As someone who’s been travelling for a number of years with a visual impairment, I’m familiar with the assistance and support that I need to put in place to assist me to travel. Whether I’m travelling with a sighted companion or travelling on my own, I know the help I require and how to ensure I arrange for it ahead of time. For me, this includes assistance at the airport, transport to and from the airport, and ensuring that my needs – and those of my guide dog, if Fiji is with me – can be accommodated at the place I’m staying.
But what about a person with a disability who hasn’t travelled before? How do they become aware of the assistance that they can tap into?
I had the opportunity to interview a gentleman named Saul Molobi on my accessible travel podcast, A Different Way of Travelling. Saul shared the story of his first overseas trip since becoming mobility impaired three years ago. I listened as he described accommodations at the airport and the hotel that should have been there, and weren’t. And the impact the lack of those services had on his journey. And I found myself thinking, “That’s not how it’s meant to happen!”
I guess, for those of us who have travelled regularly with a disability, it’s almost automatic that we spend time researching what facilities and services are available to assist us when we travel Yes, it takes time. Yes, it’s sometimes frustrating when we don’t find it easy to identify whether or not a service provider can accommodate our needs. And yes, sometimes we put everything in place and yet it’s not there when we arrive. But at least we know what we need to look for and request. Because we’ve learned by experience – most often from what’s gone wrong before.
I’d like to think my podcast can be a resource to help people to overcome some of the challenges of travelling with a disability, so they don’t need to face so many barriers to a positive travel experience. I’ve never thought of it before, but the information shared by the people I interview can be of immense value to other travellers who may not have travelled as much as some of us have. At least, I hope so.
Going back to the interview with Saul. You may be thinking that it landed up being a sad, depressing interview. On the contrary, I think it’s one of the most inspiring stories I’ve shared so far – Saul kept reinforcing how liberating it was for him to know he could overcome the barriers he faced, and how satisfying it was for him to be able to successfully travel on his own for the first time. Sure, he struggled with certain aspects of the trip, but he said he knows what he needs to do differently when he travels next time.
Even if you have no interest in accessible travel, I think you should listen to Saul’s story – it’s a story of courage, tenacity and triumph over adversity. And it was an honour for me to be able to share the story on the podcast.
You can find Saul’s story here: http://iono.fm/e/797930
I know, I know, it’s been ages since I published an article. It’s certainly not for lack of anything to write about. After all, I recently got back from an amazing trip to Germany and Poland about which I have lots to share. I also need to gather my courage and write a final post honouring my retired guide dog, Eccles, who passed away after a short illness. Then I want to tell you about some of the exciting blind travel work I’m starting on, and a media interview I did recently.
So yes, I have plenty to share with you.
But somehow I’ve just fallen out of the habit of settling down to write…
Today I took the decision that it was time to fall back into that habit. so here’s just a short note to let you know that I’m back – back home, back writing, and back willing and eager to share more of my experiences living my ordinary life without sight.
I was startled to see that Fiji also neglected to write an article while I was away – clearly she was just having too much fun on her holiday from guide dogging. Maybe I’ll wake her up just now and ask her if she actually plans on writing a post this month. But you know what they say about letting sleeping dogs lie?
All I’m saying is watch this space…
I want to talk about something that really confuses me – air travel. And if you don’t understand why I find it confusing, think about it from my perspective.
We drive to this really big building, where we walk from one counter to another, sometimes stopping so mom can get a cup of tea, and then go to a place with lots of people all sitting and waiting. We join them sit and wait… and wait.
Then we go to yet another counter and then either walk through a tunnel or catch a bus. If we go by bus we eventually get out and approach something that looks like a giant metal sausage with wheels glued underneath. Then we climb some stairs and get swallowed by the sausage, which is really odd because usually I’m the one eating the sausage, not the other way around.
There are rows and rows of seats inside the giant metal sausage, which is actually called a plane. It looks a bit like the theatre mom took me to once, except the plane has fewer seats and there doesn’t appear to be as much for people to watch.
Then the strangest thing happens – the sausage starts to move and grumble in the most unpleasant way, exactly like it has indigestion. This continues for a time and then suddenly my ears pop – which is quite a thing for a dog!
Finally, after lots and lots and lots of time… and a whole lot more of that nasty indigestion… they open the door of the giant metal sausage and mom puts me back on harness and we walk out.
Amazingly we emerge into a different big building with lots of new scents and people. Sometimes we go and wait by this long moving table with suitcases of all shapes and sizes on it. We seem to watch it for a long time, then dad randomly reaches out and chooses one or two of the suitcases… only sometimes we don’t bother and simply walk out.
I know I’m just a dog and I don’t always understand human stuff, but even I know that mom was only joking when she told me the giant metal sausages can fly from one place to another above the clouds – I mean, how naïve does she think I am?
Okay, okay, I know a cute young guide dog is going to attract attention, but I seriously didn’t realize the difference there would be between traveling on a plane with Fiji and traveling without her, especially when it comes to the onboard safety briefing.
Usually when Fiji’s with me she attracts a lot of attention from the flight crew and we always receive a very thorough safety briefing before take-off. Usually one of the cabin attendants shows me how to navigate my way round the seat and overhead controls, tells me where the nearest emergency exits are, and where the bathrooms are.
However, I had a totally different experience on my recent trip to Ghana without Fiji.
On our first flight, from Cape Town to Johannesburg, the cabin crew only noticed I was blind when distributing the meal. I received a perfunctory safety briefing afterwards – just about the time we began our descent. On the second stage, between Johannesburg and Ghana, I had to make do with the general safety video and figure it out from there.
Okay, I did receive a full briefing from the cabin crew on the flight from Accra to Johannesburg, so maybe one out of four isn’t too bad.
I waited to see what would happen on our final flight back to Cape Town. When we arrived at the plane the cabin steward insisted on accompanying me to my seat himself, rather than letting my friend who was with me do so. He settled me in my assigned seat… and forgot about me the rest of the flight.
So, my question is this –is someone traveling with a white mobility cane simply less visible than someone with a guide dog? Is it perhaps that the crews figure that only someone with a guide dog requires a safety briefing? Or is it just that the guide dogs are so cute that the safety briefing is no more than an excuse to come over and pat the dog?
Regardless, the point remains that I’m still there – whether I’m traveling with Fiji or with my mobility cane… so my need for a safety briefing doesn’t change!
Still, if I were part of a cabin crew I’d probably also want to go and greet the cute dog!