Joe Gilbert sustained a spinal cord injury in 1972 when he was just 19 years old. He has never let his injury stop him from doing the things he wanted to do, and now lives an independent and active life with his wife Debbie and family of two kids, seven grandkids and two step grandkids.

I’d never travelled abroad before my spinal cord injury, as it just wasn’t something people did back then, unless they were in the British Army or something like that. As I got older and travelling became cheaper and more accessible for people, I didn’t want to let my spinal cord injury stop me from seeing the world too.

Joe in Jamaica

My favourite place I’ve visited so far is Jamaica, I had an amazing time and the hotel complexes there were really great as well. The hotel I stayed in had lots of accessible features that made it very wheelchair friendly, which really helped me to relax and enjoy the holiday. I’ve found the general streets are never great for wheelchairs wherever you go, but in Belgium and Italy they were the worst I’ve seen. The streets have gutters a foot high and when it rains it comes onto the footpath making it very dangerous for a wheelchair user! 

If you’d like to travel too but are worried about it, do your research and talk to other people who have gone travelling with a wheelchair to get some advice and hear their stories. Talking through it can really help to ease your concerns, and you’ll realise it’s not as daunting as it seems. Before you book any holiday, always make sure you thoroughly check that things such as the airline, accommodation and toilet facilities are wheelchair friendly. If everything is wheelchair accessible, you should have a good holiday.

Joe and his wife in Jamaica

The biggest challenge I’ve faced when travelling with a wheelchair has been getting on and off of the plane. You’re not allowed your own wheelchair on a plane, so you get a special chair to get you from the door of the plane to your seat. Once the plane lands, you have to wait for them to find your wheelchair and bring it back to you before you can get off. It’s put with all of the other baggage, so it gets thrown around like a suitcase and can often end up with bits missing and scratches.

When I came back from Jamaica, I was sat waiting on the plane with my wife for over an hour at Gatwick before we were allowed to get off. The pilot was very apologetic and said this was not up to standard and that I should report it as unacceptable. The staff couldn’t find my wheelchair and so I had to get in one of the airport’s rubbish wheelchairs, and then in a buggy to get me to the baggage claim area where I found my wheelchair laying on the floor. I wish airlines would understand that our wheelchair is our legs and that we need it to be able to move, so they need to take better care of them.

Going to the toilet on a plane can also be a problem when travelling with a wheelchair. You don’t have access to a wheelchair once you’re in your seat, which means only people with a spinal cord injury that are still able to walk can go to the toilet. Those who can’t have to have a drainage bag, so you have to watch how much you drink.

If you’re travelling alone you’ll also need to think about your suitcase. You can’t wheel it as you will need your arms free to push your wheelchair, and you’ll need to pack your medical supplies and drainage bags in your cabin bag. Because of this, some people prefer to travel with a carer, family or friends so that someone is there to help if they need it. It is possible to travel alone though if you want to, it just needs a bit more planning.

For me, my spinal cord injury was the start of a new life, not the end. I’ve had some amazing experiences and adventures after my injury, and I’m glad I put myself out there and gave travelling a go. If you’re positive and put your mind to it, travelling with a spinal cord injury is possible and it’s very rewarding too, I’d definitely recommend it! Life is what you make of it after all.

Top tips for travelling with a spinal cord injury:

  • Don’t be afraid to do it - it’s not as scary as it seems!
  • Check carefully that travel and hotel facilities are wheelchair friendly before booking.
  • Think about what you’ll need to pack in your hand luggage and suitcase, and how
    you’ll move your luggage around.
  • Be prepared for a bit of waiting around at the airport.
  • Make sure your wheelchair is insured, so you’re covered if anything happens to it.
  • Travel with others if possible so someone can help you out if you need them to, especially if it’s your first time travelling with a wheelchair.

Joe in Jamaica