Rethinking My Words: Perception, Disability and Travelling
There are 11 flights of stairs, we learn. Despite the Balinese humidity, we’ve already tackled two, but the thought of getting my friend – a wheelchair user – up the rest is already hurting my thighs. I look at Emily, who up until this point had been excitedly chatting with me about dyeing her hair a new vibrant shade, and she just shrugs.
I’m having a harder time digesting this information. After all, we were told it was wheelchair accessible. I feel frustration rise to my cheeks, and I avert her gaze. We had booked a class to learn traditional Balinese woodcarving in Ubud, something that was neither cheap, nor easy to come by, and we were already half an hour late. How could we be standing here while the rest of our group is happily enjoying this cultural artifact? I want to cry and scream and maybe laugh a little at the ridiculousness of this being advertised as wheelchair accessible. I turn to her for my cue. She laughs, so I do too.
The media is a rabid animal. We are bitten, slowly infected with strange messages about disabilities. Recently, I stumbled across an article titled something along the lines of ‘Amazing Boy Travelling the World in a Wheelchair’. Simple, to the point, but slightly unsettling. Why is it so easy to speak about disabilities like this? Like travelling the world, and travelling in wheelchair are separate entities that don’t intersect.
People with disabilities are shown to us as “overcoming all odds” or displayed in advertisements filled with sad music and a link to a donation page. We are told that their lives are hard, and don’t get me wrong – sometimes they are. But I think there needs to be room for something beyond that, especially when it comes to travel. There needs to be a narrative better then the polarities between inspiration porn and a pity party.
Emily is wonderful. She is a powerful and incredible woman. Over cocktails, her open-mindedness and curiosity for life spill forth. I notice the ink that decorates her skin. Her thirst for adventure exposes itself and I share with her my desperate dreams and attempt to explain the complexities of my thoughts. Here is where she first encouraged me, challenged me. Those are fuzzy memories but I’ll cherish them.
Her wheelchair exists as a part of her story, a part of her travel journey, and in a way, it’s a part of mine too. It means something, but it isn’t everything.
Before this trip, I don’t think I ever really took a second to imagine what it would be like travelling with a disability. I had gone on never acknowledging the reality of a population that doesn’t directly include me. Ignorance is the foundation from which we perceive reality. It makes me wonder if the way I have thought about people with disabilities and the images I had of their travel experiences was fogged by a cloud of societal constructs; the privilege that I carry in my backpack.
I heard things during our trip that made me question perceptions, my own and the perceptions of others. The way in which we – as humans, as writers – unintentionally paint her experience as inherently inspirational. It’s wonderful that people think she’s great. I think so too. She is a successful woman, running her own business and travelling for a living. Truthfully, I want to be living her life. But how do people come to these conclusions when they know nothing about her? I find myself wondering if these able-bodied praises of bravery and strength for travelling are simply emerging from a reductionist narrative.
Let’s get back to the 11 flights of stairs. We ended up forced to trek around to the back entrance, which only had one set of stairs, instead of 11. I could go deeper into the politics of having to go in through the back, but then this may go on forever. Observing the way Emily navigated a world that unfortunately, is still pretty fucking inconsiderate, allowed me to take a step back and gain some perspective. Her story, her travel experience, is as twisted and complex as mine and there is something to be said for acknowledging this. Emily, who travels all over the world breathing in culture and art, like she does air, deserves more than the word “disabled” as her headline. There are better adjectives to describe her.
The vocabulary surrounding disabilities falls out of our mouths too easily. I can’t help but feel that they serve as another way to separate “us”, the able-bodied, from “them”, those with disabilities. There is no easy answer for how stories should be told, but I want to try harder to capture the complexities of the people in this diverse and crazy world. There is an indescribable feeling I got when I met Emily, someone who understood me, and it angers me to know people are developing perceptions about her because of a world that tells them her life can be boiled down to a chair.
When a man with clenched fists and reddened cheeks told us we had missed our plane, Emily and I shed the same tears of frustration. We felt the same exhilaration as we sped through the ocean on a speedboat, the wind and water splashing our faces, a Justin Timberlake song blasting in the background. These are the things that matter, that link us together as humans — disability or not.