Before his spinal injury 14 years ago, Emilio Choo from Singapore didn’t even have a passport.
Seeing the world from a wheelchair
During a self-imposed gap year before commencing his studies in Computer Engineering at Nanyang Technological University, he set off on a maiden trip to visit family in Australia. After that, he was hooked on the idea of learning about new places, about new people and perhaps most significantly, about how adaptable he could really be. Since then, the national wheelchair basketball player has been to countries both nearby like Hong Kong and Japan, and far away as Switzerland and Italy. With his confidence increasing with every enjoyable trip, he has also participated in spine-tingling activities like scuba diving in Tioman (2008) and skydiving in Byron Bay, Australia (2013).
His first trip to Sydney, Australia, opened his eyes to the new possibilities of life in a wheelchair. His sister, brother-in-law, and aunt brought him around to see Sydney. “I didn’t know what to expect. Luckily, it was convenient. A lot of places are accessible and I had family there to help me,” he said. The trip taught him some first valuable lessons about travelling in a wheelchair, such as always planning in advance.
When he was able-bodied, Emilio said he did not get to travel much because his family was not well off. He had only been to Taiwan and Brunei as part his national service exercises – and he obtained his spinal injury on the latter trip.
Looking at his situation with a fresh perspective, Emilio decided that he would make the best of what he had.
What started as curiosity is now a passion
Today he is hooked on travelling with his wife — his main travel partner. Their first trip together, an arranged tour of several European cities for their honeymoon, was a turning point for him. “You cannot expect them to provide you with a wheelchair accessible bus. So every time, I had to climb up and down the bus, step by step. That was challenging, but it made me more adaptable. And you know in Europe, a lot of buildings are old. There are many stairs and [the streets are paved with] cobblestones.”
“I had to slowly adjust and explore what I could do. That trip really made me realise that I could do more and travel much further than I had ever imagined.”
Emilio counts the US as one of his favourite countries to visit. “I like their inclusiveness. They really see everyone as equal and they have a lot of wheelchair-accessible places.” A 2012 trip to Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland theme parks in California proved to be memorable because it was the first time he had ever been on a rollercoaster or other rides.
More recently, in 2015 he was also able to enjoy the rides in Universal Studios Singapore. Naturally, Emilio initially worried about the many things that could go wrong while he was away from the comforts of home. His worries translated into meticulous planning for every aspect of a trip, including the accessibility of the places he wanted to visit and the availability of accessible toilets.
“But now I can go to any toilet, I just have to jump around and adjust my chair. You cannot always find a wheelchair-accessible toilet so sometimes you just have to make do. Because these are some things you need to learn which will allow you to go to many more places.”
These days, Emilio and his wife do only some basic research before going somewhere. “We still do some planning but we are more adaptable. Sometimes we even say, let’s just go there and see how it goes. It’s more free and easy now.” Sometimes an upbeat attitude is enough. But sometimes change is needed at a bigger, societal level before travel for people with disabilities become the norm. For example, while budget airlines become increasingly popular with travellers, Emilio avoids these airlines because of the hidden costs of wheelchair assistance that negate the ‘budget’ aspect.
Nevertheless, there are many interesting options for disabled travellers today, like hand-controlled rental cars and accessible public transport. “Sometimes [taxis] are very expensive. So we drive instead. Many places today have hand-controlled cars for rental, which is convenient. In Australia, I took some buses and trains. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, we got around using the MRT.”
“Singapore is a convenient and accessible place, but I also want to experience how the disabled live in other places. Or how other people live their day-to-day lives. I want to see how far this chair can bring me.”
Check out Emilio’s 6 tips for successful wheelchair travel and share this post with any avid or aspiring travelers!