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DisConnect: Disabled Travel

How does somebody who is deafblind travel through an airport?


I recently flew from Toronto to San Francisco to join my amazing Lotus (Techstars'23) team for TechCrunch Disrupt. Here are 5 takeaways from my experiences travelling solo with deafblindness – airport edition:


1. Be prepared! ✔

A self-reminder. I’d love to be spontaneous but familiarizing myself ahead of time with the people, places and processes I’ll be engaging with is a must. This includes everything from calling to check in with the assistance desk in advance, mapping out airport checkpoints relative to entrances and exits, and in my case, planning to travel during daylight hours as much as possible (night-blindness).


2. Plan to be early and be even earlier than that. ⏰

Crip Time becomes apparent while travelling through an airport, as existing in a disabled body means requiring extra time to navigate and get situated. We don’t all experience the final few hours before a flight in the same way.


3. Sometimes it takes a village, and that’s okay. 🤝

Independence during solo travel is empowering, but I encounter situations - like busy international airports – that call for assistance. Even with a white cane, navigating large crowds of people, excessive background noise, and continuous signage is a lot.


I don’t “look” deafblind (based on stereotypical depictions) aside from my cane use. I wear barely visible hearing aids, I’m able to make eye contact, and still rely heavily on visual cues using limited central vision. Having a staff member guide me to, and join me at, checkpoints provides additional navigation + communication support, and ensures my basic needs are addressed, without assumption.


4. Listen to your body. 🥄

I think of Spoon Theory often when travelling. Spoon Theory originated as a conceptualization of chronic illness - having a limited number of “spoons” (energy) to use each day. And using those “spoons” strategically to avoid running out before the day is over. It’s an experience that resonates with many disabled folks.


Airports are highly stimulating environments. Constant visual scanning and auditory discernment drains my energy quickly. Designated quiet zones in public spaces provide opportunities to rest + escape sensory inputs. These spaces benefit so many of us, disabled and non-disabled.


5. Be kind, to yourself and others. 👋

We've all been there: wondering why foot traffic is moving slowly, profusely apologizing for causing delays for reasons beyond our control, and just feeling generally overwhelmed in an airport. They are busy places where complex lives intersect. A bit of kindness and patience goes a long way.


Travelling with a disability often includes encounters with ableism, but I've also met wonderful people + had positive experiences. I hold onto those!

Natalie shown from behind walking through the streets of San Francisco using a white cane.
Natalie shown from behind walking through the streets of San Francisco using a white cane.

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