Travelling has always been in my blood. Perhaps I inherited it from my father, who was born in Singapore, travelled the world with the British Merchant Navy and finally settled in the UK, where I was born. I've lived and worked in half a dozen countries and travelled to more than 40. In the 80s and 90s I spent the best part of 10 years on the road, pausing only long enough to make enough money for the next trip.
Imagine my euphoria in 1999 when I landed a job with Lonely Planet, whose books had been my constant companion across three continents over the previous decade! I've been with the company ever since in several different roles, including Trade Publishing Manager and Editorial Manager, overseeing the production of the entire range of printed books.
Lonely Planet's Accessible Travel Manager Martin Heng in Hays Paddock, Melbourne, Australia. Image by Sabine Heng / Lonely Planet.
I had always been a very keen bike rider. At 16 I cycled from Birmingham to northern France. In the 90s, I cycled with my partner round the South Island of New Zealand, around Hokkaido, in northern Japan, and made several trips in the Tokyo area when living there. I was also lucky enough to be selected to join the Lonely Planet relay team on the Tour d’Afrique, riding from Nairobi in Kenya through northern Tanzania and along Lake Malawi – a trip of some 2500km over 18 gruelling riding days. And of course I rode to work every day, a round trip of 40km, year-round, rain or shine.
And then every cyclist’s nightmare came to pass: I was hit by a car. Unfortunately, I didn't just break a few bones; instead, I damaged my spinal cord and was left a quadriplegic.
In some ways I have been lucky in that I do have some movement below the level of my injury. In fact, all my muscles do work – imperfectly and in an uncoordinated fashion – and over the last three years I have learned to walk again, albeit only with the aid of a walking frame, very slowly and over short distances. The only major trip I have undertaken was to Project Walk (projectwalk.org), a boot camp for paraplegics and quadriplegics in California, where, using the latest machinery and techniques, patients undergo three to four hours of physio every day.
Lonely Planet's Accessible Travel Manager Martin Heng at Project Walk rehabilitation centre, Carlsbad, California, USA. Image by Stacey Portelli / Lonely Planet.
This was not travelling as I have known it, but it was enough to show me that undertaking a trip as a disabled person requires a lot more planning and preparation. Did I have enough medical supplies? What equipment did I need to take and what could be hired there? What were the airlines’ policies on luggage allowance and mobility equipment? Would the accommodation be as accessible as advertised? Would I be able to manage the bed and bathroom set-ups? Would I need to hire a van that would take my wheelchair or could I manage without? Gone were the days of stuffing as much as possible into a backpack and just getting on a plane with no fixed itinerary.
With this experience behind me, I started back to work part-time and began to look into what resources there were for people travelling with a disability. Surely, I thought, it should be easy in this digital age to find information on accessible accommodation and on travelling in different countries with a disability. Wrong! There is quite a lot of information out there but it isn't easy to find – much of it is siloed in special-interest websites or hidden away on local government websites, often only in the local language. Recently a number of websites and mobile apps have sprung up that seek to fill this void, primarily by looking to the public to rate venues for their accessibility and provide reviews of accessible accommodation, restaurants and so on. However, most of these are quite local in nature – at the city or country level – and it's clear that the take-up has not yet been at a scale necessary to make them truly useful.
Lonely Planet's Accessible Travel Manager Martin Heng in Aireys Inlet, Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. Image by Sabine Heng / Lonely Planet.
As I started to connect with more disabled organisations and communities I kept hearing the same story from other people and, when they learned I worked for Lonely Planet, they asked why we were not producing books on accessible travel. I'm not convinced that a printed book (or a series of printed books) is necessarily the right medium considering the technology available today and the reliance of many disabled people, myself included, on smartphones and e-readers. With the UN estimating up to a billion people affected by a disability or reduced mobility, I am convinced that a market exists for such products. This is not just a question of social inclusion and human rights, but increasingly an economic imperative for everyone in the travel industry.
Now that I have been appointed Accessible Travel Manager, it has become my mission to make travel easier for those who are hampered by issues of accessibility, whether it be through illness, age or disability. I think the most important thing to do is build a community that is happy to share ideas, information and experiences through words, pictures and video. Everybody's need is different and the more information that is available to them – particularly through pictures and video – the more confident people can be that their needs will be met at their destination.
We need to draw out the wealth of information that is largely hidden in special-interest silos. We need to pull together the information and resources being gathered by the increasing number of websites and mobile apps around the world. And we need to show businesses around the world that it's in their interest not only to comply with laws and regulations, but also to offer information on their websites that people need to make informed choices. I believe this is the true potential that the digital age offers us. I'm truly excited – for myself, for Lonely Planet, but most of all for those billion people around the world whose physical limitations are preventing them from experiencing the joy that is travel.
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