How I travel... with a wheelchair
Paralympian basketball player and BBC TV presenter Ade Adepitan talks dreams, destinations and diversity in his 30 years of travel
As far back as I can remember I’d always wanted to be a traveller, navigating the globe by air, sea or road. At first, I had no idea how I would achieve this dream, or if it was even possible. What I did know was that there was a beautiful world out there filled with wonderful experiences waiting for me to explore.
Most days when I was a kid, I would stick my head out of my bedroom window peering up at the sky, hypnotised by the mesmerising cloud trails created by the jumbo jets flying overhead. I used to spend hours wondering who was on those planes, what exotic locations they were escaping to, desperately wishing I could join them.
The thing is, back in 1980s Britain, globetrotting was not seen as an achievable goal for someone like me: black, working-class, with a disability. My intersectionality was probably perceived as a hindrance by many. But I’ve always seen it as my strength. In basketball, they would call it a triple threat – a position that you’re taught to take up when you’re on court that enables you to pass the ball, shoot or dribble to the basket and score. I’ve always felt that everything people assumed would hold me back actually gave me the ability to keep pushing forwards.
I’ve been travelling the world for work and pleasure for more than 30 years now. My first proper trip abroad was with my wheelchair basketball team, to a seaside town in the Giulianova region of Italy, where we played in a tournament against teams from all over Europe. It was a liberating experience. I’d always dreamed of escaping East London and here I was doing it in style, even if it was just for a few days. In July this year, I flew to Venice to make a film for the BBC’s Travel Show about how tourism in the city had been affected by Covid-19. Although these two trips to the same country were separated by almost three decades, they shared a common theme. Even as I’m writing this now, I’m shaking my head when I think about how awkward and sometimes downright uncomfortable some people become when they have to talk to a person with a disability.
On our trip to Giulianova, the staff at the airport check-in desk turned porcelain white with terror when they saw my basketball team approaching. We might as well have been a bunch of hungry flesh-eating zombies escaping a post-apocalyptic London for a cheeky little weekend break to Europe. Watching the staff desperately searching our group for a non-wheelchair user (or good old-fashioned two-legger, as I like to call them) to explain why we were at the airport was hilarious. They might as well have said, “Take me to your leader – and while you’re at it, make sure it’s someone without a physical impairment.”
That was back in 1990, I found it less funny when a similar thing happened on my way back to London from Venice in 2020. This time it was just me, a director and a camera operator at the airport. I was the only one in the crew with a visible disability. The check-in desk attendant ignored me completely. She asked my director if I would need help with pushing my wheelchair, and getting to my seat on the aircraft. My director glowered back before abruptly replying, “Why don’t you ask him, he’s right in front of you!"
“Back in 1980s Britain, globetrotting was not seen as an achievable goal for someone like me: black, working-class, with a disability”
Moments like this can be vexing but, after travelling to nearly a hundred countries, I’ve become immune to this type of ignorance. In truth, the majority of my travels have left me with extraordinary life-changing memories. I’ve trekked from the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, through the virgin rainforest before literally crawling up a live volcano, finally finishing at Morgan’s Rock on the Pacific coast. I’ve scuba dived on some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world. I’ve even skied on three different continents. Challenging myself has always felt like a source of empowerment.
It still surprises me how often I travel to a country and find that I’m the first disabled person that my guide or taxi driver has had any meaningful interaction with. The first time I flew to India in 1998, I remember pushing out of the airport feeling like the city had stopped whatever they were doing to stare at me. Even the cows on the street seemed to be taking a sneaky peek.
That same year I flew to Romania, where I interviewed a class of 11-year-olds who may have perhaps seen a black person but, judging by their reactions, had never ever seen a black guy with dreadlocks in a wheelchair before. The combination of my skin colour and disability sent the kids into a wild frenzy. At first, they surrounded me in the playground, staring at me like I was a rare artefact in a museum. The more confident kids started asking questions in their best broken English when suddenly I felt a tug at the back of my head. I turned around to see one of the kids had managed to pull off a little piece of one of my dreadlocks. He ran off gripping it tightly in his hands, all the other kids chasing him, desperate to have a look at their classmate’s new prize possession.
One of my most bizarre travel encounters happened in 2016, in New York of all places. I was filming a taxi driver called Frank for an episode of a BBC travel series called The World’s Busiest Cities. Frank was a cheerful but straight-talking New Yorker. Whilst interviewing him about the tough competition the famous yellow taxi drivers were facing from Uber, I decided to tell Frank about how difficult I’d found it to hail a taxi in New York. I told him how on one freezing cold February day a few years earlier I’d tried for nearly an hour to get a taxi to stop.
Frank gave me a blank look and shrugged – he obviously wasn’t surprised at this story. He sighed and said, “You’re black and you’re disabled (he emphasised the ‘and’) – that makes you like the plague to taxi drivers here. They’re never gonna stop for you.” I paused to let Frank’s words sink in. I knew we had it on camera but I wanted viewers to take it in as well. I could tell Frank was thinking. He looked at me and I knew even he had realised how absurd this was, even if it was true. I guess we both learnt something that day.
For me, travel signifies adventure, and adventure means freedom. Too often we allow ourselves to be trapped by the social identities that society forces upon us. If I look deep down into my soul, I’m sure it will reveal that travel was my way of breaking free from those constraints. We all carry a light within us that illuminates our experiences, our values, our wants and needs. Whether we like it or not, we end up sharing those personal traits with everybody we meet. The most rewarding trips I’ve been on have always felt like both myself as well as the people I meet leave feeling like we’ve learnt something new about ourselves, and about this amazing planet we’re all lucky enough to inhabit.