In December 2012, aged 41, I became an above knee amputee following treatment for a rare type of bone cancer. Prior to my amputation I was an avid traveller, trekking in Nepal and Uzbekistan, cycling in India, travelling the world by boat, train, bus, not to mention tuk tuk, cycle rickshaw and cidamo (Balinese horse and cart). After five years of seemingly endless hospital appointments I am still waiting for the moment when I am walking on a prosthetic and fully independent again. I have come to understand that recovery and rehabilitation from an above knee amputation is more challenging than learning to walk on a prosthetic below the knee. Recently, I have had to confront the possibility that my dream of walking freely again may not, in fact, be achievable. But I have also realized that it is time to get my life back on track. I still have the same goals and ambitions, certainly in terms of travelling, it’s just that I have to approach things differently now. I am determined to get out there again – on one leg, wheelchair or crutches!
So at the beginning of this year, I booked five weeks in Sri Lanka. And not only did I tour this amazing and beautiful island myself, but I organised and ran a tour for a group of five other independent (able-bodied) travellers.
Tired of reading the short, generic paragraph on ‘disabled travellers’ in adventure travel guides, I am convinced that there is a market for more detailed, actionable advice that will encourage more people with disabilities to get out there and see the world! So here’s my guide to accessible travel in Sri Lanka.
I booked my outbound flight from Heathrow to Colombo Bandaranaike airport with Qatar Airways. The journey was very comfortable and the staff at Heathrow were very helpful. I was given a choice about whether I wanted to go in my own wheelchair to the departure gate or whether it would be checked in and I would use one of theirs. I was treated with respect and dignity at all times and staff went out of their way to assist me if I required help. This is what you would expect from the world’s busiest international airport.
Tips: Book your seat and assistance ahead and clarify baggage allowance extras for disability equipment. Sit in an aisle seat and insist on a seat next to the toilets. If you use crutches, keep them with you on board. Do not attempt to use the toilet during turbulence!
Disembarking the plane in Colombo was a breeze; my own wheelchair was brought to the aeroplane door. I didn’t take up the offer of an escort, but it was good to know that, if I ever want it, there is someone available to assist with getting my luggage off the carousel. My luggage arrived quickly and navigating through to arrivals was a cinch – a good job as by now I needed to use the loo. Here I was confronted with my first hurdle – the ladies conveniences were up a steep step. I asked if there were any disabled toilets and was shown to one just around the corner (to the left as you head towards the exit). As I approached, three assistants rushed around with mops and brooms and unlocked the door for me.
Tip: Just because the facilities have a picture of a person in a wheelchair on the door does not necessarily mean it will be suitable for a disabled person. The handle was hanging off the wall and there was no seat. I was ok as I have one leg to stand on and have excellent balance, but someone in a different position would not have found the toilet very accessible at all. Little did I know, this was to be the most accessible public toilet I would experience during my stay.
The return plane journey was in stark contrast to the outbound one. I checked in at Bandaranaike and to say the staff were not ‘PC’ would be an understatement. The lady asked questions over the top of my head to my travel companions, rather addressing me. She told me (or rather, them) that my wheelchair was going to be a problem as it didn’t fold and she said I would be charged for excess baggage for my prosthetic leg as it was so heavy. I was left feeling like an utter inconvenience. I remained positive and assertive and eventually everything was taken care of, but I was unable to remain in my own wheelchair and transferred to an extremely uncomfortable airport one, with a seat like a sagging deckchair.
The next stage of the proceedings was by far the worst. An airport assistant was sent to ‘take me’ to the gate. At this point, we had three hours before departure and I had plans to look around the souvenir shops and spend some time in the bar. The assistant spoke no English and did not utter a single word as she marched off, pushing me towards customs. My companions were still checking in and I attempted to tell her I was not travelling alone, but she gestured to customs. I failed to get her to wait again at the customs queue. I wasn’t going to let it happen a third time, as by now I had lost sight of the others completely. So I spoke loudly and calmly and ordered her to stop. Sure enough, she stopped! I played the broken record, ‘I am waiting for my friends,’ over and over until they appeared in the distance. I told her they would take it from here. She seemed a little put out, but not half as much as I was. We made it to the bar and I got out of the wheelchair and relaxed a little before our departure.
Tips: It is important to respect other cultures; expect that service may not be to the same standard as you are used to at home, but blatant disrespect to you should not be tolerated. Remain calm and smile, but be assertive.
Getting around in a wheelchair
Wheeling through the airport it would’ve been easy to become complacent; but, having exited through the automatic doors, I was faced with the first hurdle, no dropped curb. It quickly became apparent that they don’t really exist in Sri Lanka, mainly due to the fact that there a few pavements. More common are open drainage ditches, potholes and very uneven surfaces. I had been to Sri Lanka before with two legs and remembered the condition of roads and street surfaces well, so came prepared.
I bought a ‘FreeWheel’ to attach to the front of my ‘Quickie’ wheelchair. Basically, it lifts up the small castors at the back so the chair is now driven by the two large bike wheels and this third, chunky wheel at the front (gofreewheel.com). It makes the chair really stable. All terrain bike wheels, better suited to rough terrain, can also be fitted to wheelchairs. Outdoor markets are popular sightseeing opportunities in Asia and definitely an experience you don’t want to miss out on during your stay. Unfortunately, they are usually replete with steps and boulders and all sorts of beams and archways, which you will never negotiate a chair through. To say it is possible to get around solely by chair would be a lie, even if you do have a ‘suped up’ all terrain one! I spent more time on my crutches than I ever have since becoming an amputee. Most ATM’s have a step up to them; there are narrow doors everywhere and lots of hotels, restaurants, bars and shops have steps at the entrance and no other means of access. Lifts and ramps do exist but in very few places. You have to search hard to find a hotel or villa that is completely accessible, which leads me into to my next section.
Tips: Sri Lankans are among the most friendly, warm and accommodating people I have met. They will go out of their way to show you the delights of their country. Ask your driver to take you to a market or a shop or street food stall and get as close as you can. The stall holders are only too happy to bring their wares to you. Getting around in a wheelchair
The closest I came to accessible accommodation during my stay was a room with a level access threshold and a level access bathroom. However, I never managed to find a shower seat or a non-slip floor. Often, your room is great but then the restaurant is upstairs. I coped by asking for a plastic garden chair for the shower wherever I stayed, or asked for a room with a bath as I find it safer to get into a bath than a shower with a step. Also, extra towels are a must for slippery floors. All the proprietors I met were very accommodating, bringing breakfast to my room when I couldn’t get to the restaurant. Offers to carry me down steps were commonplace!
I stayed at a Dutch-owned hotel in Hikkaduwa, which was in the process of adding an accessible room. Kalla Bongo is a small boutique hotel and, hopefully, by the time you are reading this, the new room will be complete. I am not sure how they will make the restaurant area accessible, though, as it was built on a hillside and there was a series of steps down to it.
Tips: I can recommend the following boutique hotels that came pretty close to achieving good access:
Southern Province: Vesma Villas and Kalla Bongo Lake resort, Hikkaduwa. Handagedara resort, Mirissa. Apa Villa, Thalpe.
Mount Lavinia hotel, Mount Lavinia, Colombo (unfortunately, their famous seafood beach restaurant is down a number of steps!).
Getting around the island I did most of my travelling with an able-bodied group, in a private air-conditioned minibus with a driver. If you are confident with transfers (getting up into and out of the bus), this is a great way to get around and see the island, especially if you are with a group who are all there to support you. Over a five-week period I also tried most of the other available transport options, except a public bus which is probably the cheapest and most popular with locals. Buses are not, however, wheelchair accessible and are a challenge with crutches. Sri Lanka buses are very high and have three deep steps up into them. They also have very narrow aisles and get very hot and crowded!
Tuk-tuks (auto rickshaw), on the other hand, are the perfect partner to an amputee traveller. If you are a wheelchair user, look out for one with a roof rack and the driver will be happy to accommodate your chair on top.
Tip: Bring your own bungees, unless you want your precious chair tied on with old rope, string or strips of rag!
The beauty of the tuk-tuk is it can get to places that other forms of transport cannot reach – right onto the beach, down to the riverside, almost into shop fronts, markets and restaurants. I only did relatively short journeys by tuk-tuk, but I met a couple who had toured around the whole of Southern Province, up into the hill country and back to Colombo by tuk-tuk. A fantastic way to see Sri Lanka. They really are a fantastic mode of transport and my next trip will definitely include a road trip by auto rickshaw.
Train travel in Sri lanka is economical and the hill country train is considered one of the world’s most scenic train rides. Unlike British trains, however, they are not wheelchair accessible. Train operators do not provide ramps to get on and off and, once embarked, you need to find a space for your chair – not impossible, but not easy either. Most stations do not have lifts to platforms; at least I haven’t managed to find one, even in the capital, Colombo. If you do decide to take the train with your chair, don’t attempt to go through the ticket barrier. Initially I was pleased to see my chair fitted, as I propelled myself through the aisle it became narrower and I became wedged. Plenty of passengers were on hand to help lift my chair up and over and I hopped through and the ticket official even gave up his seat for me.
Tips: Travelling solo with chair and crutches is a risk. Although there are porters on hand to help you and your luggage onto the train, getting off at your destination you will have to rely on befriending a fellow passenger who is getting off at your stop and asking them to help you down the stairs, etc. Train travel is possible, but I would recommend a travel companion.
Hiring a vehicle and driver is a very popular way to get around Sri Lanka and, for people with a disability it is probably the easiest; but it is also the most expensive form of travel.
Tips: Vehicles with drivers are ubiquitous, but their condition can vary dramatically. Do some research before picking one.
I enjoyed many excursions on my trip and was overwhelmed by the support I was given by the majority of the companies and individuals I met. I can recommend:
1. Whale watching from Mirissa. The team were so accommodating, assisting me onto and off the boat. I used my crutches, but have no doubt that if you were in a chair they would lift you on and off. Once on the boat, you will not be able to move around much – or at all if the sea is rough. The toilet has a 15cm lip to ‘jump’ over, which I negotiated on crutches; but, again, I am sure they would lift you in. These guys were charming and actually said how pleased they were that I had taken the trouble to come on board with my difficulties!
2. The Millenium Elephant Foundation. I had the opportunity to ride an elephant at the foundation with the help of one of the guides. I rode pillion, holding on to the guide, as it is difficult to hold on and feel stable with one leg (you ride bare-back, as it is better for the elephant). You can also wash the elephants in the shallow river.
3. White-water rafting. firstname.lastname@example.org This is for adrenaline junkies only! The team were amazing! The group had to walk down a very steep hill to reach the river bed and scramble through a fair amount of undergrowth. I was driven along the road to a point further along the river and taken by tuk-tuk (down a very precarious, steep and winding path) to join the others at the river bed. The raft appeared within five minutes and I was helped into the raft. I missed the first two rapids, but the trip was awesome. The commitment of the team to get me on board was outstanding.
4. Udawalawe National Park. Wildlife safaris by jeep can be a bit tricky. The jeeps are very high up and it required a lot of strength and determination to get in. It’s not impossible though and well worth it. Again, the staff were very happy to help and willing to lift you if you cannot manage yourself.
5. Sea swimming and snorkelling. I swam and snorkelled at beaches in Hikkaduwa, both in the main tourist area and also up the coast in more isolated places. The sea conditions were calm as it was peak season (November to March). The beach is narrow, so you only have three metres of soft sand to traverse. I used crutches and I was surprised at how easy I found it to get into the water. There are shoals of brightly coloured fish in the shallows, so even if you can’t get right in, if someone helped you to the edge, you can still enjoy this amazing encounter.
Attitudes to disability in Sri Lanka
Attitudes to disability in Sri Lanka are controversial. Both religious beliefs and cultural attitudes have an impact on how disabled people are viewed.
The Buddhist belief in karma, that a person’s current life is a result of their actions in a previous life, suggests that people born with disability are ‘afflicted’, due to negative actions in a past life. On the one hand, this encourages negative perceptions of disabled people; but, conversely, people believe that there is merit in being charitable towards people with disabilities. However, this is often practiced in the belief that the giver is more fortunate than the recipient, which reinforces negative attitudes about the inferiority of disabled people and they are frequently excluded from the social mainstream.
There is a cultural belief in Sri Lanka that seeing a person with disabilities when one starts on a journey will bring bad luck. People with disabilities are not welcome at weddings, because it is believed that they may bring misfortune. Marriage prospects for disabled people are very poor; they must find partners who have disabilities too. Even siblings, especially sisters, of individuals with disabilities have difficulty finding marriage partners, because of the association of disability with misfortune. Due to these attitudes, many people with disabilities are seen as second-class citizens and ‘hidden away’ from society.
My experience as a Westerner with a disability was not comparable. I was treated with the utmost respect and compassion and people always went out of their way to help. Education is important. The more that disabled people from developed countries travel to Sri Lanka (and elsewhere), the more awareness can be raised and the more difference will be understood and respected.
Tips: Be prepared to be stared at a lot. Smile and be open and honest when people ask you ‘what happened?’ Sri Lankan people are direct. I lost count of the number of times I was asked this question. Personally, I would prefer to be asked than just stared at and found it refreshing and empowering.
Izzy has since set up a website to help travellers visit Sri Lanka whatever their physical limitations. More about that here.
Copyright © 2015 Isabel Kingdon