I have had my fair share of adventures. Jumping out of planes and being pushed off bridges in South Africa. Paragliding over the beaches of Rio in Brazil, and scuba diving in Panamanian waters. Doing this all while travelling as a disabled Black woman is no easy feat, but it certainly is one that gives me great pleasure and appreciation.
Travelling around the globe is, and continues to be, a privileged endeavour. Packing up and exploring new parts of the world is not always as easy as it seems to be, whether you’re flicking through a brochure or scrolling through Instagram. Travelling with a disability can add an extra layer of difficulty that requires a lot of planning and navigating. Having travelled quite a lot, I am pretty good at figuring out my way around a new place.
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A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit India. A place that I had always dreamed of visiting and in which I longed to immerse myself. My whirlwind trip took me from Mumbai to Jaipur, Agra and New Delhi, where I got to experience some of Diwali, the festival of light. Starting my journey in Mumbai meant that I was first introduced to this beautiful nation by the absolutely stunning Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport. I didn’t think it was possible to want to spend more time in an airport, but the surrounding lush vegetation, coupled with the gorgeous Indian artworks made the airport a destination in its own right.
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The first thing I noticed when I arrived into the city was the overwhelming heat, the busy streets, and how I was going to navigate them. Luckily, Uber is available, as well as other local ride-sharing options; this is especially great for those that wouldn’t be able to access tuk tuks.
Throughout my journey in India, I marvelled at the magnificent palaces and forts that I saw along the way. I was enthralled by the Pink City of Jaipur, taking a day trip to Amer to see the impressive structures. I had my breath continuously taken away by the majesty of the world famous Taj Mahal in Agra. I had the pleasure of seeing the sunrise from this enormous complex, an architectural declaration of love. While some places were easier to access than others, everything that I saw exceeded my expectations.
One thing that travellers with disabilities will always notice is how the attitudes of people towards you and your disability changes from place to place. I have noticed that when I travel to Western countries; there have been stares, but people are less inclined to come up to me and ask me questions (however the classic “You are such an inspiration” is still bandied about). The most surprising reactions that I have received was during this particular trip. Due to my polio, I mobilise with a leg brace and two callipers. As I have a very obvious and visible disability, I am used to the stares that come along with it.
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One thing that I was not prepared for was my money being declined at some tourist attractions. On a few occasions, I was not allowed to pay entrance for some sites that I visited. The exchange would usually begin with me having my money ready to pay, but at different points during my journey, I was ushered right through. Even when I tried to tell them that I was more than okay to pay (as the exchange rate was heavily in my favour), they weren’t having any of it. Any extra money that I had left was given to nearby homeless people or used as tips.
There are some tourist places that have free or reduced entry for those with disabilities, but this was something different. There was a presumption that I would not be able to afford to pay, because of my physical condition. There was no regard paid to me telling them otherwise. They felt sorry for me and wanted to help me in a way that they thought could help me.
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There is usually an element of pity involved when disabled people navigate any space that was not built expressly with them in mind. While this is not exclusive to India, I have noticed that it’s usually in places that are not considered ‘first world’ that people go out of their way to assist. While I was in Mumbai trying helplessly to figure out how to get from one place to another, a wonderful man just came up to me and helped me. When I tried to give him some money as a way of showing my gratitude, he declined, saying that it was the right thing to do.
It is always heart-warming to know that you can still find the kindness in strangers. But it should not be something that we as disabled travellers or others need to rely on. There needs to be proper accessibility in place everywhere, and this can be quickly and easily achieved by involving disabled people during every step.
There may not always be a kind stranger around, but there should always be a lift.
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Feature photo by Steve Wroe.