in my own neighborhood or halfway around the world, I’m constantly facing barriers when it comes to just being able to access the space with my wheelchair. I was studying my master’s of digital media at the time and just obsessing over this problem in my own life. I just asked, like, “Why aren’t there more resources for people with disabilities?”

You can get information about hours of operation and menus and reviews on all different types of things, but yet you really can’t easily find information about accessibility.

QUDSIYA: As a blind person, I often find myself hard-pressed to find the accessibility information I need to plan new experiences. For example, performance spaces often bury information about the availability of audio description on the pages of their website, and it’s not always clear if a bike rental shop has tandem bicycles available for rent.

But Maayan developed a handy solution for those types of problems that we’ll talk about in a bit.

In the meantime, another important aspect of travel, and general well-being, is the ability to access the natural world. As an avid runner, tandem cyclist, and rock climber, this is a kind of access that is very close to my heart.

That’s why I wanted to speak to Erika Rivers. Erika is the executive director of Wilderness Inquiry. They are a nonprofit that offers outdoor adventures for people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities.

ERIKA RIVERS: My name is Erika Rivers. I really started my passion for the outdoors as a very young person, and then in my adult life became a conservation biologist. Through my work at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources it really became clear to me over my couple of decades of work that people really only conserve what they care about, and they only really care about things that they are connected to in a meaningful way. So as a conservation biologist, I really changed my perspective and the direction of my work to really focus on making those connections between people and the natural world.

QUDSIYA: In the course of her journey to lead Wilderness Inquiry, Erika was struck by the inequities she observed when it comes to who is able to access nature, and the overwhelming evidence that having this access is a benefit to all.

ERIKA: What really also solidified my love of connecting people to the outdoors is really the recognition in recent years that there really is a social justice component to connecting people to the outdoors.

There are some 400 different empirical studies now that show the direct health, wellness, and community connectivity properties of outdoor recreation, so we know that people’s lives are frankly better when they spend time outdoors in multiple ways. When people don’t have equitable access to the outdoors, then there’s a social justice consequence on the quality of their life.

An illustration of a person in a wheelchair moving through a complicated world.

For wheelchair users, access is everything.

Illustration by Barry Lee

QUDSIYA: Despite all of the access barriers we’ve talked about, there are solutions that can make travel less burdensome and more equitable for disabled people. And centering access is, more often than not, a boon for those who are nondisabled as much as it is for those of us with disabilities.

I asked Bani Amor for their thoughts on how we can make travel more accessible, and they laid out some of the key questions we should ask ourselves when creating physical spaces or experiences to ensure that we are centering access.

BANI: In all of your spaces, literally, can people get in? In all of your social media, can people actually read or hear what you’re saying? We need to have those image descriptions. We need to have accessibility information on everything.

If you’re not thinking about these things, just have it in the front of your mind, “Oh, there should be an elevator at this train station. Oh, there should be a ramp into this place. Oh, if the bathroom is not accessible in this event, how can we get a porta-potty that is?” etcetera. If you’re going to have a travel meetup, the restaurant itself, can people come in? That is a big thing, and if it’s not the case and you bring it up to the owners, you can always report ADA violations here in the U.S. Learn how to do that. That’s very important, and it has to be done when it comes to reporting places so they can do better so we can go into those places.

QUDSIYA: Bani explains how providing access for others can bring about unintended benefits for everyone, even when it’s least expected.

BANI: The thing about accessibility is it always benefits everyone all the time. I’m not hard of hearing or deaf, but I have captions on everything, subtitles on everything. It’s just something I need. That’s just one thing. Elderly people, pregnant people, you don’t know what people are going through. A ramp is just great. Why not? People could just be tired, and there shouldn’t be any shame in taking an elevator over steps.

QUDSIYA: Bani also has some great tips for making events accessible.

BANI: Any kind of event you’re going to have, virtual or not, accessibility information on a website or online is extremely important because we have to reach out to people and be like, “Does this have ASL?”

If it’s an outdoor retreat, “Is the ground level when it comes from here to the camping site? Is there a step when it goes into the outhouse?” Don’t assume, first of all, what accessibility means, and don’t assume what disabled people need when it comes to accommodations.

Even then, a lot of people don’t know exactly what it is—how many inches a person needs in a bathroom to be able to do a full turn in a wheelchair, and bigger for power chairs.

Always, it comes to hiring people. Have someone on your team that’s disabled or contract someone to be like, “Hey, just give us training on just all this stuff” because it can be a lot to do. I’m disabled in specific ways. That doesn’t mean that I know what everyone needs, and you’re always learning.

When it comes to abled people, it’s really important for you to inquire as to access. Even if you don’t have that need and you’re going to a hotel or you’re going to your restaurant or you’re going to an event, just ask them, “OK, are you going to have that? Are you going to have this? You should put this up.”

QUDSIYA: As I mentioned earlier, Maayan Ziv developed an app to address some of the challenges that Bani described. I asked her about how the app works, and how it’s raised public consciousness about accessibility.

MAAYAN: AccessNow is a mobile app and website that allows any person to search for a restaurant, a store, a hotel, a park, any location, really, that you might find on a map and discover information about the accessibility of that space. We’ve got tags that cover things like automatic doors, elevators, ramps. We also have tags that cover things like lighting levels and sound levels and whether there are digital menus or Braille options, whether or not you can show up with your guide dog and actually be welcomed as opposed to asked to leave.

All of the things that different people who have voiced their opinions on the platform have said matter to them. Really, the power of AccessNow comes from the collective power of the crowd.

QUDSIYA: As the AccessNow user base grows, Maayan notes some new twists in how it’s being used, and what that might mean in terms of how we think about access and disability.

MAAYAN: AccessNow initially was inspired by my own experience as a wheelchair user and that for the majority of the time, the people who are using AccessNow app are people with lived experience or friends, family members, colleagues, people who are somewhat connected to someone who has a disability. But increasingly so, we’ve also been hearing from people without disabilities, who are learning about how accessibility actually shows up in their lives.

For example, we are increasingly hearing from parents with strollers that the subway system or the train system is not fully accessible. Although they’ve never thought about it in the past, all of a sudden they’ve discovered that accessibility is important to them, or we hear from people who sustained temporary injuries where now they’ve got a scooter for a few weeks or they’re on crutches, and they’re looking for new features in the built environment that, again, are hard to find.

I think that this concept of nondisabled versus disabled is really something that we work hard to blur the lines of, because whether you have a disability today or you’ll have one in the future, every person actually benefits from accessible space because accessibility is what really helps to create inclusive experiences for people.

QUDSIYA: Erika Rivers and Wilderness Inquiry have similarly created a platform that is designed with access at the core. I asked Erika about what Wilderness Inquiry has to offer participants with disabilities when it comes to experiencing the natural world.

ERIKA: Really, we think that most places in the outdoors can be made accessible by either having the right people, the right supports for the program, or the right equipment. Our approach to that is we talk about the seven steps of inclusive recreation. The very first part of that is starting with the assumption and the respect for each person’s dignity. We approach each program seeing the whole person and what kinds of things that person can do to meaningfully contribute to a group experience in the outdoors.

Our second major component is keeping open lines of communication, making sure that we’re setting up trips that are really robust in how we communicate. We do that by having pretrip calls before the trip actually goes out to make sure that we’re understanding everybody’s abilities and what they bring to the table and what their needs are so that we can make sure they have a great trip. It also means checking in with regularity with the group members on those trips while we’re out in the field as well, to make sure that they’re having the optimal experiences and their expectations are being met in an excellent way.

QUDSIYA: I wrapped up our conversations by asking Maayan, Erika, and Bani to share their vision of a truly accessible world. Here’s Maayan on the practical and business incentives of designing with access in mind.

MAAYAN: I think for the longest time accessibility has been seen as an afterthought. It’s always looked at as this niche issue where only a subsector of the population and, you know, really how many disabled people are going to show up, or there’s these comical situations where we’ll engage with business owners and they’ll say, “Oh, we never bothered making our restaurant accessible, because we don’t have disabled customers.”

It’s like, until we recognize the value, both on the pure profit front of investing in an accessible space, opens your doors to literally millions of people that currently might not be able to access your business. We’re talking of upwards of 20 percent of the population that has a disability. I think our goal is really about helping create that awareness for business owners, and definitely, within the travel sector, specifically people with disabilities should have the equitable right to travel, just like anyone else.

It’s one of the most amazing things that anyone has the opportunity to do. We want to make sure that just as someone who might not be disabled can access transportation, can access amenities and experiences—that whether you have a disability or you don’t, that experience should be the same. Our job is to connect with leaders in the travel sector, with business owners, with hospitality, and really make this message clear that not only is it the right thing to do, the equitable thing to do, but it’s also from an economic standpoint, can open your business to upwards of $13 trillion a year in annual disposable income that this community carries and is responsible for.

QUDSIYA: Erika says the possibilities of the natural world are all around us, including right in our backyards.

ERIKA: What I find in the outdoor recreation system is you can go to a state or national park and pieces of it are accessible. The bathroom might be accessible, the parking lot, four miles of trail, these kinds of things. I envision a world where there are 72 hours of accessible recreation opportunity in a place that’s within 50 miles, let’s say, of a person’s primary dwelling spot. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a person could reliably go to a wild space that is within 50 miles of their home and experience 72 hours of you can camp there and the campsite is accessible, you can use the restroom and it’s accessible, you can go down to the river and the kayak launch is accessible, and you can go into the visitor’s center and the exhibits there are accessible and you can spend an afternoon there?

I think that what it takes is commitment from society to do that and to find ways to make those spaces more accessible and more consistently accessible.

QUDSIYA: And finally, Bani reminds us that you don’t need to look far to start thinking about access.

BANI: Just like increasing access and equality really in movement across the world for any marginalized community, it starts at home. We don’t need to start thinking about these things when we leave because like I said, whenever we leave the home, we’re traveling, especially for disabled people, which is very complicated, and there’s so much that you need to take into account, so it has to start at home.

QUDSIYA: Do you remember Kevin and Emily, the disabled travelers from the top of our episode? I want to leave you with their final thoughts on access and travel.

KEVIN: People have vastly different experiences with disability, from all the way to no experience at all. You couple that with people of different cultures, different backgrounds, maybe those for whom English is not their first language, so it’s a sort of complex intersection. I think really just meeting those folks where they are and understanding and showing your level of humanity, that like, “Hey, I’m a blind person, but I’m a person with thoughts, hopes, dreams, a job,” whatever. If you can connect with people on a human level, I think that’s really, really important.

EMILY: Sure, stairs pose an obvious obstacle, but unaccommodating attitudes are actually an even bigger source of inaccessibility. It’s always immediately clear to me when someone doesn’t want me in their establishment or when locals are somehow unsettled by my presence. I strongly believe that we can change this by shifting perceptions of disability, by educating about disability, and by increasing understanding of disability as part of what makes someone who they are, what makes any traveler who they are, and that would be an immense source of progress in creating a more accessible travel industry and, really, a more accessible world wherever people may want to go.

QUDSIYA: We’ve learned so much from the wisdom that Christine, Kevin, Emily, Bani, Maayan, and Erika have shared about access and all of its contours. Here are a few key takeaways:

Takeaway #1

Remember that race, place, and power affect access, especially for disabled people of color, and keep that in mind as you encounter people of all backgrounds and abilities in your travels.

Takeaway #2

Conversation and kindness can help us be more open to understanding the access needs of those around us.

Takeaway #3

Access isn’t just about modifying the built environment; it’s about making disabled people feel welcome and included in a space.

Takeaway #4

Listen to disabled people, who are the experts of their own needs and experiences, and challenge your assumptions of what is possible when we create access to places and spaces.

Takeaway #5

Become an advocate for access. When you go to a new place or attend an event, ask about the accessibility features—if you don’t see a ramp, demand that one be installed. You can even report what you find in the AccessNow app.

Takeaway #6

Learn more about disability experiences through media and culture. The Disability Visibility Project created by Alice Wong is a great place to start. You can find blog posts and interviews with members of the disability community at disabilityvisibilityproject.org.

Thanks so much for joining me on this episode of Unpacked. You can learn more about me and the Down to the Struts team at downtothestruts.com. Check out the links to our guests in the show notes to learn more about our guests and their important work.

Special thanks to Story District in Washington, D.C. for permission to share original audio from their March 2020 show, “She Comes First.” You can learn more about Story District by visiting storydistrict.org.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow Unpacked on Instagram and Twitter. The magazine is @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media and Boom Integrated. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene, Adrien Glover, and Robin Lai. Postproduction was by John Marshall Media staff Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhoades. Music composition by Alan Carrescia.

And remember: The world is complicated. Being an ethical traveler doesn’t have to be.

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