Tag Archives: wheelchair travel

SCI Spotlight: Caitlin – the Aussie Wheelchair Wanderer

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

Wheelchair travel secrets revealed

Thanks to a very helpful ex-boyfriend, I had the very lucky chance to travel like crazy in my 20’s. Road trips to New Orleans, Seattle, Toronto (with a pit stop at Niagra Falls), NYC/D.C. and Gettysburg, I saw the glory of the US from my van’s passenger window; all the open plains, wacky pit-stops in-between civilization, and it was awesome. And I learned a ton of valuable wheelchair travel tips along the way.

I learned to always make two packing lists (“regular” stuff and “medical” stuff) whenever I traveled, always saving the hard copy on my computer so I could use it for my next trip. And I learned to make sure my wheelchair and shower chair were in working order before hurrying up and taking off (because medical equipment will always break down when you’re on vacation don‘t ya know).

Also, being a creature of habit who likes her “things” no matter where she is (Crystal Light water flavoring, warm water, heated neck warmer at night, eye mask and ear plugs), I made sure to pack all of these in our luggage and van too, easily accessible even at 75 mph. I hate traveling in discomfort, and there’s no excuse to have to nowadays.

When I flew in a plane the first time as a wheelchair-user (5 years after my accident), I was deathly nervous. I didn’t want it to be a hassle, or rather “be” the hassle. I was hoping, praying it’d be quick and seamless. And once I showed up at the terminal, I saw just how easy the whole process would be. Was I Relieved? Very.

It’s really too bad this video wasn’t available, showing how to board a plane from a wheelchair back in my early days of being injured. This video shows the process of getting a wheelchair-user on and off a commercial jet, and it shows just how easy and streamlined the process has become. Weird note: The video was filmed in the U.K., so you watch the man in the video board the plane last (which would never happen in the U.S.; too crowded for transfers)

And you must watch this other travel video made by Mark, of a seasoned traveler and paraplegic from Minnesota, who made a 6 minute video showing the entire air travel process, from checking in, going through security, and finding your rental car once you’ve landed. He also shares an amazing car rental tip that every wheeler out there needs to know if they want to save money (and get a free car upgrade!) the next time they travel.

Watch the videos:

Mark’s airport wheelchair travel video

Watch a wheelchair user board a plane!

What wheelchair travel tips do you have?