I am writing this in Tenerife. That sounds pretty grand but really, it is not. We got a cheap week away in the sun which so far, has not really put in much of an appearance, but it is only day two and I remain hopeful!
What I am struck with is that here, I am a foreigner and I am wondering how much this is like the experience of people who have a disability? Not only am I evidently, a visitor with my pale skin and ridiculous shorts, I am also a tourist and the unwilling participant in all of the associated stereotypes. It seems that no matter what I do, I can’t shake that sense of not belonging.
Where I am staying is a typical touristy place with heaps of fast food and English menus; Irish bars, Fish n’ Chips and Happy Hours boldly declared from gaudy signs that nobody reads. What I would really love to see is features of local culture and the chance to participate in local life but I was never going to find that here! What I have in its place is a huge assumption that this is what I am like, what I have asked for, and what I need.
It might be that the nearest I get to enjoying local culture is the routine visit to a supermarket. Doing this skips the stuff delivered on a plate and facilitates a level of participation that is quite exciting. All the signs and prices are in Spanish and there is plenty of opportunity for mistakes. But mistakes are not all disappointments, they are also opportunities to learn and hone my supermarket skills! I can muddle through, compare different things, look at pictures and numbers and ask for help from other people. Shop employees and shoppers alike seem willing to lend a hand. The thing about the supermarket is that I am left more to my own devices and can make choices. How tragic would it be if foreign visitors went to a supermarket and were given the same box of goods put together on the assumption it was what everyone wanted?
Being a foreigner means that I need help from the people I am visiting. A lot of the help and possibly the most obvious kind is not only for me it’s also for the people I’m visiting, to help them get the most out of me. That is inevitable and the same in any “Tourist Trap” but when it becomes too obvious it can be hurtful and isolating. It can actually bar me from taking part in things, hide the real, limit my experience and force me to do things I am uncomfortable with. If you are cynical like me, it can also cause you to miss the genuine opportunities because they become obscured by the White Noise of consumerism.
There is of course the less obvious tension here that I am different to the people who’s country I am visiting; I wasn’t invited, I did very little to prepare for my visit and paid to come here. People with a disability do none of those things. As a foreign tourist, I can do things myself to facilitate participation like, learn the language, read about the culture and history and so on but people with a disability are not visitors: they belong where they are as much as anyone else. When we arrived at the apartments I immediately thought how good it was that there were ramps almost everywhere you had to negotiate steps. At one point with two sets of steps and a 90 degree turn I wondered how easy it might be to get through it if I was in a wheelchair. Then it twigged! The ramps were not for wheelchairs at all; they were for suitcases.
Have Your Say
I am very aware of the fact that I am writing about disability but I am not disabled. If I get this wrong then, I hope I’ll be forgiven. If you think I am off track here then please use the comments to say why. I would love to hear other views and for there to be some discussion. If you have specialist knowledge and want to express a point of view, either as a carer, person with a disability or service provider, then please get in touch and I will consider a guest post.