Confronting The Challenges Of Traveling With A Disability

Planning a vacation can be daunting, especially for people with disabilities. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Carole Zoom, a disability activist who's traveled the world.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Planning a vacation can be a daunting experience for many of us. But all those logistics can get far more complicated if you have a disability, which is the topic we're tackling on this week's Winging It.

And we've called up Carole Zoom for some personal reflections on this. Zoom has been traveling around the world since she was a teenager, but not without some struggle. Carole Zoom has congenital muscular dystrophy. And she's been in a wheelchair since the age of 13. She also needs a ventilator to breathe. Her disability hasn't traveled her from the world. But she has come up against challenges. At more than one airport, the crew has refused to let her on the plane because of her ventilator.

CAROLE ZOOM: They'd never seen a wheelchair like mine. They'd never seen a ventilator like mine. After about 10 supervisors came over to inspect the wheelchair and me, that we would not be allowed to fly on our flight because the pilot was concerned about me being on the flight.

MARTIN: When we spoke with Carole Zoom, she told us about the first overseas trip she ever took to Belgium when she was just 15 years old. You may notice Carole's ventilator sometimes affects her speech.

ZOOM: I was anticipating a lot more difficulty with the trip because I had faced discrimination. I thought that the teachers that were going might try to discourage me. But, fortunately, they really were encouraging me to do the most that could. And I ended up in the family that hosted me that were familiar with working with people with very severe disabilities. But their house itself was not wheelchair accessible. And I crawled up and down two flights of stairs to get into my bedroom at night.

And to me, it was something I was physically able to do. And it didn't seem excessive just because I was so excited about the adventure of being in another country. And since that time, I've worked for the Mobility International U.S.A., which encourages students with disabilities to travel.

MARTIN: What did your parents think when you announced to them that you really wanted to travel internationally?

ZOOM: My parents had always raised me to do everything that I wanted and had all the responsibilities that I was - my sister, who was nondisabled, also had. She had studied in Peru. And my mom is a medical doctor. And she prepared me that people were going to treat me differently. And they were really going to think that I was a strange choice for an exchange program and very, very practical about what I would encounter. So I rehearsed what I would say to people so that I'd be prepared for what I would find on the other side.

MARTIN: In your experience, which country has been the most accessible or accommodating?

ZOOM: One of the places I love going that I find very easy is Barcelona. There's a very active network of taxies that are wheelchair accessible, very easy to get.

And, surprisingly, China has barrier-free high-speed train. And it's better than Amtrak. It is so easy. From the moment you get to the station, it's a wheelchair accessible. So that is just a dream to get around the country and be able to see the countryside. And something that was completely unexpected to me 'cause I thought they were going to have to lift me onto the train and do things, like I had done in other countries. But I have to say the Chinese high-speed train system is amazing.

MARTIN: Are there resources out there for disabled travelers looking for tips and advice?

ZOOM: I blog at my website. And I try to include information about places that I've been. There's another blog called accessibletripexperts.com. And it allows people with disabilities to blog about their experiences, to detail, peer to peer, what you experienced as a person with disabilities.

MARTIN: Do ever gets nervous anymore? I mean, you've been doing this for so long. You've probably seen every kind of obstacle. You're so well seasoned. But do you get nervous or anxious before a trip?

ZOOM: Oh, yes. I get nervous and anxious. I'm somebody who makes my travel plans a year in advance, contacts the concierge at the hotel where I'm saying to get a picture of my room because I don't really want any surprises. Because I've been kicked off airlines, I do get very nervous, to the point of, you know, near panic attack, when I'm boarding an airplane, no matter where it is.

I've just gotten to the point where I feel like, as long as I have enough battery power for my ventilator, there's not a whole lot that can happen to me that's going to jeopardize my life in a travel situation. And so I just kind of breathe through it, be as calm and positive as I possibly can be because, you know, when you're traveling in Morocco or China, you may be the only person that anybody will ever meet in a wheelchair on a ventilator. And so your - their impression of you is going to hold a lot of weight for how they treat the next person.

MARTIN: Carole Zoom joined me on the phone from her home on Maui. She blogs about traveling with a disability. You can find her at carolezoom.com. Carole, thanks again.

ZOOM: Thank you, Rachel.

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