Spontaneous travel adventures can be a challenge when you have a disability, but finding ways to have fun without planning everything brings unexpected opportunities and benefits.
I’m a planner. Of course it’s always good to make a plan when you travel and have a disability, but I plan everything in life. I plan so much that I think people might be mildly disturbed if they knew the extent of it. When I think of an idea for a destination or experience, I often play out the whole scenario in my head: what it will be like, what I’ll say, what others will say, what we’ll do. I try to think of every scenario, so that I can be as sure as possible that it will be fun and everyone will be happy. When plans veer from the perfect image I’ve mapped out in my mind, sometimes the pain is palpable, though I rarely say anything. I know I’m the weird one. And despite it all, I truly appreciate spontaneity, even revel in it. Often the best experiences in life aren’t planned. I want to have more of them. I’ve been trying to figure out how.
My need to plan is in many respects the result of necessity. I rarely have the luxury of flying by the seat of my pants. My reality just doesn’t allow for it. It takes me longer to do everything, from dressing in the morning, to getting in and out of the car, to using the bathroom. Even finding the wheelchair accessible entrance to a building, elevators, and other needed accommodations takes time. A person without a disability can run up a flight of stairs in half the time it takes me to follow the crazy zigzag ramp and meet them at the top. Experiencing life at the same speed as other people actually requires that I get up earlier, know the routes I have to take, where I need to park, where I need to enter a building, and even where I can pee. Sure, I can just show up and hope for the best, but I’ve learned through experience that it doesn’t always work out very well, especially in cities where the ADA hasn’t been adequately enforced. I’m looking at you, NYC.
I’d like to meet my friends at that hip new restaurant, but before I go, I’m going to Google the place and maybe even call to make sure I won’t show up and find two steps at the entrance. I’m going to check out transportation options. Is there parking? Is it in a parking garage, and if so is it accessible to my lowered floor minivan? Any driveway with a sudden slope or large speed bumps will cause it to bottom out. Can I take public transportation? Does the route have accessible stops, and how long will it take to get there? Aside from steps, most of these things aren’t deal breakers, but they require extra thought on my part to plan around any obstacles.
Did my friends think to check any of these things before choosing the destination? In many cases, the answer is no. It hurts every time I’m invited to something only to find out that it’s up a flight of stairs. Sometimes I know I miss out on invitations because friends think it would be hard for me to access a place, even if it’s not true. That said, I realize that other people aren’t used to planning the way that I must. They’re used to the world being set up to accommodate them. I should also have that luxury, but I don’t. Of course I’m always speaking out and doing my part to change things, but that’s still the reality and it will be for a long time.
Needless to say, opportunities to be spontaneous are fairly rare in my life. The most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done was deciding to take my first big road trip to NYC in 2010 with only two days to plan. A friend told me that everyone should do something crazy at least once in their life, and I took her advice. Marriage in shambles, finances in shambles, I got on the road to fulfill a dream, and it saved me. Spontaneous travel gave me the courage to escape that marriage and find a new path to stability. The trip was one of the top three most amazing experiences of my life. It made me relish spontaneity; it threw me off balance in a way that was terrifyingly wonderful. I wanted more.
Since then, I’ve been learning the art of planned spontaneity; finding ways to enjoy spontaneous moments during a trip, while giving myself some structure and security. I’m sharing these tips in the hope that they will help other people with disabilities who want to travel, and anyone else who is looking to escape the rigid box of planning and experience the freedom of living in the now. Here’s what has worked for me so far:
Make a list of all the possibilities
Prioritize and then let fate decide the rest. Before I take a trip, I research the places I want to visit. I divide them into two categories: must-see, and would like to see. I plan the must-sees as far ahead as possible. I keep the other options flexible. Then when I’m actually on my trip, I can choose whatever feels right to me at the time, but I’m familiar enough with all the options that there won’t be any accessibility surprises. For example, let’s say I know that I want to visit a museum. If I have a particular museum in mind, I plan a day specifically around it. But if there are several museums I would enjoy seeing, I research them all, and then go to whichever one(s) ultimately weave seamlessly into the fabric of my trip. If I return home and regret that I didn’t get to see some of the others, I know that’s a place I should plan to visit again.
Make general goals to fulfill on-the-fly
If you plan in generalities rather than specifics, you’re more likely to fulfill travel goals and avoid disappointment. When it comes to food, I tend to think ahead about what types of restaurants I’d like to dine at, but then choose specific places the day before, or even on the spot, when I get hungry. For example, on my most recent visit to NYC, I really wanted to eat some type of South American food, as there are no South American restaurants in the town where I live. I ended up having Peruvian and Colombian food, just because I happened to be in the area and saw their signs. I did a quick check of their yelp reviews, and ended up loving both spontaneous choices.
Let spontaneous people be spontaneous
Some people aren’t planners. Get used to it, or you’ll drive yourself crazy. One of my favorite friends to visit when I travel is a very spontaneous person. She’s a free spirit, and with her chosen career, her schedule can change at a moment’s notice. This used to frustrate me. I would have some awesome idea in my head of a place we should go, but then something came up and everything had to be rearranged. I would feel like I was failing by not making the perfect experience I envisioned a reality. But over time, I started to realize that I should let go of some of those expectations. We might not do the things I had planned, but we would find something else, and it always turned out to be a blast. When someone’s a true friend, you can have a great time doing anything, anywhere, just because you’re there together. I still try to make plans with her and other spontaneous friends, but I do so knowing that they are quite likely to change, and I’m usually OK with that now.
Be a Yes (wo)man
Learn to expect unexpected opportunities, and say yes to them. Ask locals about things to do that you might not have heard about. Visit the places tourists don’t go, to find out what it’s really like there. Go to that concert your friend invited you to at the last minute. Try a type of cuisine you’ve never had before. Attend the festival for a culture you don’t know much about. Skip the touristy souvenirs and buy something from a local artist, antiques, or thrift shop. Talk to strangers (keeping your personal safety in mind, of course) – you might make a new friend!