Accessible Travel: The Marathon to Make the World Accessible for Those With Disabilities

Wheelchair users enjoying accessible biking in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. This is an accessible travel destination
Accessible biking in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

Since I was a little boy, I had dreamed of entrepreneurship, inspired by the trajectory of my grandparents, parents, and siblings. At the age of 18, my whole life became entrepreneurial in and of itself. I had a car accident that left me quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down. Like most entrepreneurial endeavors, I had to start from scratch.

Alvaro Silberstein is the founder of Wheel the World - an accessible travel company for those with disabilities.
Alvaro Silberstein - Founder of Wheel the World

The Journey to Making Travel More Accessible

Regaining My Independence

First, I needed my family and friends who gave me the support and strength to rebuild my independence and my life. They were my initial support.

I also had to work up the courage to focus on my rehabilitation and learn to use my body differently. In the beginning, I spent many weeks just doing the exercise of lifting my right wrist with endless sets of 100 repetitions, as it was the only movement of my arms that I could do. It seemed extremely useless, but thanks to that exercise, today I can do many things on my own, such as using a computer keyboard to type this article.

I realized that building my life, like building a startup, takes a lot of time and dedication - which means receiving support from third parties. But even more than that, I understood that I had to take risks to achieve my personal and professional dreams in a world that was not designed for people with my condition: an inaccessible world. In sports slang, I was not in a 100-meter sprint but in a marathon.

Wheelchair user enjoying accessible paths in Zion National Park. You can plan accessible trips here with Wheel the World
Wheelchair accessible path in Zion National Park, Utah

Solving a Common Problem I Faced Due to Having a Disability

As I grew up, matured, and gained independence, I returned to my dream of entrepreneurship. With the conviction that it had to be with the objective of solving problems that I personally faced every day related to disability, or rather, related to the lack of accessibility.

I went through several ideas, and the opportunity to create Wheel the World, with the mission of making it possible for people with any type of disability to explore anywhere in the world, came by chance. Through a unique trip to Chilean Patagonia and finding a great partner and a talented team that had the common purpose of making the world accessible, Wheel the World got its start.

Today at Wheel the World, we are building the best accessible tourism solution so that millions of people with disabilities can search and book travel experiences in thousands of destinations. Now, I imagine that many, upon learning about Wheel the World, are wondering: why accessible travel and tourism?

Why Accessible Travel and Tourism?

People with disabilities have to make progress on so many other issues that it is a legitimate question: why strive to make progress in making an industry that apparently and superficially is only a privilege, accessible when there are deficiencies in health, education, access to housing, etc. But from my perspective, as a person who has lived with a disability for 17 years, and from the Wheel the World team, we have an answer.

Wheelchair user and guide on the Inca Trail bridge, highlighting accessible travel you can book through Wheel the World
A wheelchair user, aided by a guide, crosses a scenic bridge on the Inca Trail in Peru

There Should Be No Limits

First, why not? Opportunities for people with disabilities have no buts, or should have no buts. There shouldn't be a ceiling that limits our possibilities. In that sense, the right to recreation, movement, exploration, discovery, and freely traveling should not be an exception.

Secondly, I believe (and we believe at Wheel the World) that allowing people with disabilities to have travel experiences is truly changing the rules of the game. Because, it’s exactly the last thing you would think would be accessible. In this way, it pushes the boundaries of what we thought was possible to be achieved. As the saying goes, "design for the extreme, makes the mean."

"We were nervous about the trip as we find a lot of the time places to stay and activities aren’t as accessible as they claim to be and this can be really stressful. This trip was not like this at all. All the activities were easy, we both felt confident that we were both safe and we could enjoy the adventure without feeling like we had to miss out. That’s priceless to us." - Wheel the World traveler to Costa Rica

Travel Has Been My Best Form of Rehabilitation

Third, traveling has been my best rehabilitation. Not only for me but for many people who have traveled through Wheel the World. Tourism is throwing oneself into unknown places; it is opening up oneself to relationships with people different from you. It is opening the mind to unique experiences that will never be forgotten. It is allowing oneself to enjoy life no matter how much difficulty you face along the way. Through travel and adventure, I have built my independence and self-confidence and have convinced myself that my severe disability is not an impediment to achieving the dreams I have in my life.

"Through travel and adventure, I have built my independence and self-confidence and have convinced myself that my severe disability is not an impediment to achieving the dreams I have in my life."
Accessible travel to Valle Sagrado, Peru
Hand-biking in Valle Sagrado, Peru and meeting the locals

Along the same lines, accessibility is not just about effectively and practically making daily life more comfortable (and possible) for people living with disabilities. It is also about expanding our expectations of life, expanding our aspirations and dreams. Without taking away from the importance of pursuing accessibility in all the other areas that also lack accessibility, tourism and travel expand the scope of possibilities for so many individuals who did not think it was possible, not only to leave their country with their loved ones but to go out and explore their own hometown.

How Wheel the World is Making Accessible Travel a Reality

That's what Wheel the World is all about making the world accessible. And we decided to start with tourism. Under these principles, we launched our website Wheel the World, which is the manifestation of our value proposition, purpose, and values - all together.

Accurate Accessibility Information is Most Important for Travel

We have designed a user experience under the concept that for Wheel the World travelers, the most important thing is to have available the accessibility information about the places they want to go and the things they want to do. Our platform offers three types of experiences: places to stay, things to do, and multi-day trips. Each of these experiences have its corresponding accessibility information.

In other words, if you're looking to book a hotel, whether in Rio de Janeiro or New York, you will have approximately 200 accessibility criteria measured so that you can make an informed decision that suits you. These criteria include whether the shower is accessible or if it's a roll-in shower, the height of the bed, whether there are steps in various parts of the hotel, and even the accessibility of the places you will visit on the tours. Whether the public square has a smooth floor, whether there are obstacles, and so on. Our goal is that when people create their accessibility profile, indicating their accessibility needs, they will be matched with the accommodations, activities, and packages that best suit their needs. In addition, our team of travel experts will make sure to confirm the accessibility you need at the time of booking. Yes, you don't have to call the hotels anymore!

Wheel the World platform displaying detailed accessibility information for hotels on a mobile.
Wheel the World platform shows comprehensive accessibility information for each offering - hotels, activities, and multi-day trips around the world.

How Does Wheel the World Collect All of the Data?

How did we achieve this? We digitize accessibility information about tourism in detail. We built an app called Accessibility Mapping System (AMS), which is used by our community, where we collect and digitize accessibility information about every tourism product offered.

Through this tool, thousands of people have create their accessibility profile, making sure the accessibility needs are met by tour operators and hotels. We want people to be able to confidently travel and book trips so that they can visit places they never thought were possible - but now it is.

We firmly believe that people with disabilities deserve nothing different than people without a disability. And that includes their travel possibilities, to the places they can go, to the user experience they have on our website

Wheel the World provides accurate accessibility information to ensure positive accessible travel experiences.
Wheel the World mapper compiling accessibility measurements and data to ensure accurate and reliable information.

This is Our Marathon

Just like 17 years ago when I had to lift my wrist 100 times, today we are lifting thousands of pieces of travel accessibility data so that our users can find what they need through Wheel the World.

But this is just the first few meters of Wheel the World's marathon. We believe that the digitalization of accessibility information, to provide it to users who consume it, and to improve industry standards, can be replicated to the transportation industry, labor, healthcare, and many others - where it can be provided to users who consume it, and improve industry standards.

That's the Wheel the World marathon, to make the world accessible. We started with tourism; who knows what comes next.

Accessible Travel Starts Here

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