Photo: Jérémie Crémer on Unsplash

Because people who use wheelchairs have #wanderlust too

Traveling to a new place can be daunting for anyone, but for people with disabilities, the questions and concerns go well beyond finding somewhere to change money and bringing the right electricity converter. While some countries have laws in place to make businesses welcoming to those with mobility issues, the world in general isn’t an accessible place. There are broken sidewalks and long staircases, ceaseless traffic and confusing transportation. In some cultures, accessibility is hardly acknowledged, much less prioritized.

But a handful of people are actively working to make the world a more inviting place. From tour operators to travel agents to authors, meet four extraordinary individuals helping travelers with disabilities fulfill their #wanderlust.

Neha Arora

Founder, Planet Abled

As a child, Neha Arora never went on a family vacation. Her father is blind and her mom uses a wheelchair; travel simply wasn’t an option. When Arora started encouraging her parents to explore a few years ago, she quickly realized that India, where she lives, isn’t a friendly place for travelers with disabilities. Some tourist destinations are outright hostile, while others lack basic accommodations. Arora and her sister had to carry their mother inside one temple, when the only entrance was atop a towering staircase.

People on the road have asked, “Why don’t you keep your parents at home if it’s such a struggle to travel with them?”

Instead Arora doubled down. In 2015 she quit her management job with Adobe Systems, and the next year she launched PlanetAbled, which helps people with disabilities experience India.

So far, PlanetAbled has enabled 100 people to realize their travel dreams, including a 70-year-old woman in a wheelchair who went river rafting in Rishikesh and another a 30-year-old in a wheelchair who cruised Udaipur’s lakes.

Arora will soon start offering accessible tour packages to international destinations, too.

Amar Latif

Founder and Director, Traveleyes

Known to many as “the blind guy who wants to show you the world,” Amar Latif is a UK-based businessman and TV personality who gained stardom through BBC2 reality series Beyond Boundaries, which packed a group of participants with different physical disabilities off on a grueling expedition across Central America.

Latif lost most of his vision before age 19 due to a hereditary genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. When he started traveling solo, tour operators questioned his ability to navigate alone.

“When I approached mainstream travel companies, they said that as a blind person, I couldn’t travel without a guide or a carer, but I didn’t feel I needed a carer,” says Latif. “There were also a lot of preconceptions about what a blind person could do while traveling. I was frequently told, ‘You’re blind; you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’”

Frustrated, Latif decided to create his own travel company dedicated to helping blind people venture around the world on their own. Traveleyes launched in 2004 with a unique concept: Blind and sighted travelers sign up for the same trips, with the latter expected to act as eyes for their blind companions, describing the sights they visit and attractions they see. In return, sighted visitors score a 50 percent discount. “As our sighted travelers guide a different blind traveler for each day of the holiday, the whole group gets to know each other and everyone bonds very well,” says Latif. “Guiding can be a very intimate experience, as you really can learn a lot about your partner.”

Around 85 percent of Traveleyes’ clients come back for a second trip. “So many of our customers make lifetime friends on our trips, and we have had quite a few Traveleyes marriages—and subsequently arranged Traveleyes honeymoons,” says Latif.

The company currently offers a mix of itineraries, ranging from Kerala, India to the Zanzibar archipelago in Africa. Over the past 12 years Traveleyes has gone from offering two trips a year to having 60 departures to destinations across the globe. “The demand for this kind of travel is definitely growing, for both sighted and blind travelers,” says Latif. “It is such a unique and exciting way to travel the world.”

Debra Kerper

Owner, Easy Access Travel

Debra Kerper has led a heartbreakingly challenging life. She was diagnosed with lupus at age 20 in 1970, and in 1973 she developed a bone infection in both legs, forcing her to spend the next six years in a wheelchair, undergoing multiple surgeries. The infection was so severe that Kerper had to have her right leg removed in 1979. Her left leg eventually healed from the infection, but had to be amputated last year because of complications arising from the surgeries.

In 1992, lupus started to affect Kerper’s brain and she went into a coma for a few days. Doctors warned her to stop working and rest, but Kerper got bored at home and decided to take a community college class on careers in travel. There she found her life’s calling: running a travel company focused on people with disabilities.

Today, Easy Access Travel, curates cruises and land tours for people with disabilities. Kerper accompanies her clients on most trips. She has visited around 30 countries, many of them in a wheelchair.

Kerper says that Easy Access Travel is more than a company for her, it’s a travel club. She has a high number of repeat clients, many of whom have become friends. Kerper is now is a bilateral amputee, but that hasn’t deterred her. She got back to work quickly after her amputation in February, escorting a group on an Alaskan cruise in June.

To prepare, Kerper reached out to a client who is also a bilateral amputee for practical tips on showering and using the bathroom while traveling. “I gather a lot of strength from my clients,” she says. “The fun and laughter we share on our trips feeds my soul and gives me lots of motivation to keep going.”

A lot of Kerper’s clients have apprehensions about signing up for tours, but Kerper tries to offer practical encouragement.

“I try to teach clients how to be proactive and take responsibility for the ultimate outcome of their trip,” she says. “My clients gain confidence from being with me and the others in the groups. It’s all about doing things a little differently and being ingenious with solutions to problems. Every situation presents its own set of obstacles. We figure out how to overcome them.”

Kerper has just returned after spending “13 amazing nights” in Ireland with a group of 15 travelers. “I’m very blessed to be able to do what I do every day,” she says.

Tony Giles

Author and Blogger, Tony the Traveler

Tony Giles is a deaf-blind adventurer, who has visited all seven continents and traversed all 50 states in the U.S. Partially deaf since the age of 6, he now wears digital hearing aids in both ears and is considered severely deaf without them. The author of Seeing the Americas My Way and Seeing the World My Way, Giles has ridden crocodiles in Paga, Ghana, cruised the Atlantic and bungee-jumped in Costa Rica. He also runs a blog that he updates regularly with quirky tales of his experiences on the road. He recently wrote a detailed piece about his trip to Japan, recounting the challenges of traveling in a country where there’s a “lack of social interaction between disabled and non-disabled” and locals “seemingly speak quietly when conversing with a foreigner.”

The blog serves as a companion to Giles’s books and has inspired many of his readers to visit the places he writes about. He’s always quick to dish advice to people who reach out to him. “I suggest starting with small trips within their own country or short weekend trips, maybe with another person,” says Giles. “I tell them to be confident and to not be afraid to ask for help from the public.”

Giles turned 39 last month, and is currently enjoying a Greek getaway with his girlfriend. Next up: Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.