Travel throws up challenges at every turn for Srin Madipalli, but the entrepreneur hasn't let that limit his adventures – and now he is helping other people see more of the world. Madipalli, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, has set up a site that aims to be the equivalent of Airbnb for people with a disability.
He and co-founder Martyn Sibley came up with the idea for Accomable after a six-month journey through Europe, the USA, Africa and Asia. The site lists accommodation providers ranging from individuals hiring out rooms to hotels, all of which have to prove they offer accessible features such as step-free access and handrails.
We talked to Madipalli about his favourite destinations, which elements of travel need improving for people with a disability, and where he'd most love to go while he waits for a rocket ship to Mars.
Where was your last trip?
Last November, I went to Brussels as a guest speaker at a major European technology industry conference. I stayed for a few days and also visited Ghent, Mechelen and Antwerp.
Where is your next trip?
Nothing planned yet, but I’d like to go to California in April.
What is your first travel-related memory?
When I was six, I went to India with my parents to visit relatives. It was my first time flying and I vividly remember my parents having to carry me on their shoulders to our seats.
Aisle or window seat?
I love window seats. However, as I need airport staff to lift me into my seat, it is easier for them (and anyone else helping me during the flight) to assist when I’m in the aisle seat. So alas, it’s always the aisle seat.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
While not a travel habit I’d choose, unfortunately it is impossible for me to use bathrooms on an airplane as it’s just too logistically difficult to lift and move me to a tiny toilet. So from 12 to 18 hours before and during the flight, I always eat and drink very little to avoid any problems and ‘needing to go’ while in the air.
Favourite city or country or region?
Going to South Africa has been my favourite trip so far. It was an extraordinary trip where I was able to go on an adapted camping safari in the Kruger National Park and experience the wilderness and natural beauty of the region.
What has been your most challenging travel experience?
Most challenging in a good way – my trip to Bali where I went on an adapted scuba dive at the site of a sunken WWII ship off the coast of Tulamben. I was completely out of my comfort zone and had to push myself to the limits to do it and overcome a lot of fears. However, the sense of achievement I felt afterwards was just amazing and I’ve tried to go at life with the same sense of fearlessness ever since.
Most challenging in a bad way – I landed in Sydney after a nine-hour flight from Singapore only to find out that my £18,000 wheelchair had been smashed to bits while being unloaded. Having your only real form of mobility and means of independence destroyed 10,000 miles away from home in the middle of the night was just the worst experience ever. Luckily, after several hours of frantic phone calls, the airline managed to find a wheelchair to get me to the hotel and a workshop that was able to temporarily patch up the wheelchair three days later.
What element of travel most needs improving for people with a disability?
Where do I start?! Sadly, there remains a huge number of things that need to be done. But at the moment, finding the right information on accessible travel in a given area is probably the biggest priority. While things are constantly improving, accessibility varies greatly from area to area and having reliable and accurate information would solve a lot of immediate problems.
Most accessible destination? Least?
I find places like the USA, Canada and Australia pretty easy to get around. Cities are relatively new and modern, and people are generally aware of access needs. Developing nations are always tougher. So for example, as much as I love visiting India, it is an access nightmare as there simply isn’t the physical infrastructure for wheelchair users. However! People are always friendly and helpful, so I always find a way to get by.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
Best – all my pictures. Worst – a bit of the chassis broken off my wheelchair in Sydney!
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
Best – research, plan, prepare and have checklists (especially if you have a lot of medical equipment with you). Worst – just go with the flow, hope for the best and everything will work itself out.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
Not so much a fail, but instead a gigantic anti-climax – I went to Niagara Falls last summer, thinking it’d be this beautiful and peaceful natural wonder of the world, but instead found an overcrowded, car-ridden, overdeveloped, tacky theme park with a set of waterfalls sandwiched in the middle.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
I’m an adventurer at heart. So until Elon Musk [CEO and CTO of SpaceX] can get his rocket to Mars ready for me, it’d have to be something like diving in the Great Barrier Reef (or somewhere equally amazing), or boating in some rarely explored part of the Amazon, or maybe I’d keep it simple and try to find a way to get my wheelchair to the highest point of a mountain in the Himalayas!
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Go for it! With some decent planning and preparation, you can go to a lot of awesome places.
For more information visit Accomable (accomable.com). Lonely Planet has a wealth of information about accessible travel, including a free ebook of online resources for accessible travel, the Travellers with Disabilities branch of our Thorn Tree forum. For more news and views follow Martin Heng, Lonely Planet's accessible travel manager, on Twitter @Martin_Heng.