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Escaping the happiest place on earth: Travelling with a disability when coronavirus hit

By Belle Owen

International travel always takes plenty time and effort to plan. Those with a disability will know that traveling for us – especially with mobility aids – requires even more careful consideration to make sure our trips are as smooth and as safe as possible and yet, still, things can go wrong. We are adaptable, flexible, prepared for everything – but even though I’ve spent ten years traveling the world with my power wheelchair, nothing prepared me for travel during Coronavirus.

I had been organising the trip for months. My best friend and I were traveling to Texas, Tennessee and California and had taken a month off work.

Two women wearing Mickey Mouse ears pose in front of a display. One woman is standing and one is in a power wheelchair.

I had heard of the virus before we left and felt cautious, but friends, family, and travel agents all assured me it was just in China and the USA would be fine. Still, as we travelled, we took precautions. Wiping down our airline seats, our restaurant tables, the handles in our Airbnb with anti-bacterial wipes and keeping our hands clean. The trip was off to an amazing start and it felt like we were safe … until it didn’t. 

We were at Disneyland in California when things started getting serious.

As the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic, we were halfway through a line up for a ride. Big organisations like the NBA were postponing their season, shows we had tickets for were being cancelled; it felt like the dominoes were all starting to fall and then we got some advice from friends at home who said that borders would start to close. Before we reached the end of the line I had already put in a request to my travel agent: please get us home ASAP.

Before the end of the day, Disneyland had announced their closure, something that had only happened four times in history. In those moments, you could feel the mood at Disneyland, the ‘happiest place on earth’, shift to tense.

Everything felt scarier with every hour. Airlines were uncontactable.

The wait on the phone to Qantas was six hours, just to speak to someone. Our agent had managed to get us on a flight out the next night, so we spent the day on lockdown in our hotel, with the deck of uno cards we’d packed.

Getting from our resort to the airport turned out to be even harder than getting the last-minute flight. With no wheelchair accessible transportation available in Anaheim without 48 hours’ notice, I ended up paying almost $600 Australian dollars for emergency transport. Luckily, with spending money left for the rest of my trip, I was able to cover it – but it was a cost I had to wear specifically because of my disability, which made the abrupt ending of the trip an even more bitter pill to swallow. Another circumstance that no amount of planning could have predicted.

Thankful to have made it home safe, we entered our 14-day isolation immediately. As I’m high risk, it’s been recommended to me that I stay isolated, so my best friend and I have transitioned to working from home and have hit day 36 of no outside contact. Although I thought I was prepared for my trip, I never expected this would be the reality I’d come home to – but just like with the uncertainties of travel, we continue to adapt.

A young woman with long hair and glasses sitting at her laptop with a hot drink. She is wearing a black t-shirt with a gold necklace.

Belle Owen is a writer, consultant and disability advocate with over ten years experience living and travelling overseas. She is passionate about social justice, human rights and disability representation in popular culture. 




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