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What Traveling With Cerebral Palsy Has Taught Me About Kindness

By Kelly Dawson

Mar 9, 2020

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Strangers have helped make traveling more accessible.

Illustration by Jon Adams

Strangers have helped make traveling more accessible.

I am one of a billion disabled people, a number that the World Health Organization describes as 15 percent of the global population. And as a traveler, there will always be details I can’t anticipate.

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At first, the stress of the airport security line didn’t faze me.

I was traveling alone from my hometown of Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon in the late morning. Harsh fluorescent lights shone above the crowd, shuffling obediently in near silence toward a row of X-ray machines guarded by a gruff TSA officer. Although it buzzed with intimidation, it wasn’t unfamiliar.

I was born with cerebral palsy to parents who met in the travel industry, and our family tree has branches that stretch from Vancouver to New York and Kingston to Manila. We often boarded planes for reunions and vacations, and somewhere along the way, we discovered that the physical toll of terminals would disappear if I ordered a wheelchair with my boarding pass.

So as I rolled through security, I felt the confidence that comes with repetition. Until I got to the front of the line and wasn’t able to take off my shoes.

No matter how far I leaned down to loosen the laces, I couldn’t budge the soles from my heels. On one hand, this was encouraging: I had bought these new high-tops to hold my ankles in place as I walked. But on the other, as I tried to ignore the weight of stares and scoffs on my back, I felt helpless. That’s when a woman left the line to ask me if she could try. Then another woman asked, too. I nodded with relief as a lump cleared from my throat. And suddenly, there two strangers were, yanking at my shoes. When they were finally off, the gruff TSA officer stopped to echo my gratitude. Then the two women were gone.

Strangers can make new surroundings feel more approachable. I’ve asked them to point out the correct train and the right street, and I’ve followed their recommendations to an undiscovered restaurant or a must-see view. Even in a hyperconnected world, a stranger’s insider knowledge could be the easy detail that keeps a trip in motion. But as a woman with a disability, these interactions have an added layer: I’ve found that the kindness of strangers has made traveling more accessible.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t curious about the world. When I was a kid, I lurked in the travel aisles of the children’s library, committing tidbits about London and Amsterdam to memory. I dressed up like Amelia Earhart in the fourth grade, and in middle school, I told my mom that I wanted to go to Antarctica. I also don’t recall my parents ever telling me that I couldn’t, even if my knees turned inward and my ankles rolled with every step. I was privileged to be part of a family that vacationed regularly and did so in a way that accommodated my disability as a part of the deal. We explored together, or not at all.

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My parents pushed my rented wheelchairs around museums, and my brother lugged my bags into hotel rooms. My sister was an expert at creating a path through a crowd, and everyone kept an eye out for potential seats so that I could rest after walking. They knew, probably more than I would like to admit, that my joints tend to stiffen and my muscles begin to burn after a half-hour or so of being on foot. This was how we channeled the Griswolds in Las Vegas and took in the beauty of Seattle. It’s how we navigated the streets of Savannah and the sands of Hawaii. Throughout my childhood, we perfected a system that smoothed walkways, ascended staircases, and dissected buildings. Together, we captured the thrill of seeing the sights while knowing that they are often constructed for the primary use of nondisabled bodies.

This strategy was an extension of what we were used to doing at home. That’s because to live with cerebral palsy—and any physical or mental disability—is to develop, hone, and cling to a routine. In order to get around, the easiest routes, the closest parking spaces, and the largest public bathrooms are mentally cataloged alongside the friendliest staff, the most holistic menu, and the calmest store. The opposite can be true as well, and those spots are subsequently ignored. When existing in public as a disabled person can be rife with inaccessibility, these mental notes provide security and independence in their most basic forms.

Exploring beyond this routine can be a distinct challenge for disabled people who can travel, like me. It often requires meticulous planning, all while knowing that accessibility isn’t always guaranteed and the curiosity of fellow tourists can turn personal. Flexibility is inherent to traveling, but there will always be details that are more difficult for disabled travelers.

Whenever these hurdles presented themselves on family trips, I always relied on our shared history to act as my safety net. I had come to expect that we would either figure it out as a team or collectively shrug it off with, “Don’t worry, we’re not missing anything!” Nevertheless, as I grew into my twenties, I craved the independence of exploring on my own. At the time, I vacillated between fear and confidence over what could possibly come my way, and I still do. But over the years, I’ve noticed how strangers have stepped in like family when I needed them most.

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In a decade of traveling alone or with friends, I’ve learned how to advocate for the things my family knows to secure. I’ve also met plenty of strangers who seem clued into our system without me having to say a word. I smile thinking about when my Uber driver in Washington, D.C. gave me her phone number to call if I grew tired, or the Fifth Avenue doorman who whisked me into his lobby to sit with a free cup of tea. I’m comforted by the memory of a London police officer who escorted me across an icy crosswalk and that of a stylish Parisian who took me by the arm up a flight of metro stairs. And whenever I think about Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, I remember how a woman hoisted me over a mid-construction stack of cement blocks on the only walkway, as if it were nothing.

I don’t see these particular moments as condescending, although that’s a personal call. They worked for me because these strangers politely asked if and how I needed help before moving forward—which should always be the first step, generally—and they made it clear that their assistance worked alongside my capabilities or the help of friends. They used a casual tone and gave me the opportunity to say no. And they never made me feel like a burden, turned my friends into saints, or made my mere existence in those settings seem inspirational.

I don’t interpret these instances as embarrassing, either. I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as “special needs,” but requirements that everyone has to live their lives. I also don’t trust whoever comes to my aid, and I’ve been fortunate that those to whom I’ve given my trust have upheld it. There are strangers who aren’t kind even if they have the best intentions, either by labelling me with the archaic and demeaning word “crippled” or addressing me as if I were a child. There are also those who have no kindness to speak of at all, and don’t seem to mind. I try to let these difficult encounters go and remember the bright examples of shared humanity, instead.

As a disabled woman who can travel, I’m trading in an accessible map of my own making for one that can become inaccessible at any turn—at a market, in a theater, on the sidewalk. So when I’m beyond the comfort of my hometown and the compassion of loved ones, I’m betting that travel is worth it. I’m grabbing hold of the idea that wanderlust can be felt by anyone, including those of us who have to plan our own versions of adventure. Because really, the need to explore and understand is part of the disabled experience, too. It’s just a matter of how to do it and who might step in to help make it happen.

The kindness of strangers that I’ve encountered across four continents has given me hope that inclusion can spread with quick interactions. It starts with, “Hey, how can I help you do more of what you’re already doing?” and ends with a smile and a wave. Whenever this happens, however brief the moment, I’m reminded of the good in others. It is, perhaps, the best reason to travel.

>> Next: Travel Tips for Wheelchair Users

Kelly Dawson is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles.

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