accessible travel

Kolkata: A few Thoughts on accessibility

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I’m always keen to discover how accessible a destination is, not only for me as The Blind Tourist, but for those with other disabilities.

As I’ve said before, each disability faces different challenges when traveling. As a simple example, a person in a wheelchair may have difficulty getting around a tourist site, if insufficient work has been done to create the correct accommodations like wider door access, ramps with the correct gradients, and accessible restroom facilities.

As a visually impaired tourist, I most often find the challenge is around access to information, which is why I do so much research about places I’m visiting before I even leave home. When it comes down to it, that research can only give me an overview. It doesn’t always help with the details and, as the famous saying goes, the devil is in the details.

So, what were my impressions of the accessibility of Kolkata,

For me, the hardest part of spending time in Kolkata was getting used to the sensory overload that is Kolkata – the vast numbers of vehicles on the roads, including their seemingly incessant hooting,; the amount of people on the sidewalks, especially at tourist sites and events like the IPL Cricket; and my lack of familiarity of the social norms in the country.

I’m sure I could have learned how to navigate around independently given time. But since I was trying to adjust to the dynamic, vibrant, and diverse new place in which I found myself, I didn’t really have the time to start developing techniques to get around on my own. Except within the hotel, which doesn’t really count.

Although I’m no expert when it comes to what may or may not constitute accessibility for someone in a wheelchair, or with other mobility challenges, my impression is that physical accessibility is great in some areas, less so in others. Certainly, I found myself wondering how someone in a wheelchair might navigate the amazing Alleys and Street Food Walking Tour we did while in the city. I’m doubtful the tour would have been accessible in its current form. But I’m sure our host would have been willing and able to adjust the tour to find more accessible options.

Which brings me to one of my favourite aspects of my trip to Kolkata – the people. No matter what barrier I encountered, I discovered that people were always willing to help find or implement a solution. And I’m sure a traveler with a mobility impairment would find the same.

Having said that, I believe there is value in communicating with others who have experienced the accessibility of the place you’re planning on traveling to – whether another traveler with a similar reality, or an accessible travel professional. They can give you invaluable advice on your options.

By chance, a few days after returning home I came across an article, written by such a professional, that deals, in part, with accessibility in India. I’ve included the link below as I feel the article is a great resource for anyone considering traveling to India, regardless of whether or not you have a disability.

Did you know that India is surprisingly accessible?

I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on parts of my journey to Kolkata. India is a country I hope to visit again – either for a return trip to Kolkata or to discover a different city or region.

A Visit to The Mother House

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From the title of this post you might suspect I’ve switched genres and started writing bad science fiction. I promise that isn’t the case.

The Mother House is the name given by locals to refer to Mother Theresa’s home in Kolkata, India. And that was the first site we visited on a day out in the vast and busy city.

When you enter the Mother House you’re enfolded in a marked sense of peace and tranquility. Considering the bustling nature of Kolkata – with bustling being quite a euphemism, believe me – the quiet is decidedly startling. I almost felt like breaking that quiet with a sudden noise or movement would earn me a reproving frown from some unknown person. Which isn’t to say the site is forbidding or unwelcoming. It’s not. Far from it. But it feels enclosed in a wonderful sense of calm.

The Mother House is neither large nor grand. Yet it contains an interesting range of rooms – a small chapel, the tomb of Mother Theresa, a tiny museum containing a few artefacts from Mother Theresa’s life and work, including an ancient wheelchair that she used for several years towards the end of her life before she passed away, after which it was given to another person in need.

Then, up a flight of stone stairs is Mother Theresa’s room, behind a locked gate so you can see the room in which she worked for many years, without disturbing anything. The room is small and simply furnished, yet is filled with filing cabinets and paperwork from the hundreds of correspondents and causes supported by Mother Theresa and her order.

At no time were we asked for financial donations. Certainly, if you wish to make a contribution to assist their work, it will be gratefully received, but there’s no overt requests anywhere in the Mother House.

When We’d spent a little time taking in the tranquility of the site, we started to walk towards the exit. We were approached by one of the nun’s, who wanted to know where we were from and asked us a little about ourselves. She is pictured with us in the image above. I can’t say whether this was usual, whether it was because we were overseas visitors, or due to my blindness, but it was interesting to have the opportunity to take a moment to talk to the nuns.

It was only much later that I found myself wondering how Mother Theresa had navigated that flight of stone stairs in her later years. I guess I could have asked one of the nuns, but sadly the question only occurred to me much later. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to go back to The Mother House and ask my question sometime in the future.

Cautionary Messages – Trepidation or Excitement?

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“Don’t drink the water – don’t even brush your teeth with it unless it’s from a bottle!”

“It’s a very dirty city, and you’ll see signs of abject poverty every time you step outside your hotel!”

These were just two of a multitude of cautionary messages that came our way when we started talking about a trip to Kolkata in India.

Sure, there were also positive messages –you’ll love the food, the people are great, and it’s a city of complexities and contrasts… though admittedly that last one could be either positive or cautionary, depending on your interpretation.

So, it was with a little trepidation that I settled into my cramped airline seat on the long flight from Cape Town to Dubai on our first leg of our trip to Kolkata.

A little trepidation… and a whole lot of excitement!

I know that part of the anxiety about traveling to a new place is the uncertainty of what you’re going to find when you get there. But, for me, that’s what creates the excitement – the potential, the not-knowing, and the opportunity of discovering new places, experiencing new cultures and learning about different experiences.

Which is why excitement will always win out over trepidation for me.

As the plane taxied down the runway, I settled back sure in the knowledge that I was in for another grand adventure.

I hope you’ll join me as my journey to Kolkata unfolds. I’ll share my experiences, my thoughts, a few of the places we visited, and my version of the reality we discovered about those cautionary statements from friends and family.

So, buckle up and let’s go – Kolkata’s waiting!!

When You Ask Me Why You Really Mean How

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You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me why I travel. The assumption seems to be that there’s no value in going to destinations because I can’t “sightsee” with my eyes.

If I were to ask a sighted person why they travel I’d probably get an answer along the lines of “I travel to see new places and different cultures,” or “To broaden my mind”. I travel for exactly the same reason, with the very subtle difference that I go to experience new places and cultures – in other words, all that’s different is that I use senses other than my sight to do so.

When people ask why I travel what they’re actually asking is *how* do I travel. Which is a totally different question and is about the techniques I use.

If you’d like to know the answer to that question, here’s a brief presentation I gave where I look at some of the preparation I do before a trip, and a little about how I create a sensory experience when I “site-experience” – hope you enjoy it!

Have Disability, Will Travel

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Sometimes we receive the gift of insight from the most unexpected places…

Before I started the Accessible South Africa Travel Podcast, I researched what other accessible travel podcasts were out there. My research led me to the Have Disability, Will Travel Podcast. Once I found it, I started chatting to the host, Josh. And he asked if he could interview me for his show.

Even though I’ve only been podcasting for a few months, it felt really weird having questions fired at me rather than doing the firing myself. But what was really interesting to me was how much I learned from the process. As Josh took me through my own travel experiences and my thoughts on the travel industry, he really got me thinking about the broader concept of accessible travel. And how much I still have to learn.

One thing that really stood out for me was when Josh pointed out how many of the online resources for accessible travel focus on physical access. Sure, I’d noticed it in my own research, but I thought it was just me. So it was kind of gratifying to realize I’m not the only one who’s noticed it.

I guess it’s only natural for us to approach accessible travel from the perspective of our own disability. And, admittedly, what I need when I’m traveling is very different from what someone in a wheelchair needs. Accessibility is a complex issue, which may make it challenging for those in the hospitality and tourism industries who are trying to meet our needs. Which makes it even more important for us to share our experiences and educate people on how to accommodate us.

Which is why platforms like Josh’s accessible Travel Forum and his podcast Have Disability, Will Travel and my own work here in the Beyond Sight Blog and the Accessible South Africa Travel podcast and our parent platform Accessible South Africa are necessary. But I’d love to see accessible travel getting more exposure in mainstream media as well.

I’m definitely going to write more on accessible travel in the future. But Fiji’s just reminded me that it’s her turn to publish an article so I guess mine will have to wait!

In the meantime, I’d love for you to listen to and share my interview with Josh: https://www.accessibletravelforum.com/atf-admin/lois-strachan-s01-e09/

Can You Help Me Take Accessible Travel into the Mainstream?

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As some of you know, I’m getting more and more involved in accessible travel, both through my writing and the Accessible South Africa Travel Podcast.

I’ve now written seven articles on travel as a blind tourist for the Blind Perspective e-newsletter. These articles are written for a visually impaired audience to inspire them to go out and see the beautiful and diverse world we live in. I also try to answer some of the questions and concerns that blind and visually impaired travelers may have. But, my point is, I’m writing for a visually impaired audience.

A few months ago I spoke to a sighted audience and shared a little about how I use my other senses to experience travel and places I’ve never been before. I was completely amazed at how many people came up and spoke to me afterwards saying how fascinated they were to hear what I had to tell them.

Which makes me wonder if other sighted people might also be interested.

So I’m asking for your help – I’d like to find out the names of magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs, podcasts, and any other publications that have articles about travel. Obviously, if you can give me contact details of who at the publication I should approach, that’d be great, but it’s not a necessity – I can do that myself.

Can you help me take accessible travel into the mainstream? I really hope you can!

The Day Fireworks went Off in My Head

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For almost two years I’ve wanted to start a podcast. I knew what my podcast would be about, who my target audience would be and some of the people I’d like to interview. But somehow I never got round to making my ideas a reality. And it seemed that my podcast would be added to the ever-growing list of things I’d do “when I got round to it”.

Then I met a lady named Deirdre Gower, who runs a website on travel for people with a disability. The Accessible South Africa platform has information on services, accommodation, activities and venues that accommodate the needs of disabled people. And I totally fell in love with what Deirdre’s trying to do!

In one of our conversations Deirdre said she’d like to start an Accessible South Africa podcast… and suddenly fireworks started going off in my head…

We now have three episodes of the Accessible South Africa Travel Podcast out and I’m having so much fun interviewing people who are out there seeing the world despite their disability, and service providers who are making their services available to disabled travelers.

If you’re interested in travel, love inspiring stories, or are curious to learn more about how people with disabilities travel the world, and some of the wonderful travel experiences that are making their services inclusive to all, this podcast is for you – we’re not just there for the disabled community.

Subscribe to the podcast here: https://iono.fm/c/3715, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. And browse through the resources and information on the Accessible South Africa website: www.accessiblesouthafrica.co.za

Berlin: Another Great Accessible Travel Experience

Cds IMG 0069The Reichstag is one of Berlin’s most well-known sites. It’s synonymous with a whole lot of history, having been the seat of German government from 1894 until it was seriously damaged in a mysterious fire in 1933, an act that has historically been linked to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. Following the split of Berlin into East and West, both governments moved their location – I grew up with Bonn being the centre of West Germany’s government. It was only after the reunification of Germany took place in 1990 that the building was completely restored and from 1999 its once again housed the German government.

With all this history in mind it was obvious that we would try to explore the Reichstag. Incidentally, while they do offer tours, you have to pre-book and may have your reservation cancelled at any time. That happened to us when we first booked, but thankfully our second attempt was successful.

What I didn’t expect when I visited the Reichstag was how accessible the tour would be for me as a blind tourist. We were met at the door, escorted through security and guided directly to an elevator that’s used by people working in the building, rather than the tourist elevators that go directly to the famous Reichstag dome.

When we reached the glorious glass dome overlooking Berlin I was offered an audio guide and a set of tactile images of many of Berlin’s best known sites that can be seen from the dome. I was even asked if I’d like to take the tactile representations with me on the tour but since the box was bulky, not to mention heavy, I declined with a smile and thanks. But I did take the audio guide.

From there the tour follows a set route around the inside of the dome. I was able to trace my way round using the handrail and the audio guide automatically triggered at specific points – if you stop, so does the audio recording. I thought this was a great approach since we all walk at different speeds and you don’t have to fumble with the unit to get it to play when you stop.

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The tour gives you a bird’s eye view of Berlin, which again was a different perspective from that I’d seen before. It also gives you the opportunity to look down into the chamber where the government sits, which is interesting in its own way. And yes, I’m totally aware how odd both of those statements sound coming from a blind person.

It’s not only visually impaired tourists whose needs are catered for at the Reichstag. There were no steps in the route we used to access the dome, and the entire tour of the dome is done using ramps. Not only does this make it accessible for people with mobility impairments but it also keeps people moving smoothly without bottlenecks – no fast-moving people getting frustrated by those who take time climbing stairs!

We often hear references to German efficiency and, having toured the Reichstag, I can certainly attest to that national trait! My only disappointment was that I still don’t have a definitive answer to who set that mysterious fire in 1933!

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