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Travel Therapy for People with Disability

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

✦ Travel is a favourite pastime for many Australians and in an ideal world it should be a refreshing, nourishing, fun and rewarding experience. Below you find travel advice from Amanda Liddell (Lead Educator, disAbility Maternity Care)

Whether it’s a long-awaited solo escape after a period of restrictive lockdown, a contracted work trip, a spontaneous getaway with friends or a regular pilgrimage to visit loved places and loved people, it is rightfully and deservedly a time of creativity, reward, growth, joy and newness.

Sometimes, however, travel can be intense and difficult, disappointing, and even regretful. To illustrate what can and will go wrong, and of how unreliable and limited transport, travel and tourism options can be, watch Trains, Planes and Automobiles.

As suggested by the title, this movie is a travel horror story, albeit a very funny one, in which two complete strangers join forces in an attempt to arrive in Chicago for Thanksgiving. An oldie but a goodie, it has cult status for those of us who’ve survived to tell tales of disastrous travel calamities, and who’ve come out the other side partially bemused but with our sense of humour completely intact.

Amanda and Bob's flight experience

Two weeks ago my client, who lives with quadriplegia, and I arrived at Sydney airport to check-in early for our domestic flight to Perth. The airline and airport staff know Bob well – he has been travelling this route regularly for 20 years, and they greet him warmly. I reminded the delightful check-in staff that we required the aisle wheelchair to allow Bob passage through the narrow plane aisle to his regular business class seat.

Why does he fly business class, I hear you ask? Well, there is one particular seat on one particular class of plane that allows his other disability support worker and me to transfer him safely into position for the long flight, and it just so happens to be up the pointy end of the plane.

Naturally, upon booking his flight months ago I requested the said aisle wheelchair, and the very patient staff member with whom I was now speaking confirmed that this notation appeared on the booking. To humour my indefatigable nature, she radioed down to the ground staff to prepare them for our arrival. Upon arrival at gate 14, you guessed it – no aisle wheelchair could be found…anywhere. In fact, the burly ground staff manager knew nothing of such a request. He promised the situation would soon be rectified and he made good on his promise, with gusto.

Copy and paste to ten days later for our (very well) planned return trip to Sydney, however this time, it’s Bob’s very expensive and highly specialised wheelchair that has failed to make its appearance at the gate. Sigh!

Not to attribute blame, but incidents such as these can be very frustrating and disruptive.

Reflecting on this series of unfortunate events, I am reminded of Bob’s previous flight just weeks earlier during which his other carer and I were asked to partially undress him at the security checkpoint for a ‘search of his person’. We explained that to do so we would need to reposition him in his wheelchair, risking an episode of autonomic dysreflexia.

Understandably, no exemptions were possible. As anticipated, Bob immediately went ‘dysro’, becoming briefly but acutely unwell, an experience to which, of course, he is no stranger.

Again, not to attribute blame, but incidents such as these can be very discombobulating and frightening.

At what point do we throw our hands up in the air, accept that it is all too hard, and resign ourselves to a lifetime of stay-cations?

Giving up is simply not an option for Bob – his work is based in Perth and he is expected to be in the office a couple of times a year for extended periods of time.

And, giving up should not be an option for other people with a disability. Everybody should all be afforded the freedom of movement around Australia and indeed, the world, as is our birthright – no matter what.

In 2023, local travel (jumping on a bus to head to a beach for the day), domestic travel (catching the red-eye to Perth for work) and international travel (a fancy trip to…well…anywhere!) should not be inaccessible, unreliable or limited for people with a disability.

To be honest, I’m not remotely concerned about Bob. He is an intrepid traveller and without doubt one of the most intellectually gifted people I know. Bob powers through no matter what, often leaving his carers in his wake as he fixes, finds, trouble-shoots, adjusts and adapts to each and every travel conundrum that threatens to ground him. We, the carers, happily ride in the wake behind his hard-earned expertise.

But how do other people with a disability manage to find their way around the great outdoors?

Be it for work, pleasure or commitment? How about people with a sensory or intellectual disability? How do people who don’t have a “Bob will fix it” attitude and capability, manage the myriad day-to-day travel perils and pitfalls?

Finding the confidence to venture into the unknown can seem overwhelming; first timers might feel restricted by the limited representation of people with a disability going to the places they want to go and doing the things they hope to do. Sure, disability support workers, friends and family come in handy, but they too may have limited travel experience. Nothing beats years of lived-experience, resourcefulness, knowledge and gumption; it might be time to call in the experts.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 has had a significant impact on the travel industry on a macro level, facilitating changes to increase accessibility for all people with a disability. Is the framework perfect? No! Is there still a long way to go before the travel accessibility gap narrows? Yes! Is there latitude for further agitation to tighten laws and decrease both overt and surreptitious travel discrimination? Absolutely!

Further down the food chain, travel experts, companies and agencies are steadily improving their accessibility and flexibility, the intention being that nobody should be excluded from travel experiences. Whilst barriers linger, people with a disability have more opportunity now than ever before to embrace their autonomy, freedom and spontaneity in places other than their own backyards.

Careaway Tours

One such company who believes that everyone should be free to enjoy the world’s offerings is Careaway Tours Australia. This NSW based tour operator and registered NDIS provider has been an industry leader since 1994 when it identified a gap in the tourism marketplace – assisted holidays for people with a mild to moderate intellectual disability.

For 28 years Careaway has been enriching the lives of their clients and helping them reach their travel goals by providing high quality holidays to a diverse range of destinations – locally, nationally and internationally. Travellers can feel confident as they traipse around the globe, supported by qualified and experienced carers who are passionate about sharing their love of travel with their travel buddies.

On an individual level, there are trailblazers bringing much needed fresh direction to an old, and sometimes stale, industry. Julie Jones, an ex-travel consultant and now mother of two, travel-blogger, website owner, freelance writer and magazine co-founder has travelled widely since she was a child and she refused to allow her son’s Cerebral Palsy diagnosis to stop her in her tracks.

Rather, Braeden’s diagnosis catapulted the whole family into an extraordinary world-wide travel adventure; Julie now shares her travel stories, information, insights and recommendations with an extensive and appreciative audience in the hope that she and her family can inspire other people with a disability to get out of their comfort zone, and see and experience the world. As Julie says, “Don’t be an observer in life. Participating is so much better”.

Have Wheelchair Will Travel

Julie discovered that necessity is the mother of all inventions, hence the Have Wheelchair Will Travel website was born. Following on from that, Julie co-founded the Travel Without Limits magazine – the first Australian disability-specific travel magazine.

Julie explores travel needs for people with different disabilities, not just those in a wheelchair, and most importantly, all the stories are ethically sourced, true lived-experiences. For those who have been bitten by the post-COVID travel bug, Julie and Braeden have it covered, including; accessible accommodation options, fail-safe equipment necessities, adaptive services and solutions, must-have packing lists, insurance tips, NDIS funding opportunities and once in a lifetime sensory informed experiences.

Julie’s expert advice to potential travellers? Do your research, start local, build your team, work out what you need, tweak what doesn’t work for you and then spread your wings further afield. She also recommends contacting tour operators ahead of time; although helpful, this is by no means a fail-safe solution. Having a plan B (and C and D) can definitely help!

My novice advice to potential travellers? Do it! There will always be reasons why you shouldn’t do it, why you can’t do it, why it is all too hard, why you should stay at home and binge watch old eps of Modern Family. The appeal of taking a risk, choosing your own adventure, seeing the world from a different perspective, meeting diverse and interesting people, broadening your horizons, enjoying your independence and perhaps discovering something new about yourself might seem like a fanciful idea, but fanciful is awesome and should become a part of our everyday vernacular.

So, dream big, get out there, feel the fear but do it anyway, and trust that everything will go to plan. It won’t, and you will have to find your inner ‘Bob’. But at the end of the day, it will be worth it and you will return home with some fabulous stories to tell – most of them true! You might also be the inspiration for someone else’s wild adventure.

And, one last thing before you spread your wings and take flight – check out the Australian Government’s smart-traveller website. It has clear (although not in easy read format) and comprehensive information for people with disabilities and for those who care for them. This valuable resource covers everything from travel vaccination requirements to legalised discrimination (no, that isn’t a typo!) and everything in between. It’s got lists. It’s got checklists. It’s got lists of checklists. And don’t worry, service animals are not forgotten.

As so eloquently expressed by Hunter S. Thompson ”Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intension of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming ‘WOO HOO! What a ride!’”

Author Amanda Liddell (Lead Educator, disAbility Maternity Care)

If you would like to find out more, or have a question, contact

disAbility Maternity Care


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