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I’m off to South Korea and my friends say I’m crazy! But who says you can’t explore on your own in a wheelchair?

Hi there, I’m Sergei and I’ve been working with Permobil this year in a marketing role. I’m a C6 incomplete quadriplegic and had the burning urge this year to take off on my own for the first time.

One of the most common questions I get asked after my first solo overseas trip in a wheelchair is, “Why South Korea?” I certainly don’t blame them for being confused. It’s easy to forget about this tiny peninsula, other than the news headlines regarding its northern neighbor. It’s not exactly a “holiday getaway”. It’s overshadowed by bigger neighbors in the region who get more of the traditional tourism pie. Indeed, for many, Incheon International Airport is a stop-over at best.

Two reasons made me choose Seoul:
1. It’s highly developed. As a wheelchair user rolling out into the unknown, I needed my destination to be accessible, at least on the surface (more on that later…). A quick Google image search of the streets made me say “Yep, looks about right.” “Hang on Sergei, many places in East Asia are developed” you say. Yes, true. But have you seen South Korea on a map? It’s tiny, surely that means it’s more manageable for a wayward traveler like myself, right? To be honest I had no clue, but it seemed like a middle ground that travelers overlook in that region. I wanted to know why.
2. I have a couple of friends that live there. This one was a bit of a no-brainer. I’ve met many international people who lived and worked in Sydney, some who stayed in touch long after they returned. Koreans make up a large portion of visitors who stick around and work here in Australia. We have them to thank for the huge number of delicious Korean restaurants here.
I didn’t have the vote of confidence. Almost every Korean person I spoke to balked at the idea of using a wheelchair in Seoul. “Umm no way” was the usual response. “Electric maybe but pushing?” was another. People were genuinely fearful for my safety. An overreaction, for sure? From what I could see it had flat streets (much flatter than Mount Sydney) and lifts in an ultra-modern city, with a statistically low crime rate to boot. I wasn’t too concerned.

While not necessary, I went with a travel agent as it was my first time. I just needed that reassurance, that emergency phone number in case everything went belly up on the first day. The benefit is that they speak to all your providers, airlines, hotels and tour guides about your access needs. This saved me having me to make international calls and flipping through a dictionary. Sadly, but not entirely unexpected, tour guides at the destination refused to deal with a wheelchair citing accessibility concerns. This made me ask around on sites like TripAdvisor until one was willing to do a private one-on-one day tour, a small company called Traesco.
What to bring? My biggest worry about travelling was how I was going to lug everything around on my own. Luckily, the list wasn’t too expansive. If it’s your first time going overseas these are essential:
– Power assist: If you’re using a manual chair, and unless you’re super confident in your arms, bring a form of this. For me this meant SmartDrive. Detachable and storable on the plane.
– Continence aids plus extra. Bring more than you need as it’s likely your bowel routine will be thrown into disarray with the change in hours, transit and food types.
– Commode or toilet seat. I brought with me a foldable NuProdx commode seat. With just the seat and detachable legs, something like this can fit into your luggage, but still takes up valuable room. A must-have nonetheless.
– Vocabulary. If you’re travelling to a non-English speaking country it pays to learn some phrases. This will open up opportunities with locals and shows goodwill to the country you’re visiting.

Everything else is down to your needs. If you’re carrying prescription medication some countries may need to see the prescription. A SmartDrive or other lithium battery-powered device MUST have a manufacturer specification sheet. Click here for the SmartDrive certificate. Qantas have a separate approval for dangerous goods.

Incredibly, it all fit into one bag bar the wheelchair and SmartDrive. The SmartDrive was essential. For a manual chair on-the-go, I believe it’s the best option. Asiana Airlines happily accepted me storing it on-board with my carry on luggage.
Which bag? After trying normal suitcases that were too difficult to push in a wheelchair, I gave the Phoenix Instinct wheelchair travel bag a go. It wasn’t very cheap but I was desperate to find a seamless solution. With not long to go until my flight, carrying my luggage was my biggest obstacle. A bit of work was needed to attach it to my TiLite chair with an extra set of hands. But it proved to be a lifesaver. Once set up, I could carefully pop it on and off the rear bar of my chair.
Incredibly, I was carrying just under 20kg and pushing my way through the airport. It was a surreal experience. Just me, the chair and a bag that hopefully had all I need for the next 10 days.
Join me on the next few weeks as I blog about my very normal adventure, which just happened to include a wheelchair.

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