I love traveling. Seeing new places, getting to know people and experiencing different cultures. It gives me a sense of freedom and peace that I can not experience elsewhere. It is the only thing that recharges my batteries in a way that I can actually feel the difference and puts my mind at ease from my often fast paced (wonderful) life. I seem to be able to leave most tasks and worries behind and decide to deal with them when I return home. Also, I very often travel for conferences and other work related issues and it is important for me, as a feminist disability activist, to connect with others who are experiencing, working on or exploring similar issues. It pushes me further and gives me energy. I know I’m privileged to be able to travel. I can afford it (to some extent), I have a passport, a working wheelchair and personal assistance. Those things should probably not count as privileges but we live in a world where it is for disabled people and many other marginalized people.
It is though not without effort, emotional labor and physical pain. As a disabled woman who owns a body that is not standard in many ways I experience loads of barriers and discrimination while traveling. Each time I go abroad I know that the trip I am taking will not be easy and very possibly difficult. I have not written about this before but after my recent trip to the UK I think it’s time to give my experiences a voice for others to hear. Not because it was my hardest trip so far or because the UK is particularly inaccessible. I just realized it was time.
I travelled to London, Liverpool and Loughborough and in all these places the hotels I booked were not fully accessible despite defining themselves as such. They were both cheap and expensive ones so that didn’t seem to matter. In two of the rooms I had to have furniture removed from the because otherwise I could not transfer from my wheelchair to the bed and vice versa. In one of the rooms I had to get out of my wheelchair in the hallway. All the three bathrooms were very tight and it was a mission almost impossible to take a shower. There was never room for my assistant so they always had to squeeze themselves back and forth while assisting me and I could forget to be able to dry and dress in the bathroom. Also, getting into one of the bathrooms required going up a steep threshold-ramp-kind-of-thing in a very narrow corridor and in another bathroom the floor of the shower leaned towards the door so there was a human lake made while I showered. Showering was because of this stressful and exhausting so I took few showers and often felt ashamed of that. When I can not shower it really disempowers me. Two of these hotels forgot to put me in an accessible room even though it was required in my booking. What all of these hotels had in common was that their definition of access was at best only based on a stereotypical physically impaired person who does use a small manual wheelchair and requires no assistance from another person, a hoist etc.
Public transport was another thing. Countless times taxi drivers or staff at train stations were shocked by my existence. They over and over again said that my wheelchair wouldn’t fit in the car/train and talked to my assistants (of course not me) like they had never touched my wheelchair or didn’t know me at all. They make all kind of drama about my wheelchair being to big or long or strange or different and take their time believing that it actually is a wheelchair. One staff member called my wheelchair a ‘vehicle’ while another asked very irritated; ‘do you call that a wheelchair?’. It doesn’t matter if I tell them i have travelled a million times before, they are sure they know better, and should off course set my ridiculous ideas about my wheelchair and body straight. I, obviously, know nothing. I also travel with another wheelchair and some suitcases and each time there is someone pointing out to me or my assistants that we have a lot of luggage (like we, who packed those bags and travelled with them across countries, hadn’t noticed). This luggage, that seems to overwhelm every other human being, is usually seen as problematic. I’m shamed each time for taking up space I obviously don’t deserve. A space not meant for my disabled body and everything that comes with it. I was even prohibited to take my luggage to the underground from central London to the airport because of it’s greatness. Instead one of my assistants had to take a taxi with the chair and suitcases which was about ten times more expensive than the metro.
In addition, while many people defend themselves with ‘just being concerned with my safety’ when commenting or controlling how I travel I’m never safe anyway. In the trains, metro and taxis there are no straps for my wheelchair but that doesn’t bother anyone (except myself, who has very fragile bones and who had a serious car accident last year and is therefore slightly terrified in cars since). My safety only matters when it puts somebody’s job or some companies insurance at stake.
I could mention so many things. But this will do for now. I think the reasons I got so frustrated this time are two, first and foremost. The recent years I have put a whole lot of work into radically celebrating and respecting my body. Because I have succeeded in that act I am more aware of when my body is stripped of dignity, safety, agency, privacy and respect. It makes me more angry when I am shamed for lying down, needing assistance, having the wrong kind of disabled body or taking up much space. Because I should not be shamed. It’s just my body. Existing. That should not feel like committing a crime. The other reason is that I had just experienced loss of a loved friend. I’m therefore grieving and more vulnerable to the violence of the systems and cultures around me. Which reminds me again of the demand from society not to be human. I’m always supposed to be up for it; the battles from where I’m lying. Battles that you usually can’t choose.
It’s not enough to offer disabled people false tickets to enter a society if it’s only on non disabled people’s terms. Or in some limiting spaces. I know traveling can be tiring for anyone. But that’s not what I am talking about. Disabled people should not be exhausted from plainly being who we are. It’s our world too, and we have the right to travel it, while being safe and keeping our dignity.