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Tony is a totally blind and partially deaf independent world traveller, author and public speaker from southwest England. Tony ventures all over the world as a solo traveller, seeking adventure, drama and cultural interaction with local people. He has published three travel eBooks about his world travels. The latest one, Seeing a Slice of Southern Africa My Way is available at all eBook sellers.
Image description: Tony sitting in the middle of a brightly multicoloured open boat with his red backpack between his knees and a sun hat on, the driver sports at the back of the boat behind Tony, in the background by many different coloured boats on the river, some with fresh produce. There is also some houses on the riverbank and a footbridge across the river.
I’ve been travelling all my life! I was driven to a school for disabled children from the age of 5, 30 km distance there and back each day. So that was my first adventure I guess. My dad was in the merchant navy before I was born, he told me about his sea adventures. About sailing up the Saint Lawrence River in Canada with large icebergs floating past the ship’s sides and about crossing Australia from the east coast to the west coast by train and it taking 8 days. When aged 10, I went to a boarding school far from my home.
So my first ambition was to be able to travel home independently and visit my family. However, my real passion for travel and adventure began when I visited Boston in the USA on a week-long school trip when I was 16. I loved it. Everything was new and different! Pavements were huge, there was so much space everywhere, which I could sense through my skin and by simply walking around. People talked differently with unusual accents and loudly, unlike in the UK. I remember eating a steak in a restaurant one night and it was huge, it filled the entire plate. I sensed an exciting atmosphere on the streets and wanted to experience more.
This is a difficult question to answer. I’d say many parts of the UK have become more accessible for people with a variety of physical disabilities over the last 20 years or so and attitudes are slowly changing for the better to try and create a more inclusive society.
Tourist attractions like Saint Paul’s Cathedral, West Minster Abbey, The British Museum, Canterbury Cathedral, M Shed museum and SS Great Britain ship in Bristol, the Royal yacht Britannia in Edinburgh, Stone Henge near Salisbury, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, near Birmingham, now offer excellent audio guides that are easy to operate for blind-visually impaired people. Most of these attractions also have wheelchair access to many parts of their buildings and exhibits.
There are many other museums, churches, castles, historical houses, gardens, parks and other buildings and attractions that also offer audio guides or personal guides to enable blind-visually impaired people to visit and gain a good accessible experience. Likewise, many visitor attractions in and around the UK, including in Northern Ireland, are beginning to offer better accessibility to people with a wider variety of disabilities.
However, this is not perfect and not all buildings and tourist attractions are disabled accessible. In particular, the majority of high street shops and many pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants and nightclubs have access problems for disabled people. Whilst some cinemas and theatres have improved their accessibility by providing lifts and ramps and audio described films-performances, many of these establishments are in old buildings that lack disabled access. Audio description equipment is often faulty and there’s not always enough headphone sets available.
Public attitudes towards disabled people in general are improving, especially among the younger generation. Nevertheless, many British people still seem unsure how to approach and/or interact with disabled people and continue to make patronising comments and suggestions or ask inappropriate questions. It’s still largely assumed that if a blind or VIP person visits a tourist attraction, shop, theatre, restaurant or any other public building or place, they will be accompanied by someone and if they come alone, then it means they must have some sight! Access to disabled toilets in many buildings throughout the UK is still terrible, especially in older pubs, bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
Many parts of the USA are now more disabled accessible, particularly the larger cities like New York, Parts of Washington DC, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, Austin – Texas, San Diego, Las Vegas, etc. Cities that are on a grid system, like the places mentioned above, make it easy to walk around and navigate fairly comfortably and independently, even if these cities tend not to have audio traffic lights/cross walks. Also, in many American and Canadian cities, such as New York and Toronto, braille information is available on ATM machines and on the handrails of the stairways of the subway/underground stations, telling a person the name of the platform. However, some of the cities in the more rural areas of the US and Canada are less accessible to blind-visually impaired people and a personal vehicle is often needed as walking is difficult to impossible and public transport is limited to non-existent.
I find Melbourne in Australia reasonably accessible. Again the main part of the city is on a grid system, allowing a person to simply count streets as they walk. Also Adelaide and Perth are compact and easy to navigate in their centres. Also much of the public transportation in these Australian cities seems accessible and people are friendly and helpful.
I found the people in New Zealand the most friendly and helpful when it comes to acceptance of blind people and found most people willing to help me do any crazy activity I wished to do. Likewise in Turkey, I found a willing attitude from people to help me do things without them questioning why a blind person might want to climb a mountain or visit a city.
Many cities throughout Europe, Like Athens, Greece, Rome and Milan in Italy, Madrid and Barcelona in Spain and several other cities in Europe have tactile lines on the ground enabling blind-visually impaired people to find their way around airports, train stations and navigate on many streets. However, I have found some attitudes towards blind-visually impaired people and disabled people in general in Europe less friendly and open-minded or inclusive. Particularly in Italy and also in some Eastern European countries.
Japan seems to be an excellent country for blind people to be independent alongside other disabled people. Again there appears to be navigational tactile lines in the central areas of many of the country’s major cities, braille information on lift buttons and on ATM machines and even home appliances like microwaves, washing machines, dish washers, etc. It’s only in Japanese, and not English, but for Japanese blind people this must be fantastic. Even the complicated public and hotel toilets have braille on the many buttons in their loos!
It was my mum’s idea for me to write about my travels. She wanted me to describe how I travel for her friends to understand. I was reluctant at first, but eventually sat down and wrote out everything I’d done in my life up to that point. I was then about 26 and had been travelling for roughly 6 or 7 years. I eventually realised my story might be interesting to other blind or disabled people and maybe even inspire others to attempt their own challenges. My story is about what someone can do, disabled or not.
Well, I plan to visit every country in the world, that’s my life goal! But the next country I plan to visit is Peru in 2022. I wish to hike the famous Inca trail Machu Picchu. I want to do this amazing challenge to show what blind people can do and also raise money for a charity called Galloways Society for the Blind, a charity that supports blind and visually impaired people throughout the northwest of England. Completing this challenging 4-day hike would be a magnificent achievement.
My Go fund me page: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/TonyGiles1
I also want to visit is India! It’s so huge and diverse. The food, smells, noise, traffic, the heat, the mountains and everything in between. I think it would be an attack on all the senses, which is something I love.
As a blind-partially sighted/visually impaired traveller or person with any disability, the key is to do your research about a place, city, town, country, visitor attraction before visiting. As a blind person, I can’t simply pick up and read a brochure, so I need to know information in advance. As I’m able to use a computer/laptop, using a speech screen-reading software called JAWS that speaks every time I press a key, I’m able to access the internet. Therefore, I go to websites like wikitravel.com and type in the place/destination/attraction I wish to visit. This is one way to gain information about a place or attraction.
Using the internet often helps me find the answers to questions like; does a particular museum/church/mosque/temple/park have steps or ramps into the place? Are there audio guides or guided tours available? Are there Accessible toilets at the facilities? Is there available access to the restaurants/cafes at a concert venue/bar/restaurant/visitor attraction? Do staff speak any English? Is there Braille information labels on their exhibits or Braille guidebooks I can use? Are there any tactile models to feel or objects that I can touch? I’ll often find the email of a particular attraction, hotel, guesthouse and contact them to ask such questions.
Likewise, with public transportation, I use the internet to discover what options are available in any city/country I wish to visit and learn what are the best options for me. I want to know if I can use public buses/trains/metro-subway/trams or if I need to take taxis everywhere. I’d say the best tip is to contact the place/tourist activity/attraction via email or phone to ask relevant questions regarding accessibility for an individual’s specific needs.
Once I’ve reached my accommodation and gotten settled, the first thing I like to do in a new country is take a walk around the nearby streets and get a sense of the places atmosphere, have a drink somewhere and/or a meal, depending on the time of day. The second thing I like to do is find out what activities are available, especially adrenaline activities, and how I can access them.
I’d advise them to do their research, find out the answers to their many questions about accessibility of transport, accommodation, visitor attractions etc. Then I’d suggest visiting a place near to home to begin with. Maybe start with a day trip to somewhere in their own region. Or maybe go somewhere for a weekend. I’d perhaps suggest going away with a friend for a day or weekend. Find out if they enjoyed the experience and, if so, plan more short trips to build up confidence.
Travelling is a little scary at first. Most people, especially people who are disabled tend to worry about what will go wrong, rather than the positives. It’s about taking small steps and building confidence. So going with a good friend or even a family member is a good idea at first, but don’t let them do everything. Allow your friend or the staff to help, but you give the instructions and ask the questions, be in control of your situation where possible.
Travelling is about having adventures, trying new things; foods, drinks, events, activities. It’s meant to be exciting and fun. There are so many possibilities out there for everyone with every type of disability. So go on, have a go.
We want to thank Tony for taking the time to chat with us. You can hear more from Tony at the Accessible and Inclusive Tourism Conference in the Asia-Pacific where he will be a speaker. Visit Tony’s website, and follow his adventures on Facebook and Twitter.