Guest article reprinted with permission from Lonely Planet. Martin Heng is Accessible Travel Manager at Lonely Planet. Here he writes about how he became involved in accessible tourism
Travelling has always been in my blood. Perhaps I inherited it from my father, who was born in Singapore, travelled the world in 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 a 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.
I had always been very keen bike rider. At 16 I cycled from Birmingham to northern France to meet my parents there. 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 2500 kilometres over 18 riding days. And of course I rode to work every day, a round trip of 40 km, 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 a boot camp for paraplegics and quadriplegics in the USA, where, using the latest machinery and techniques, patients undergo 3 to 4 hours physio every day.
As I started back to work, part-time at first, I started 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 – it’s all siloed in special-interest websites or hidden away on local government websites, often only in the local language. As I started to connect more with disabled 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.
Now that I have been appointed Accessible Travel Manager at Lonely Planet, 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. We may never produce printed books specifically for disabled travellers, but there are many other things we can do, particularly through building a community which is happy to share ideas, information and experiences through words, pictures and even video. 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 1 billion people around the world whose physical limitations are preventing them from the joy that is travel.
Source: Lonely Planet. Follow on Twitter: @lonelyplanet @Martin_Heng