I was diagnosed with MS when I was 29. For the first few years, I was okay (ish!) but then things started to go wrong. I went from walking okay, to using one stick, then needing two sticks, then finally being in a wheelchair.
Of course, this has caused many complications for my life. You don’t realise how difficult many thing become when you are a wheelchair user – and travelling was one of the major unexpected difficulties! I absolutely love travelling, and before my diagnosis, I had been to over 60 countries, climbed the Himalayas to Everest base camp, and spent a year on tour with a Latin American rock star.
I used to just pack my bags and go. Now I have to plan every single detail very carefully. What happens if I need the loo on a long haul flight and they put my seat 15 rows from the nearest toilet? What about hotels? Only wheelchair users will tell you about the flight of steps that lead up to the entrance of the wheelchair accessible hotel!
Bringing knowledge together
Did you know that cobblestones, which bring rustic charm to an old town, are a complete anathema to wheelchair users and cause you to be rattled around in your wheelchair like a solitary pound coin in an over-enthusiastic charity collectors tin?
And what about disabled toilets? In the UK, you can just pop into a MacDonalds, confident that they will have a disabled toilet. But not so in the rest of the world. Cue hours of online searching to find out if there will be an option that you can use.
Wouldn’t it be great if I could just consult another wheelchair user that had been there before me? Every single one of us wheelchair users that travel has an amazing amount of knowledge and super useful information about the destination. Every time I have gone somewhere I have found a few snippets of online information put there by other wheelchair users. So I had a great idea: create a site that brings all this traveller information together, links to all of these really useful reviews and resources and also provides a place for people to add their own reviews.
So wheelchairworld.org was born. The great thing about the site is that all the other wheelchair users sites are more than happy to be linked and many of us are now in touch and we’re working together to share information, because we all have the same aim: to make accessible travel a lot easier! I have spent over a year trawling the internet for blogs, groups and sites and every time I search I find something new to put on wheelchairworld.org. And even better? I often find information about places that I would love to visit myself!
When wheelchairworld.org started out, it was just a review site but I very quickly realised that I was not unique, and there were hundreds if not thousands of wheelchair travellers review sites out there. I realised that we didn’t need another review site, but rather a site that brought all the reviews together, and helped improve wheelchair travelling by making information easy to find and ensuring that the right reviews could be found for the right country at the right time!
Making my dreams a reality
Wheelchairworld.org now has thousands of links to other wheelchair review sites as well as links to things that are really useful for wheelchair travel, such as the step-free tube guide for London.
Wheelchairworld.org now has information about more countries than I have been to (90 at last count). There’s more information about some countries than others, but hopefully it’s all helpful to wheelchair travellers.
With the help of donations, I am constantly improving wheelchairworld.org. Now for each country and you can find three separate tabs – one for reviews, one for useful information and one for service providers. Countries with a lot of resources have been further broken down into popular areas and our next goal is to develop a tagging system so you can find all resources that mention safaris or cruises even more easily. We also plan to introduce the ability to rate links, as well as show which ones are current and which ones are historic. All these changes are based on user feedback and will really help to improve the user experience.
Next year is my 40th birthday and I am determined to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Obviously there is not a huge amount of information available from wheelchair travellers, but what I have found has helped me to make my dreams a reality and to know that it IS possible, that it has been done before. I’ve also found that Kigali, the capital, is very hilly and not great for wheelchair users at all!
Visit wheelchairworld.org, follow @worldwheelchair on Twitter, or look up wheelchairworld on Facebook.
This story is part of the November 2016 issue of our free quarterly newsletter Open Door. Sign up for your free subscription!