Differently-abled?

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Tony Giles is an amazing individual.

Appropriately enough, I first met Tony on a flight high above the desert of the middle east. As fellow travellers, we found ourselves comparing notes at 34,000 feet about which countries we had visited so far. It was a conversation I was able to continue when he recently came to visit Mauritius.

Some years ago, after completing his Masters Degree in Transatlantic Studies (which personally I struggle to spell, let alone study) he faced the same dilemma as many other students considering life after their studies, what to do next. Whilst most of his university peers turned towards the corporate world, Tony instinctively knew that wasn’t for him and instead decided to take some time out to explore the world. One trip led to another, one country led to the another, until the thought occurred to him that perhaps he should simply visit every country in the world!

Simple or not, that is exactly what he has spent pretty much the last decade doing, as he has gradually made his way across the globe. To date he has travelled to 140 counties, visited all fifty states of the USA, crossed the Artic Circle and stepped foot on the least hospitable continent on the planet, Antartica.

Such a voyage would be daunting enough for most people, but Tony is completely blind and is 80% deaf in both ears.

As someone who has travelled extensively myself, I know just how challenging it can be to find yourself in the middle of a foreign land, unable to speak the language, unfamiliar with the local culture, and unsure which direction to travel. And I am not disabled. Tony has been travelling, by himself, with a disability most of us can hardly begin to comprehend.

All of this got me to thinking, what does disability even mean anyway?

The very word suggests an inability to do something, but over the course of my own travels I have met disabled swimmers who can swim a lot faster than I can. I have met disabled runners who can run a lot faster than I can. And now I have met a disabled traveller who has travelled a lot further than I have. So what exactly are their so-called disabilities meant to be preventing these people from doing?

Perhaps the issue here is actually one of language. Instead of thinking in terms of someone being disabled, I wonder whether it would be more appropriate to consider them differently-abled? In that respect, perhaps we are all differently-abled in our own way, each of us having to deal with the challenges of life based on our own personal circumstances.

Unfortunately Tony was only in Mauritius for a short while, and as I dropped him back to the airport, I was struck by something a friendly staff member said when looking at his passport. “Would you like some help to find your way around?” the staff member asked. “No thank you,” was Tony’s upbeat reply, “this is my 141st country and I have managed just fine so far”.

So much for his disability.

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