Updated : Oct 27, 2017 in Advice

Traveling the world with disabilities : How is being a world traveler with Epilepsy

Many people look at me and think I am just another guy. I might seem a little odd to a few but to most, I am just another nomad. However, what most do not know is that I have a medical disability. I am 100% disabled according to the US Government due to Epilepsy. I have a seizure disorder and hardly anyone knows about it until something goes wrong.

Why would I take time to write about this? I want to tell the story of what I deal with but also I want to give hope to anyone with a medical issue that still dreams of traveling. While having a disability can slow you down, it should not stop you. In fact, there is a series of conventions that are signed by about every major nation that protect people with disabilities.

I will be the first to say that some countries are just not friendly to the disabled (both officially and unofficially). Getting around Southeast Asia in a wheelchair for example would be a nightmare. Having proper medical support in Tuvalu would not be much better either. All of these are challenges that we face but nothing that can’t be overcome if you are really interested in being a world traveler.

Facing the ugliness of history

History has not been kind to people with medical issue. There are some really outlandish laws on the books about different medical conditions that could be very hurtful to someone trying to visit different countries.

One of these is a 1940 law in the Philippines that makes anyone with a known mental illness, medical problem and namely epilepsy would be barred from entering the country. While thousands of people with all of these cross through the border of the country every day, the law is still on the books and it is still hurtful to people who have these issues and feel ostracized by the “what if they don’t let me in….”

As far as the Philippines goes, it gets every more interesting because they have another law that protects people with disabilities and it carries serious fines for doing it. The question becomes which of these laws would apply to a traveler if faced with a challenge while in the country. As you can see, legal standing for people with disabilies is not always as cookie cutters as some people want to believe.

The Philippines is far from the only country with these types of legal issues, either. It is the limbo that we face. It is good that many of the medial challenges that we have is hidden but I do not foresee the governments around the world, namely in Asia, repealing these hurtful laws. To be fair, the United States might have some wild laws on the books as well (that are completely unenforceable).

There is nothing we can do but hope that we have no issues while in the countries that have these wild status legally. As I said, there is no expectation that these countries will change their laws to modern understanding of disabilities.

What about medical support?

I use to go to Samoa a lot in the South Pacific which is an amazing country. However, one reason that I go not spend as much time there is because of the lack of decent medical facilities. I actually had a seizure one day and they didn’t even have a doctor in the hospital that knew what to do and after some research, they did not have the medicine that I needed. Luckily, American Samoa has LBJ Medical Center that was a short flight away. They had some meds flew in from Hawaii for me.

The story of hospitals not being prepared if something happens is a reasonable fear that many people would have as they travel. I would not want to be in Kirabati and have a major problem, for example. I have had to explain to doctors that having a seizure is not from having cancer more than once. (No idea why some doctors think seizures only come from cancer patients)

While this is more extreme in remote Pacific islands (admittedly), this can be an issue when traveling anywhere outside of the “first world.” I have had to get care at the district hospital in Cuyo, Palawan and it reminds you more of a MASH show than a legit hospital in the twenty first century. Knowing this could limit your travels to major cities in Asia and the Pacific.

Taking steps to travel with disabilities

With things like these known, if you still want to travel; you will need to take some steps that most people would not to make it happen. There is nothing wrong with wanting to do it. I have done it and I am continuing to do it. It is very possible.

Educate yourself

Most people just know the basics of their disorder and let the medical staff at the doctor’s office be the one with the knowledge. When you are traveling, it is best that you are the expert on your condition. Commit to stay informed on what you need to do and not do and what options are out there. This will only help a doctor in one of these hospitals that has never dealt with what your disability is.

This would seem like a no brainer but the sad truth is many people do not know anything beyond the most elementary knowledge of what they deal with. I would think the more you know about your challenges, the better things would be but I realize we live in a culture (in America) where we just trust the doctors to know best for us.

Slow yourself down

One of the most important things I can do when traveling is take a day that I do nothing. When in the Pacific, this can be easy because of the weather. When it rains all day, there is not much you can do. Staying dry becomes the order of the day. In doing that, I have down days and take it easy. This is important for people with disabilities to do more than most other people.

I would recommend as a general rule for people with these challenges to take one day a week that is just rest time. For me, that is normally Sunday because I go to church and then do very little afterwards. This was how I was raised as a child than Sunday is for religious expression and for resting.

Find other people to move around with

It is best to have people around you if anything happens. It does not have to be a nurse that happens to be traveling (but that would be awesome). It could just be people that have basic understanding and are willing to help you if you need it. I have been lucky to always find these type of people all over the world in hostels and random meetings in airports.

It is good that they could be there to make sure you are safe (and not robbed by locals) if you do have something happen. In my case, it is normally that I just need to sit down for thirty minutes or more but other people with other challenges might have different needs.

The important thing for traveling with medical issues is having a plan in place to make sure you can be safe and make sure you stay healthy.

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