By H’sien Hayward
(JOZU Editors Note: Traveling in a wheelchair presents new challenges most of the community will never face. Whilst the hospitality industry continues to have to raise its standards to facilitate wheelchair traveler needs, we connected with one amazing female who inspires us to travel more and live with greater gratitude. If you ever get a chance to meet H’sien, you’ll be amazed at her effervescent personality, quick wit, and genuine joie de vivre. She is a humanitarian, Harvard graduate and PhD, and an expert on the subject of trauma. She knows a great deal about trauma, because when H’Sien (pronounced Shen) was 16, and suffered a car accident en route to the beach in Hawaii that left her paralyzed from the chest down. When she awoke in the hospital from a coma, her doctors insisted that she would be subject to a life less ordinary and gave this young woman a litany of grim scenarios: Walking is something you will never do. You’ll use a wheelchair for the rest of your life.”
To understand H’sien is to know that a few years before her life-changing car accident, her brother passed away. Her parents and she had already dealt with the loss of a child/loved one. In spite of her fate of being wheelchair bound from such a young age, she and her parents were thrilled that she was alive with full mental faculties. “The paralysis was nothing to them,” she says. “Life was beautiful, standing or sitting. It really didn’t matter.” With an alternative perspective on her accident, Hayward was able to avoid the depression predicted by the doctors. The former track star remains paraplegic today, however, she remembers the crash not primarily for what it disabled, but for what it sparked.
During her time working on her Ph.D. in Social Psychology, H’sien has made the science of happiness her area of focus at Harvard. She’s become an expert at helping others to understand how to help others achieve it post trauma. “There’s a great deal of work to be done, not just in societal perceptions of trauma, but in the actual medical practices following trauma.” And while her findings on the relationship between trauma and happiness may be surprising to most, they align perfectly with Hayward’s personal experience: instead of an obstacle to happiness, trauma can often serve as an impetus to its discovery.
Being a wheelchair bound traveler has not banished her zest for life or wanderlust. In fact, H’sien has been to more than 42 countries and offers her top tips for wheelchair bound explorers:
Both because you’re happy to be on an adventure, and because it’s the most important social cue I’ve found to summon help (and to become lifelong friends with fellow adventurers).
Talk to strangers – you’ll need them. I’ve been carried up 7 flights of stadium stairs at the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, lifted into tuk tuks in Bangkok, and been carried into bathrooms in almost every country in between. Strangers with huge hearts and the desire to help make your life a little easier are everywhere.
ASK FELLOW TRAVELERS WITH DISABILITIES FOR TIPS
If you can learn about the hostel in Bolivia that has first-floor access AND bathroom access while you are still stateside, you’ll be ahead of the game. (We’ve created a special group inside the JOZU for WOMEN forum for these discussions specifically – click here to access it!)
LEARN THE WORDS FOR HELP IN THE LOCAL LANGUAGE
Before I went backpacking around South America, I learned how to say, “Help me, please.” And, “One hand here and the other hand there,” to describe how to lift my wheelchair. (There is a great post on key phrases every solo explorer should learn here.)
You may feel scared – just go. You may feel that there are insurmountable obstacles – just go. You may think that it’s not worth the hassle. It is. Just go.
Got a tip for traveling in a wheelchair? Please share them with the group!