FIRST PERSON

Me, my wheelchair and the whole wide world

There have been tears, humiliations and heartbreaks along the way, but even the most challenging journeys create beautiful memories

By Emily Rose Yates

(News Standard Telegraph Optimisation)

Oh God, I’d failed again. I wasn’t sure how, as I’d purposefully not had anything to drink for the last 12 hours, but there I was, pressing the assistance button. Note to self: must try harder to dehydrate on long-haul flights.

As soon as two flight attendants arrived, I apologised: “Sorry. May I have the aisle chair please? I need to go to the loo. No, I can’t walk. At all. Great, thanks.”

The nods and smiles went away, and brows furrowed. I could see panicked fumbles out of the corner of my eye, big gestures, confused shakes of the head.

“Erm, I’m sorry madam, we don’t seem to have an aisle chair with us on board today…”

How humiliating. You can’t take your own wheelchair into the passenger cabin of a plane, and airlines vary on whether they provide in-flight wheelchairs for passengers. The website of this airline clearly said that its Boeing 787 aircraft had in-flight wheelchairs, which was something I had been counting on for the seven-hour flight to Dubai.

I could have raged, but what was the point? They were hardly going to turn back. I could’ve cried (I could feel the frustrated tears forming) but that wasn’t going to stop my bladder from screaming at me.

As I got out of my seat and lowered myself on to my knees, I could feel the pride being knocked out of me. I kept my head down, but the discomfort of the other passengers was palpable as they muttered, coughed, gasped and shuffled in their seats. It’s rude to stare, but how can you avoid gawping at a grown woman crawling down the aisle of a massive plane just so she can have a wee?

I am a full-time wheelchair user with cerebral palsy and, before the age of 16, I naively accepted that holidays would always involve a parent sidekick who was able to lift me. But everything changed when I tested my capabilities and limitations as an independent disabled traveller on a trip to southern Africa in the summer of 2008.

Having just finished my GCSEs, I’d spent years watching the BBC’s Holiday series (mostly because I fancied Craig Doyle); now I was restless and desperate to see what the world had to offer me. The trip exceeded every travel fantasy I’d ever had; nothing prepared me for the thrill of cage diving with sharks nor for the burning sensation of the reddish Namibian sand sinking inbetween my toes. Alongside me on the trip were 23 other young people, all with their own challenges – from physical and sensory impairments to tumours and turbulent family situations. While I was hauled up a sand dune or three, I’d lend an ear to the energetic lad helping me, who had seen more harrowing things in his 14 years than I can imagine seeing in a lifetime. We helped each other in differing – but equally important – ways and that made me realise that travel isn’t just about getting somewhere; it has more to do with communication, collaboration and kindness.

Need to know

♦ Euans Guide (euansguide.com) publishes user reviews of restaurants, hotels, stations and attractions across the UK.

♦ Accomable (accomable.com), the direct-with-owner booking site that details the types of accessibility each property has – step-free access, door width and so on – was acquired by Airbnb in November, so keep an eye on both sites for development.

♦ For general advice on accessible travel see: disabled
 traveladvice.co.uk. The Government’s official step-by-step tips for foreign travel are available here: gov.uk/guidance/foreign-travel-for-disabled-people

That burning thrill stayed with me over the next decade. Everything I did, when studying or working, involved constant movement. I went scuba diving in the Red Sea and drank syrupy tea with Bedouin tribes, I took “selfie” pictures with pandas in China, had many a drunken dance in Australia. I interned at the United Nations in New York and worked a dream job in Rio de Janeiro, consulting on accessibility for the transport system and writing for Lonely Planet in the run-up to the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Through my work and personal adventures over the past decade, I’ve proven that disability is not synonymous with inability. Now I hope to encourage other disabled people to pursue whatever fuels their fire regardless of the barriers that appear.

But I’d be lying if I said it was always fun and easy. Tour companies have refused to take me on trips (apparently I wouldn’t be capable enough if I didn’t have a carer with me); the doors of almost empty bars and nightclubs in London have been closed to me (I guess I wasn’t on their list of attractive clientele); and I’ve been left heartbroken halfway around the world when the pressure of being a carer as well as a boyfriend proved too much for my partner.

It’s tough to keep going when the stuffing has been knocked out of you and you just can’t bear the thought of encountering another damaged wheelchair disembarking the plane with you, or explaining once again to the hotel manager that accessibility does not mean a lift with five steps up to it. A person with a disability is almost half as likely to travel than a person without one; with two-thirds of people saying they “feel awkward” around disability and that they would avoid a disabled person, it’s not that hard to imagine why.

But it’s the stories you never thought you’d tell that make facing these challenges worth it.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of the grey months back at home in Britain, I found myself a world away, in heat so intense that even my eyes were struggling, rapidly blinking to adjust. Every scent was heightened, loud perfumes in a fierce battle to mask the rising body odour spreading through a Moroccan train car so full that children were packed on to tables and nestled in-between bags on the luggage rack. No seat or floor space was left.

At a stop, a bejewelled elderly woman draped in elaborate lavender-gold cloth slowly shuffled into the carriage. Silently waiting for others to notice her and respectfully move, she was having no luck. She had a face with stories to tell but a body that was running out of breath.

I gestured to my wheelchair, where I was sitting, crammed into a corner, miming that I could share with my boyfriend, so our purple lady could have a seat. At first, she declined, nervously checking our faces for approval as I started to transfer out of the chair and into the small seat we’d now be sharing. The woman glanced around. She was struggling. And she was tired. So she sat, smiled at me, and then closed her eyes and slept. I felt a contentment wash over me, making the very little space and heat all quite bearable.

I felt power in helping ensure that this woman might travel pain-free for a few hours. I almost cried at how good it felt to see my wheelchair helping someone else, to be the provider rather than the dependent, to experience freedom rather than limitation.

Eventually, we arrived at our destination and our lady got to her feet. She nodded at us, thanking us sincerely with her eyes, and turned to pick up her bags. She stood for seconds, her complex dress taking up a good two-thirds of the aisle, with delayed men sighing behind her.

She turned back to face me, said a few hushed phrases that I’m sad I’ll never be able to remember, removed a stunning amethyst ring from her finger and put it on mine. She clasped my hands together, and smiled. As I protested that her generosity was too great, she turned away, bags in each hand, and shuffled off.

Even the most challenging journeys create beautiful memories. It’s those that I’m searching for when I travel, wheelchair and all.

Emily Rose Yates is the founder and a director of Globe Hopper Guides, an accessible travel guide company which launches its first guide on Monday, Feb 19. Follow Emily on Twitter 
@EmilyRYates, and Globe Hopper Guides 
@ghguides