Travelling with a Visual Impairment: Can We Make Accessibility Trendy?

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?

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
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

, London,

São Paulo
, New
, Geneva
and San
. 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.

Invisible disabilities

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.

Travel troubles

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

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?

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