In Australia, taking off and traveling for long periods of time is a rite of passage. So when Caitlin was paralyzed when she was 18, she was determined not to say goodbye to her love of travel. Embarking on an epic sojourn just three months ago, we’re excited to share Caitlin’s adventures in our new SCI Spotlight series.
Her Injury & Vet School
Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Caitlin’s mother instilled in her a love of travel. “We were fortunate to go on dozens of family holidays growing up,” she says. She also discovered a love for –animals, and knew early on she wanted to be a veterinarian.
But her life plans changed when she broke her back. “I fell off a horse when I was at university,” becoming an incomplete paraplegic, which means she can stand and take a couple of steps if she’s holding on to something, but she uses a wheelchair for daily life.
After her injury, Caitlin was determined to return to a normal life as soon as possible. “My biggest fear when I had my accident was that I would lose my independence, have to move back home and I couldn’t be a ‘normal’ 18 year old,” she says. “After a couple of months of living at home I moved back to uni (which was six hours from home.) I had an accessible room on campus and a few of my very close girlfriends moved in with me. That way they were able to help with my washing and we all cooked together and did the shopping together. This helped me tremendously as it was like a gradual reintroduction to independence with a great support network.”
At first, Caitlin didn’t think she could continue her veterinarian dream, so she got her equine science degree instead. “Subsequently, I got a job in an office at a racehorse syndication company in Sydney, however I knew it wasn’t for me,” she says. She decided to apply to vet school and was accepted to Sydney University. “I found the first year very stressful because there wasn’t a lot of support,” she says. “The vet facility was a very old two-story building, with no lift.” To make it work, she kept a wheelchair on the second story and climbed the stairs every day.
Caitlin persevered and graduated, then embarked on a lengthy job search, eventually finding a position at a veterinary clinic on the central coast of Australia. “When people see disability in a resume, I think sometimes they discount it too quickly because it’s the unknown,” she says. “They don’t know what you can or can’t do and I think they assume that you can’t do a lot rather than asking. I’ve actually gotten into the habit of deleting any mention of disability off my resume entirely.”
Despite getting a job she loved in the face of such hardships, Caitlin was still jealous of all of her friends who were traveling, and she felt she was missing out, which pushed her to quit her job last year. “It’s a very Australian thing to go traveling for a long period of time, I think it’s because we live so far away from everywhere. I didn’t want to miss out on this Australian rite of passage just because of my disability.”
Trying Something New – Travel
Caitlin’s travels are just getting started. She began her extended vacation (and her blog) at the beginning of this year, and we can’t wait to see where she goes. What we love most about her new life of traveling is that she’ll be sharing it with the world, including every wheelchair travel tip she uncovers. And her blog, Wheelchair Wanderings, already has a number of posts.
She has even perfected the art of how to wear a backpack while using a wheelchair, which she shares in a blog post (you can read it here). So far, she has traveled to Amsterdam, Munich, Paris, and London. Who knows where she’ll land next, but we know it’ll be good. We leave you with some of Caitlin’s top wheelchair travel tips below:
- Be flexible.
- Don’t worry if something isn’t 100 percent accessible. There is always a way around it.
- Keep an open mind to people and experiences.
- Be open to assistance. Accepting help is not a sign of weakness.
- Not all of your trip has to be planned. Leave room for a little spontaneity. Says Caitlin: “I hear this all the time on accessible travel blogs, ‘Make sure everything is planned you don’t want to get stuck.’ However, as a young person, planning everything is a bit boring. I think not planning everything makes it a bit more exciting. It all adds to the experience.’’
- Don’t be upset if a tourist attraction isn’t accessible or a city you want to go to is not possible (eg. I really wanted to go to Venice but I knew it wasn’t worth it because I spend the whole time being angry and frustrated.) There are so many other amazing destinations and experiences in the world.
- Learn wheelchair skills (paraplegics/low quads): Wheel stands, gutter drops, more difficult transfers etc. Learning these basic skills will open up more options.
- Say hi to people: People at backpacking hostels are so friendly and always up for a chat
- Always carry essential things: Medication, tools for wheelchair, catheters and a spare change of clothes.
Would you quit your job and travel the world as a wheelchair-user?
– Make sure to visit her travel blog: Wheelchair Wanderings