The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
‘It finally feels like the future is bright’
Broadcaster Sophie Morgan reveals how travel for disabled people has been transformed
Somehow, accessible travel has become a lot more possible since the pandemic. It’s not necessarily due to Covid itself, but it seems as if the industry has woken up to people with access requirements. I have been a wheelchair user since I was 18, when I was involved in a car crash that left me with a spinal injury. I now primarily work as a TV presenter, which allows me to explore the world – but it was one particular moment in the desert that got me hooked on travel.
My first stop was Morocco, where I had been before. I found Marrakech surprisingly accessible, even though it is bustling and busy in the souks and there are cobbled streets everywhere. But I remember staring at the Atlas Mountains and feeling that I had only scratched the surface. I desperately wanted to go up there, but didn’t know whether it would be too challenging.
The problem is, as a wheelchair user, there is a barrier to experiencing the same things as everyone else. You feel like you can dip your toe in a little bit but, by and large, you are on the periphery. Usually you are watching other people getting so much more out of it, especially with really authentic travel experiences.
Then I was introduced to Access Morocco Travel Consultants (moroccoaccessibletravel.com). I told them that my travel agenda wasn’t just to have a brilliant time on a holiday – I wanted to explore the accessibility options properly, then record and share the information with other disabled travellers. They were totally on the same page, so I got the best of what they offer, which included riding a camel in the Sahara on a one-of-a-kind adapted saddle. It was life-changing.
I realised that I needed to think creatively about telling other disabled people about their travel options. So often, someone has done the work – such as creating a modified saddle, or researching the viability of an area – but disabled people just don’t know about it. Of course, there is so much work that needs to be done to make places more accessible in the first place, but I am now telling people about places where that’s not the case.
Having really caught the travel bug because of that Morocco experience, I headed to the Maldives next. It’s a place I never thought I would visit as a wheelchair user because of the nature of the environment and, of course, the price point. It really is a luxury experience. The Maldives is a place to save up for, a real bucket-list destination.
I stayed at the Amilla (amilla.com; villas from £1,033 ), which has a commitment to inclusion like I have never seen before. For instance, I had just learnt to scuba dive, so – as you can imagine – I was very excited about being in those crystal-blue waters. There wasn’t a hoist for me to get out of the boat and into the water but the team had designed a really rudimentary sling, so I could dive. They really went above and beyond requirements to accommodate my needs – and I was honoured.
The hotel staff are passionate about ensuring that disabled guests feel comfortable – but they are also honest when they can’t meet every need. Realistically, we are talking about a sand island so there are fixed limitations. However, it is the intention that counts: the staff do what they can to be inclusive and they are open to speaking to guests about what they particularly need.
It seems that often, among well-meaning health-and-safety controls, there is too much fear around disabled people. There is this constant worry that we are going to get hurt, which means we are metaphorically wrapped in cotton wool. I could have fallen from that camel in Morocco, for example, but so could anyone else. It felt all the more amazing, then, that the team at Amilla had created something specially for me.
After the Maldives, it was on to California. It is remarkable how much being in America, where I am based at the moment, has improved my mental health. Wheelchair access in the United States is regulated and enforced, which isn’t the case in the UK. At home, before I travel I have to ring venues to find out whether they are accessible. I have to ask if there is a ramp to the toilet and deal with incredulous people at the other end of the line. That couldn’t be further from the truth in the States.
It is a weight off my shoulders like you would not believe; it will feel like a half-life when I return to the UK.
It’s not just the accessibility that is eye-opening, however. Driving around Joshua Tree National Park was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It’s like going to another planet. Pictures really don’t do it justice – I have never seen sparseness like it, and it’s
especially remarkable that this wilderness can be found just a few hours from a sprawling city like Los Angeles.
These experiences have been amazing, but really I want to leave the door open wherever I go for people to follow. That might be through consulting with people on the ground, or by retrospectively giving advice about how to make a place more accessible. I want other disabled people to feel they can travel adventurously, too – and that starts with visibility. Often people don’t know these options are open to them.
Part of how I have facilitated my travels is via Airbnb, which now has a new “adapted” filter on its Airbnb.com site. That is a game-changer. The website has curated a list of more than a thousand homes that have features such as being step-free, having adapted bathrooms, or being accessible directly from a car. This has truly transformed the way I travel. It’s the first tool we have had as a disabled community that allows us to look after each other – we no longer have to rely on hotels, tour operators or anyone apart from ourselves. We talk to each other in a language we understand. It finally feels like the future is bright.
Perhaps most importantly, I have recently met the host of one of the Los Angeles Airbnbs in which I stayed. She is a fellow wheelchair user and we have become good friends. We are going to swap homes, The Holiday-style, because we know we can facilitate adapted travel for each other. All I need now is to meet my own hot Jack Black. ‘Living Wild: How to Change Your Life’, presented by Sophie Morgan, begins on February 11 at 8pm on Channel 4. Sophie’s latest book, ‘Driving Forwards’, is published by Sphere at £9.99