I stopped travelling for years. Tech helped get me flying again | Tech News

Melissa Parker turned tech into her travel companion

I recently had a nightmare that left me in a state of sheer panic – my wheelchair had been destroyed, it was utterly unrecognisable.

In another nightmare, the wheels had gone missing, leaving me stranded and vulnerable. 

Despite being only a dream, the panic engulfing me felt all too real, my body rigid.   

It remains a reality for many.     

Disabled travellers frequently face the difficult situation of being trapped on a plane, unable to disembark due to being cut off from their wheelchairs. This truth was recently in the news again as a disabled passenger was forced to crawl off a plane upon returning from his wedding anniversary in Las Vegas.    

Sadly, this is a common occurrence for disabled people. According to research from Scope, one in 14 disabled passengers are left stranded on planes without assistance after take-off or landing, and the same number say their equipment was lost or damaged.     

Rodney Hodgins was left in pain during his anniversary trip after airport staff lost his wheelchair (Picture: Deanna Hodgins)

These disturbing accounts and the alarming figures have instilled fear in me regarding travel, as someone who previously enjoyed it immensely.     

I have cancelled plans to travel so often in the last 12 months, unable to take what felt like an overwhelming gamble on my well-being.

Whenever I envisioned travelling, the image of me dragging myself on the ground came to mind, along with the terror that would consume me during every second of the flight, fearing that there would be a problem, something would go wrong, that my lifeline – essentially my replacement legs – would be broken. There would be nothing I could do about it.    

It would leave me completely helpless.    

Until now.

Could tech help Melissa enjoy a stress-free trip to Barcelona? (Picture: Getty)

A chance work event prompted the idea of using a tracking device to keep tabs on my wheelchair. It seemed like a plausible solution to calm my unease, and I quickly realised just how much other tech could be put to more exciting use. 

I couldn’t stop travelling for the rest of my life. This device felt like the beginning of a solution.         

After all, a lot of the technology that we use, regardless of whether it was intended to be assistive technology, has been adapted and evolved as disabled people have found it useful.     

‘Accessible technology, such as sensory alerts and navigation assistance found in trackers and smartwatches, become a trusted companion, providing greater independence and confidence and ensuring the journey is defined by ability, not disability,’ says Marie-Clare Fenech, of Tech London Advocates and its working group Tech for Disability.

Marie-Clare Fenech is a passionate campaigner for disability tech

‘These technologies often become mainstream for non-disabled users – take speech-to-text for example, used not only by the deaf but by audio books and transcription services.’ 

I have grown up alongside assistive technology. As a child in the Nineties, I had difficulty with handwriting. To help me, I was given a heavy tape recorder. I remember it being so much bigger than my small hands, and it did not solve the underlying issue. I had to persevere with handwriting, but each word required careful consideration. I couldn’t waste any effort. 

As technology advanced, I was introduced to dictaphones, and gradually, the adoption of speech-to-text has revolutionised my life.    

But could it revolutionise travel as I set off for the balmy shores of Barcelona, armed with a range of tech from trackers to a smart watch to noise-cancelling headphones – and a hefty dose of anxiety?

It is a common feeling, as fellow disabled traveller Marie reflects on their own experience of travelling from the Catalonian capital, where their wheelchair was temporarily lost. The airport staff referred to it as being ‘temporarily misplaced.’ 

The baggage handlers overlooked their wheelchair because it was inside a black travel bag, as they used a folding powerchair.

Marie has had her own bad experiences when travelling with a wheelchair

It wasn’t until Marie made a fuss that someone finally took the initiative to search for their wheelchair. Fortunately, they found it just in time before the plane departed elsewhere.

Reflecting on the incident, Marie acknowledged that having a tracker, such as an AirTag or any other similar device, would have been immensely helpful: ‘I could have checked an AirTag or tracker and at least known she was in the country then it would have saved an awful lot of anxiety for me.’

Still, knowing that didn’t make me any less anxious as I set off on my own Barca adventure, and in the moments before I was transferred out of my wheelchair at the airport, I seriously wondered if I could back out. 

The Samsung Smart Tag

But I had the Samsung SmartTag on my wheelchair, and SmartThings app on my phone, so I could track its whereabouts throughout the journey. I had already tested it after placing it in the wheelchair’s frame. 

The SmartTag feature gave me a sense of comfort and reassurance, knowing that I could ring my chair or track it on a map if needed – I had a virtual eye on it.     

A few anxious hours later, having put my trust in strangers and a tag, I was reunited with my wheelchair – and the holiday could truly begin. I kept it in place, and now I have a complete record of everywhere I went in Barcelona, even the Starbucks for breakfast coffees.     

Barcelona is a famously beautiful city, but the older parts are also notoriously hard to navigate – winding and sometimes wobbly streets criss-cross each other as throngs of tourists dash from landmark to landmark.

As a wheelchair user, I rely on Google Maps to chart my route and assess the accessibility of streets, paths, and businesses. The Street View feature helps me examine pavement conditions and find drop curbs and cobbles. 

Additionally, I frequently consult real-time travel updates, which allows me to navigate public transportation from the airport onward seamlessly and which I use in every city I travel to.   

When we focus on accessibility, everyone wins,’ says Christopher Patnoe, head of accessibility and disability inclusion EMEA at Google.

Just last month, we unveiled new accessibility features, like the option to view wheelchair accessible walking routes on Google Maps, a feature which helps people using wheelchairs, as well as those travelling with luggage or strollers.

‘Assistive technology has come a long way in recent years, but there’s much more to do and we’re looking forward to working with the disability community to drive more progress in this area.’

Barcelona is a mix of grids and mazes (Picture: Getty)

Assistive technology has a promising future and significant growth potential in ways we may not be aware of. 

Dr Patrick Holthaus, senior research fellow in the robotics research group at the University of Hertfordshire, highlights the remarkable possibilities of assistive robots in improving travel experiences for disabled people.

For instance, robots could guide individuals with visual impairments using techniques such as sound or vibration. These mobile robots could autonomously navigate crowded or dangerous areas. 

Dr Patrick Holthaus advocates for the use of robotics in aiding travel

‘Robotic technology can help reduce barriers and empower people to be more independent in travel,’ he says.

Barcelona is steeped in a rich history, visible through its architecture, artworks, and museums. Gaudi’s Parc Güell was one landmark that left a lasting impression on me.

Its beauty is enchanting, and the Passeig de Gràcia is filled with ornate storefronts, which are like small pieces of carefully arranged art. Landmarks like this were bustling with tourists, but I could still navigate through the vibrant streets, thanks to Google Maps.    

The Sagrada Familia was one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen. The colours of the stained-glass windows were breathtaking. Exploring the site, I relied on the Retreev Tag to keep my passport and other valuables safe – with such a vast and busy space like the Sagrada Familia, the tag gave me the confidence to navigate independently without worrying. 

However, I will admit that the crowds eventually forced me to a backstreet Ben & Jerry’s as others fought passionately for their space on the, for the most part, accessible but occasionally rickety tour bus. 

Melissa outside the Sagrada Familia

One of my fondest memories in Barcelona was walking along the famous La Rambla. The bustling promenade was lined with vendors selling souvenirs, flowers and street performers who entertained the crowd. It was quite a sight to take in but I was nervous about the crowds. 

Still, with the help of my other beloved long-suffering constant companion, the Samsung Galaxy S23, and the Google Maps app, I found my way through the sea of people, soaking in the energetic atmosphere. 

A pair of Amazon Echo Buds came in handy while wheeling around the crowded streets, with the noise-cancellation feature helping me to focus on my surroundings without getting overwhelmed. 

In this way, tech can intrinsically become tied up with memories, people and places. I cracked my phone screen in the centre of Barcelona and made myself feel better with a crepe, the treat I was given as a little girl on Friday afternoons after school.   

Google Maps has proved essential for travelling for Melissa (Picture: Idrees Abbas/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock)

Thanks to Google Maps, I only got lost once on this trip, and eventually emerged a little dishevelled, having bought a multicoloured elephant, on to a street I vaguely recognised.     

I speak fluent Spanish, so I didn’t need to use any translation apps, although I completely forgot the words for ‘wheelchair cushion’ when I lost mine – it didn’t have a tag on – and googled it in panic. 

There are also things I should have researched that tech can’t help with. I didn’t realise that you had to pay a euro to use public bathrooms. After a visit, I offered the change I had left to several other tourists – at that moment, it felt like the purest form of human kindness in a dingy basement.     

Thanks to tech, Melissa had a brilliant trip to Barcelona (Picture: Getty/iStockphoto)

I loved Barcelona, and other than a suspiciously loose armrest and a slightly bruised upper arm from a bathroom fall, the trip went flawlessly. 

As Marie-Clare says: ‘Tech makes it far easier to travel as a disabled person than it would be without it.’

The trip served as a perfect reminder that accessible technology should whir away in the background, a steady and reassuring presence for all users, disabled and non-disabled – the best technology is that which feels a little bit magical.    

Accessible tech is growing – and these Samsung gadgets are helping break more barriers

MORE : Deaf clubs are dying out – but an unlikely saviour could be on the horizon

MORE : Airline staff broke my wheelchair – I haven’t been able to use it since


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