Travelling with a Visual Impairment: Can We Make Accessibility Trendy?
While a visual impairment may be a disability that’s invisible, those who live with them certainly are not. As hotels, bars and restaurants get darker and louder, we ask: can accessibility be trendy?
10 July, 2019
Travelling is one of my favourite things to do. I was lucky to grow up in a multicultural family that loves to explore. From the ruins of Rome to the Great Wall of China and the glistening icebergs of Antarctica, we've journeyed across the world to witness its countless wonders. My nomadic journey has taken me from city to city; I've lived in Florence, London, Paris, São Paulo, New York, Geneva and San Francisco. Yet there is one niggling constant among my many joys of travelling: it is hard when you have a disability.
Over the last few years, many freshly minted startups have leveraged technology to make travel and everyday life more accessible for individuals who live with a disability. In 2015, two friends with spinal muscular atrophy founded Accomable to help source hosts that are accessible to wheelchair users. Two years later, Airbnb acquired it in order to expand its own accessibility initiatives. There is AccessNow, an app that crowdsources restaurants, bars and cafés that are wheelchair-accessible. The Blind Travelers' Network was recently launched by a blind woman who was frustrated with her travel experiences. The platform provides information and resources for non-visual accessibility in countries around the world.
While all of these projects are admirable and hugely important, they mainly cater to "visible" disabilities. But what about the "invisible" disabilities? Those who are not blind but visually impaired, who are hearing impaired or who are on the autism spectrum? Places aren't "accessible" just because they have a wheelchair ramp or a braille menu. They need to factor in noise and light too. I was diagnosed with a retinal degeneration known as retinitis pigmentosa when I was 18. Owing to its degenerative nature, I have an increasing number of blind spots in my vision, and I am especially impaired at night and in places with low light. I could manage relatively well in my early twenties, but the 32-year-old me struggles a bit more today.
Travelling isn't easy when you are visually impaired. Thick crowds in train stations and airports are tough; when you don't see well you tend to bump into people unintentionally. Finding your seat number in planes or trains can be challenging, depending on how bright it is that day. It's often almost impossible to read the license plate number or find the door handle on an Uber at night. As the days get shorter coming into winter, I can no longer rely on sunlight to navigate freely. I'm the anti-vampire - I need the sun.
Of course you learn to adapt, ask for help and ultimately develop a strategic system of your own. Yet it would be nice to have an app or a guide that could match your mental and physical needs with the right restaurant, hotel or transportation service. Travel guides are great, especially those which are apps as reading on a screen is easier for me - great contrast, ability to zoom in and increased luminosity. While I rejoice when discovering one of the carefully selected venues that are recommended in such guides, I'm often disheartened once I get to the venue. And so I've started asking around: is there a travel guide for people who live with a disability and still want to be trendy? The short answer: no.
Seeking hotels and clubs
One of the main problems I have when staying at a hotel is finding things, like the elevator for example. Once I'm in the elevator, I need to find my floor. Case in point: The Arlo hotel in Soho Manhattan is a favourite of mine, with its ultra-sleek common areas and outdoor patio. Yet every time I go, I get frustrated with the elevator's system, having to guess where to put the magnetic card and then use the flashlight on my phone to find my floor. Another example is the Four Seasons Hôtel des Bergues in Geneva. While it is ideally located by the lake, its camouflaged stairs in the reception area are treacherous as they're the same colour as the floor, meaning I can barely distinguish them in the low lighting.
For me, The Battery members club in San Francisco is filled with "booby traps". While I'm not personally a member, on the occasions I've attended dinners and lunches there I have had issues with low lighting, glass doors and a profusion of stairs. The braille signage in front of the restrooms is of little use if you can't find them in the first place. London's Soho House 40 Greek Street has similar issues - on a recent brunch visit, I could barely navigate the stairs because of the oh-so chic dim lighting.
The five senses
Restaurants pose similar difficulties. Over the years, trendy spots across the globe have become darker and louder. I recently wrote a piece about a New York City-based app called SoundPrint that allows users to activate a decibel meter on their phone when they are at a public venue. The app then crowdsources that information and recommends "quiet places" in different cities across the US.
According to acoustic designers "noisy is the new normal" in restaurants, which is in part due to the stark, industrial design these places choose to adopt. Fashionable materials like concrete, glass and metal may look great, but they are terrible at absorbing noise, tending to amplify it instead. Although my prime concern is luminosity, noise is also a big factor, because when one sense is impaired, you rely more heavily on your others.
In terms of the luminosity, I haven't determined why exactly swanky spots increasingly dim the lights. My guess is that it gives a suaver, more romantic vibe - or cuts the energy bills. But how romantic is it when you're on a date and you a) can't see your date's face, b) can't read the menu, and c) need to ask your date to accompany you to the restroom?
Nobu on London's Park Lane used to be my all-time favourite restaurant for dinner. The food may be unwaveringly exquisite, but the place has become objectively louder and darker. Upon entering recently, I initially thought my vision had taken a dramatic turn for the worse - thankfully my family confirmed it was Nobu's surrounds. Even during the daytime I can find myself trapped in quasi darkness. I met with a friend in San Francisco for an aperitif at Local Edition cocktail bar on Market Street. The underground bar oozes with suave; if only it could put out a little light too - I couldn't see a thing.
So this is my message to all the popular venues and hotels out there: my disability may be invisible - but I am not. Can we make accessibility trendy?