Travelling the world as a disabled person

Jonathan Coggan

Following our podcast, ‘The journey to inclusive travel’, and as the world moves tentatively towards international travel again, Jonathan tells us about his experiences of accessible - and not so accessible - adventures.

Jonathan Coggan

First travels

I did very little travelling done before my injury. In 2000, when I was 16, I had a C6 complete spinal cord injury. I had a lack of knowledge about what it all would mean, including travel.

I completed a backup multi-activity course in Keswick in 2001. This involved abseiling, going on water, riding bikes and learning wheelchair skills. It was all about doing that whilst being in this new body. It’s like being a rag doll being thrown in a rollercoaster. That’s a rough but somewhat accurate description.

Next was my first plane flight. I only completed the going up bit in the plane. I came down by skydiving, which was for charity.

Going long haul

2003 saw me take on the world development tour. With the non-disabled under-17 team, we travelled to the US, Australia, Singapore and South Africa.

This was great but was done with help, in the form of PAs. I now understood flying long haul. I knew more about hotel rooms and how to work out ways to live in them. I knew about washing, toileting and sleeping in them.

London Wheelchair Rugby club

I joined the London Wheelchair Rugby club and began learning the ropes. I met people with similar injuries. We shared ideas, knowledge and ways to do stuff. At the same time, we were getting stronger. We were constantly travelling to league weekend competitions.

The following years involved more travel, particularly holidaying with my brother. We went to Sharm el Sheik, Chicago and New York. I got used to booking and hoping for the best. I was always looking to book an accessible room, with a wet room ideally. After that, it’s a case of ringing reception for help, ideas and assistance. Sometimes I would need someone to lower or raise the bed. Sometimes, I’d ask them to take excess furniture out or find a waterproof chair for showering.

Travelling alone

On my own, I’ve travelled to the states for rugby. I always turned up at Heathrow with a rugby chair, wheel bag, luggage and left them with airport staff to deal with. This seemed likely the wrong thing to do. But I was assured by a friend this is fine and had worked for them numerous times before.

My friend was right, even if a bit of explaining had to be done. I tended to say all that was needed and wait for the air staff questions until they sorted it out. Sometimes it looked more like a “computer says no” problem than an actual issue. This may not work for everyone or every airline, though!

If you need lifts onto/off aisle chair seats, I recommend clear, calm communications. Make sure you have been heard and understood. Sometimes the people you travel with won’t be up to speed with what you need. Other times, they will be almost getting in the way by wanting to be so helpful (or is that just my family?)

The toughest trip I’ve done

The most complex trip to do and plan was a safari to Kenya on my own. I thought, why not, don’t let going on your own stop you. I tried to arrange both a safari and beach holiday to allow for some relaxing at the end of the trip.

Two websites offered suitable trips. I did a lot of emails and phone calls before deciding which would work best for me. Off I went to Nairobi.

I had already accepted the fact that there were going to be difficulties along the way. That’s just part of travel. The plane journey went smooth enough, but the heat was quite intense when we landed. I needed to find a driver to take me to my one-night accommodation in Nairobi downtown.

Eventually, I found someone, chatted to them and then tried to work out how to get in their 4x4. So I had to be lifted in by my driver. This was the way of things to come. Accommodation was generally okay, but wet room showers were hard to come by. One safari room was half tent, half brick-built.

One rather than two safari trips a day was also better for me. This gave me time to relax the body after several hours of jiggling around in the heat looking for the big five… now, what are they again? The journey to the last lodge was so off road. I remember the shaking of the vehicle whilst looking out for the next chasm in the road that might launch me out the window — all the while relying on dampening a flannel in a picnic box to keep cool.

Arriving in Nairobi, I say goodbye to my driver/safari companion. Then I caught an internal flight to Mombasa for my much-needed beach time recovery and a very lovely Kenyan five star hotel. Finally there, the bathroom was a wet room that I could easily use.

The need for accessible travel

There can be many worries about booking arrangements, the journey itself and what actually appears when you get there compared with your expectations. This is important stuff, don’t get me wrong. But the reason to travel is to be an explorer, in your own way, and to experience what’s out there, near or far away. To widen one’s mind.

So in a short summary, if you want to travel, travel. Don’t let the accessible side of things put you off. There’ll be ways; just about anything you can think of has already been tried by someone else before you. In many ways, we, the disabled and co, have more experiences and adventures than the mainstream traveller.

If you’re willing to accept all that’s involved with accessible travel, you’ll often find you have the best stories to remember and share.