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Disability & travel writing: a cocktail for discrimination?
This month, we're talking about disability representation within the travel media (or lack thereof)
A few PSAs here before we begin! The “Going full-time freelance” webinar by Sian Meades-Williams was postponed due to illness, so now you can hear Lottie banging on about making it work on 4 October 2023. Pay what you can tickets here.
We are gathering data on travel writing income around the world to produce the most detailed report on our industry ever written. Take part and you could win a £100 shopping voucher, or a lifetime subscription!
And finally, we’re launching a series of webinars with the brilliant Meera Dattani, senior editor at Adventure.com, and it’s just £6 to sign up for this pitching panel…
Travelling while disabled has been in the news a little bit lately, with the proposed closure of train station ticket offices in England set to make using Britain’s railways significantly harder for those with visual impairments or accessibility issues. And occasionally newspapers will pick up a viral tweet about a wheelchair user who has been left to wait on an aircraft for hours while ground staff are freed up to help them deplane. But how often really does mainstream media cover accessible travel? Are there any magazines or supplements offering accessibility information alongside the usual booking information given in fact boxes and alongside lead-in rates?
I (Lottie) haven’t seen it — and, embarrassingly, it was only after writing my first dog-friendly guidebook that it dawned on me that this information is essential for so many people, and so I’ve now added it into my second book. The justification for media companies to ignore accessibility detail is probably that it’s not “relevant” for “most people”. But I’d argue that if it’s not relevant for one traveller, it’ll probably be relevant for someone they know, as around 17% of people living in the UK have a disability. And it’s thought that 80% of those disabilities are invisible. Plus, there are over 26 million people in the UK with chronic conditions — long term illnesses that impact quality of life.
This also means that among our travel writing cohort there will likely be hundreds, if not thousands, of writers dealing with disabilities and chronic illnesses. And yet we rarely hear how challenging this industry can be for those individuals, or how inclusive it really is (or isn’t). This month, we’re shining a light on all-things disabled travel, from what it’s like to be a disabled travel writer, how PRs have dealt with requests for “reasonable adjustments”, and how we can all be better allies to the disabled travelling community.
To kick the series off, here’s Lisa Goldapple ruminating on press trips and disability…
Taking plus ones: unseen struggles, authentic insights
Who isn’t partial to a bit of blagging? Back in the noughties, my mate and I would pretend to be Kemistry and Storm to breeze into clubs for free, not realising that one of them was dead. Later, during my stint at MTV, I snapped up guest list perks like any underpaid scriptwriter should. But these days my attempts to stretch hospitality are not just for the lols. I have a serious chronic condition that affects my independence.
So it stung when I recently got rejected from a press trip after trying to explain my hidden disability to a PR team without them thinking that I'm just trying to blag a plus one. And it happened on a significant life milestone – my three-year Strokiversary.
I like to call it my ‘Clusterfuck’, but the medical term for the raspberry-shaped abnormality wreaking havoc in my brain is a Cavernoma. I was first diagnosed in Barcelona in May 2020. While everyone was clapping for health workers, my brain provided them with even more work – thanks to a sudden stroke leading to the discovery of a plus one in my brainstem.
The brainstem is our motherboard. It controls our speech, hearing, sight, walking and breathing. As it affects the central nervous system, Clusterfuck now triggers an imaginarium of bizarre whizzing and popping and fizzing and numbness. I often find it hard to swallow, but present as normal.
My neurosurgeon informs me that my intruder is now active. Another brain bleed could strike at any moment. He tells me it will be “catastrophic” and urges me to try to lead a “nice life”. He also says things like “disabled in the face!” and “death, yes!” – a haunting reminder of the Sword of Damocles hanging above my head.
Of course, any one of us could drop dead at any point. But imagine trying to articulate to a PR team that has just invited you on a five-day culinary excursion across Europe (with exceptional feature fodder) that there is a teenie chance that your brain could possibly, maybe, erm, explode. Or that a migraine aura can shatter people into triangles. Which is a scintillating way to spice up an interview.
I find myself walking the fine line of disclosure, trying to strike a delicate balance between honesty and not scaring them away. I opt for a less harrowing approach as invisible disabilities are such a weird red flag for angry types.
“One thing to note, I have a hidden disability owing to some quirky vessels in my brain. This does not affect my work; if anything, it makes me more appreciative of every experience. My only request is that I need to travel with my carer/boyfriend. We only need one room. He does not need to attend the activities or incur any other costs. By accommodating this, you also get to tick a disability box, showcasing your commitment to inclusivity!"
Their response was short: “We'll take this into account.” (Bit cold!)
Followed by: “We have filled the limit for the presence of UK media.”
Okay, so I shouldn’t have made light of the inclusivity-ticking. However, my ‘reasonable adjustment' (the positive steps to remove barriers to employment as per the Equality Act) is a relatively low cost that would allow me to accept their invitation. Sadly, it was retracted once they learned about my extra baggage – in the form of my Clusterfucking gatecrasher and neuro-nurturing partner, Antony.
With my mind officially blown, incurable and inoperable, the future can feel like it’s shifted from boundless to bounded. International travel has been replaced by keeping to Spain, thanks to the rising cost of my travel insurance and the fear of being far from my hospital. Unsurprisingly, I’ve had some right shockers when it comes to a lack of understanding by publishers and PRs. I understand that resources are tight, but fortunately, not everyone is the same and some are happy to extend the invite to two.
When I was invited by the renowned Roca brothers to dine at the triple Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Antony was also welcomed on the three-day trip. OK, so he ate pizza next door while I indulged in 36 paired courses, but the PRs generously handed him 20 euros to do so. (Although I'm advised to limit drinking, I figured nobody has died while drinking prawn sake.)
At the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián, Antony’s appreciation of his extra invite meant that while I interviewed lauded chefs in the sunshine, he dedicated himself to diligently taking notes from inside the two-day conference. (Being in two places at once is a superpower.)
During my VIP sensory whiskey experience at the “best bar in the world”, Antony waited patiently outside a small speakeasy door in the main bar while I was blindfolded and delighted inside. Angel? Yes. (But a drunk angel, thanks to the Paradiso Bar team never failing to extend their cocktail invitations to both of us.)
More recently, we were both treated to a complimentary EEG, thanks to the hospitality of Sónar Festival’s two VIP passes. Specifically, Aphex Twin’s laser spectacle. (It turns out neither of us is epileptic.)
This kind of understanding and acceptance should be embraced more widely, enabling us to create plans that consider accessibility and foster collaboration with travellers and writers with disabilities. Removing attitudinal barriers paves the way for genuine representation and helps us raise awareness of the intricacies and boundless ways in which we perceive the world. Invisible disabilities can be particularly puzzling, often leading to misconceptions or discomfort. But shedding light on the challenges is crucial. A richness of writing comes from navigating a world that may not always be accommodating. There is a gamut of different disabilities, and mine is just one perspective.
So, what constitutes a “nice life”? For me, freedom to be able to explore, write and entertain is part of it. There may come a time when I might not be able to travel or find the words anymore. But while I can, I just want the opportunities to use them. So if anyone is willing to welcome this writer with a broken but playful brain an opportunity to travel, count me in.
PS. There are perks to having a disability card, such as room upgrades and legroom. But that’s for another newsletter.
Lisa Goldapple is an experienced writer and editor who explores culture, nature, travel and design, and how they intertwine to create positive impact. Before creating the kaleidoscopic TOPIA Magazine and trilingual Atlas of the Future, she wrote shows for MTV, VH1, BBC, VICE, TVNZ and National Geographic. Having lived a decade in Barcelona – and previously in Buenos Aires and New Zealand – the London-born adventurer has contributed to Time Out, Mr & Mrs Smith, Dazed & Confused, HERO Magazine and various in-flight mags. Her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, which might explain a few things. To understand her rare brain – a bit – read ‘Mind Blown’. Follow @lisagoldapple on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. (Open to freelance collaborations.)
Coming up this month
How to be a better ally to disabled travellers
What it’s really like to be a disabled travel writer
Full disclosure: should we be more open & what does the law say about discrimination?
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Seb Modak is now travel editor of Off Duty in the Wall Street Journal.
We love this piece by Andy Wasley on how poor mental health, ADHD and hiking can be a dangerous combination — it’s a reality check for much of the “nature is medicine” discourse we usually see in mainstream media. We also love it because Andy was one of our first ever mentees in the TTW Mentoring Scheme. We’ll be launching another one in autumn this year.
This piece from The Guardian is all about overtourism and serves as a good reminder that we writers should be careful where we promote. And finally, The Independent has run an interesting piece on Lonely Planet at 60 years old.
Finally, this absolute corker from Monisha Rajesh is a fantastic take-down of the mediocre travel TV shows mainstream channels are producing these days. The headline is pretty great, too: “Pale, male, stale and clueless: why we should send travel TV presenters into exile”. Genius.
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