Adventure Travel With Invisible Disability—It's Possible
There’s no form of travel I love more than adventure travel. Yet, when it comes to planning trips, I’ve additional challenges to consider. That’s because I’m among the 96% of individuals with chronic medical conditions not requiring a medical device, also known as invisible disability.
My struggle with chronic illness has been a long road to understanding, acceptance, and adaptation. Meanwhile, I’ve come to realize that just because I live with an invisible disability doesn’t mean I can’t pursue my passion!
“There are folks [with hidden illnesses] climbing, cycling, and diving everywhere,” says travel agent Timothy Tan of Cango Travel, who also travels the world with a hidden disability, “I figure if [others] can do it, so can I.”
Tall and fit, it’d be impossible to know that Tim has diabetes based on appearance alone. Yet, he struggles with physical limitations, some of which impede on his ability to reach with his hands and secure footholds. This hasn’t discouraged Tim from pursuing adventure travel. In fact, his favorite activities include trekking, cycling, rafting, and diving.
“Look at me,” he says, “I've [had] fear of anything physical, but now I can do things I didn't think I could do.”
Like Tim, I look perfectly healthy on the outside. Meanwhile, I struggle with autoimmune disease and a vestibular disorder, along with the long list of acronyms and abbreviations doctors used to categorize my symptoms. This isn’t uncommon for people with compromised immune systems, who are more susceptible to infections and get sick more frequently than healthy individuals.
In order to adapt, I’ve learned to forego unrealistic expectations imposed by society. I no longer compare my abilities to others. Instead, I set goals that account for the added hurdles. If I don’t cross the finish line, that’s alright! I can take pride in trying. After all, life is about the journey and not the destination!
That’s why I was excited to join a cycling tour in conjunction with AdventureNEXT: Near East. An avid street cyclist, I hadn’t any experience mountain biking, so I looked forward to traveling to Jordan to engage in a new activity with Terhaal Adventures!
I was also conscious of how important it is for the people I travel with to be aware of my health condition. Due to the unseen nature of a hidden disability, it’s especially crucial for those leading tours to have this knowledge so they can provide accommodations without negatively impacting the experience for other participants.
It’s always a good idea to discuss these concerns in advance in order to confirm that the tour will be able to provide these facilities. It’s also important they provide guides with the experience and flexibility to make adjustments so everyone can enjoy. Furthermore, travelers with a hidden disability should also practice self-care in conjunction with advocating for inclusion.
“As I get more experienced, I'm better able to take care of myself,” comments Tim, adding that he sometimes needs more time than the others to build confidence.
I believe this confidence can be constructed from honesty and communication, which comes to the forefront of my mind during Invisible Disabilities Awareness Week. We must be conscious that people with a hidden illness often have to work twice as hard to accomplish half as much. That’s why we must acknowledge one another’s accomplishments, no matter how small or large they may seem.
Personally, I’m up for the challenge vested by my belief that nothing worth doing will ever be easy. There’s always the temptation to hide behind a cloak of invisibility and pretend the challenges of my health don’t exist. This strategy has always been the surest path to failure.
That’s why for some, achieving greatness might mean allowing ourselves permission to redefine the meaning of “success”. In the many years it has taken to come to terms with my illness, I’ve learned that by listening to my body and communicating with others, it’s possible to realize my potential within my own means.
So in keeping up with this communication, I made sure that others participating in my cycling tour were aware of my hidden disability. That way, if I experienced sudden illness during our tour, they’d know what was happening and that they could continue without having to pause for unnecessary concern.
Then again, for those with an invisible illness, communicating can be cause for concern in itself. Beyond the immediate burden of our health, we must also navigate the social obstacles of judgment, stigma, and retaliation. There’s always the worry that by admitting to chronic illness, we’ll be denied opportunities and rejected by our peers.
All too often, these concerns are validated. I could write an encyclopedia describing the social repercussions I’ve experienced as a result of my hidden disability. Yet, I believe much of this difficulty derives from the general lack of awareness, which serves as an impetus for misunderstanding.
That’s why I was encouraged when travel journalist Aaron H. Bible approached me before our cycling tour to ask about my autoimmune disease. Beyond the often comedic portrayal in popular culture, Aaron was unfamiliar with narcolepsy and wanted to learn more!
“I appreciated your willingness to discuss,” Aaron tells me, “I felt more educated to understand others with the same or similar conditions.”
His inquiry was welcomed because it was void of unsolicited advice (i.e. he asked questions that didn’t start with, “have you tried”). It was refreshing to know my honesty had created an opportunity to educate and challenge the stereotypes.
“[It] gave me the ability to be more open-minded,” adds Aaron as he goes on to describe how our conversation helped him to gain empathy, “I felt more educated to understand others with the same or similar conditions.”
Since speaking more openly about my invisible illness, I’ve found that more often than not, people are receptive. This conversation bridges the gap towards mutual respect, which in essence, connects the road to compassion and understanding.
“Everyone benefits from having helped or received help,” explains Tim, “I believe there's no shame in admitting that I need help along the way. Sometimes, it’s a catalyst for great friendships!”
There’s no denying the bonds we created while cycling in Jordan were inspiring. Our tour started within the Dana Biosphere Reserve, where we traversed a path to Little Petra. Every few miles we stopped to appreciate the stunning landscape, encounter camels, and gaze upon the ruins of ancient civilizations.
We were cycling downhill through a local village when my condition flared up and I began to feel dizzy. It was the onset of vertigo, one of the most debilitating setbacks I commonly experience as a result of Meniere’s disease.
Before I knew it, Tim was riding alongside me as we trailed behind. He encouraged me to push myself as far as I was willing to go. Then, we called upon our guides for assistance so I could ride in the support car escorting our tour until the spinning subsided.
“We give the participants the freedom to use the car whenever they feel they need to,” says Aref O. Dadan, one of the Cycling Jordan guides who led our tour, “Usually, I encourage them to ride as far as they can, then to rest in the support car whenever they feel uncomfortable keeping up on the bike.”
“You've also got fellow travelers who will help you out,” mentions Tim, “just like this last trip to Jordan, I made good friends who encouraged me and showed me the way.”
These friendships are what enable Tim and I to travel around the world. Our participation in these tours relies on our willingness to discuss the challenges of invisible illness, which inevitably opens the door to a network of camaraderie and support.
“I had just about everyone looking out for me and that's why each and every one of you is now my family!” says Tim, “I do the same for the less experienced [travelers], that's the beauty of adventure travel.”
Perhaps the adventure travel community is unique because we like to push ourselves farther while inspiring one another to take on challenges! No matter what moves you, it’s important to remember that everyone—regardless of ability or disability—as dreams and aspirations.
“At the end, they are here to enjoy [it to] the max!” says Aref, who encourages anyone comfortable with riding a bicycle to sign up for a cycling tour. He thinks it’s a wonderful way to gain perspective while exploring the spectacular scenery of Jordan. For those who are unable to go cycling or travel to another country, there are even more ways to discover and explore!
“Look at me, I've [experienced] fear of everything physical, but now I can do things I didn't think I could do!” Tim adds, “I can't change my physical body, but I can change my mindset.”
It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious about travel and adventure. Then again, what is normal? The interpretation of trying something new may vary, especially for those with disabilities, which occur on a spectrum. For some, adventure may mean visiting a friend in another city, patronizing a business in their own neighborhood, or perhaps trying a new craft or creative project at home.
For me, flying halfway around the world to try extreme sports—whether it’s cycling in Jordan or scuba diving in Australia—is adventure. It’s also a challenge! Despite my struggle with invisible illness, I’ll never give up on my passion nor will I deny myself the right to take pride in these endeavors. I may not be normal, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.