Traveling the world as a wheelchair user
CNN — Born with an undiagnosed medical condition, Renee Bruns, who has been using a
Born with an undiagnosed medical condition, Renee Bruns, who has been using a wheelchair since she was seven, developed a love for travel after spending much of her younger years going from state to state to see medical specialists around the US with her mother.
By the time she was 16, Bruns, who was eventually diagnosed with diastrophic dwarfism – also known as diastrophic dysplasia – a skeletal dysplasia that affects cartilage and bone development, had been to all 50 US states and was itching to see more of the world.
“I think it’s one of the silver linings of having a disability, I started to see the world from a different perspective,” Bruns tells CNN Travel. “I was thinking, ‘Well, what’s next?’”
She soon began traveling internationally, visiting nearly 70 countries, including Peru, Cambodia, Laos, Kenya and Turkey in the following two decades or so.
After suffering what she describes as “burnout,” Bruns decided to take a sabbatical from her job as an insurance executive in order to pursue a year of “intense full-on travel.”
And while she’d previously traveled with a family member or her life partner Tony, who she could call on for help when necessary, Bruns opted to go solo this time.
“It was a very scary and liberating experience for me,” she admits. “I don’t have a dedicated medical assistant or a helper, if you will.”
Bruns then bought herself a one-way ticket to Bali, Indonesia, and set off on the adventure of a lifetime in May 2022.
As of now, she has traveled to 117 of the 195 UN-recognized countries and territories on the globe, and hopes to visit the remaining 78 destinations in the next decade or so.
Although she notes that it “hasn’t been easy to navigate a world designed for people who use two legs,” Bruns has noticed a significant shift in attitudes over the past few decades.
“What I have seen in my lifetime is just a lot more awareness,” she says. “People are much more willing to help. There’s not this scariness factor of someone with a wheelchair.
“I experienced that a lot in my younger years and I don’t get it so much anymore.”
However, while perspectives may have changed considerably over the years, Bruns still faces constant barriers while traveling, in the form of inaccessible infrastructure, such as buildings without elevators or ramps and bathrooms with narrow doors.
“In the US, and many other countries, the infrastructure is just there, the regulations are there, the law is there,” she explains, naming Norway, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand among the destinations with particularly inclusive infrastructure.
“You get to other parts of the world, especially parts of the world that have much more history, and those things aren’t there.”
During her visit to Indonesia last year, Bruns found herself temporarily stuck at a sidewalk with a big curb that she simply couldn’t get down.
Fortunately, a group of strangers came to her aid, a scenario that seems to be something of a regular occurrence for her.
“In a strange kind of way, [being a wheelchair user] has allowed me to see humanity differently than an average traveler will see, because they can just go about, and step down that sidewalk and back up again,” she adds.
“It’s no big deal [for them]. But I’m really relying on the help of complete strangers to get me to the places I want to go.”
While there have been “tons” of monuments that she hasn’t been able to enter simply because they weren’t accessible for a wheelchair user, Bruns says she’s usually able to “get relatively close.”
“I always remind myself that I might not be able to see a specific monument,” she adds. “But if I made it to that city or that country, and I saw part of it, I’m luckier than most people in the world.”
Before heading to a new destination, Bruns tends to spend around a month planning her visit. One of her main priorities is to ensure that she can access her accommodation easily. This usually involves looking closely at images of the property and emailing ahead to find out the layout.
“We can’t just assume that there’s going to be an elevator or a ramp,” she explains.
However, despite the careful pre-planning, it’s not unusual for Bruns to arrive at a hotel or guest house and find a previously unmentioned set of steps leading up to the lobby.
“Again, this is where the kindness of people has really proven me well,” she says.
“I’ve had tons of piggyback rides from men all over the world. I’ve had women and men come and grab the front or the back of my wheelchair and help me up a flight of stairs. So it always works out.”
However, Bruns admits that these miscommunications over infrastructure can be hugely frustrating, “especially when you’re tired and you just want to get to your room.”
For Bruns, one of the most disappointing aspects of her travel experiences over the years has been the process of getting on a plane, and she stresses that airlines have “a lot more to do” when it comes to making airplanes more accessible for people with disabilities.
“In the past two or three years, it’s gotten slightly better,” she says. “And I hesitate to even say ‘slightly,’ because I don’t want to give the airline’s too much credit.
“There is an immense amount of work that can go into flying for people with disabilities, and the airlines have a huge, huge responsibility to make it better.
“It is one of the most frustrating parts [of traveling,] and just the treatment that the airlines give to people with disabilities.”
Bruns goes on to explain that, while she accepts that the process of making a historic temple in Indonesia more accessible may be difficult and expensive, she struggles to understand why adapting a modern aircraft for people with disabilities might be.
“It’s just modifying the process,” she adds. “And it feels like it should be easier than what it is.”
Throughout her lengthy travels, Bruns has visited the Maldives, opting to stay on the main island instead of the “big over-the-water bungalow standard,” camped overnight under the stars in Antarctica and gone scuba diving in Honduras.
She recently achieved the Guinness World Record for the person who has traveled to the most countries using a wheelchair in one year, and her long-term goal is to become the fastest person to visit very country in the world in a wheelchair.
However, there are still many travel experiences that others take for granted that are simply not feasible for her. Hiking through the mountains or deserts being among them.
Bruns often finds herself looking wistfully at social media posts of travelers traversing through “some of those places [that] don’t have concrete, asphalt or even paths,” and sleeping in tents.
“It’s simply not on my radar,” she concedes. “I know I’m not going to be able to do it.”
Of the nearly 120 countries and territories that she’s been able to visit, Bruns says she was particularly impressed by the Middle East.
“The Middle East is a very fascinating place to me and I want to go back,” she says. “I have found the people there to be some of the kindest in the world, and the culture is just so warm and welcoming. I cannot stop reading about it.”
According to Bruns, Saudi Arabia is one of the destinations she’s most looking forward to visiting over the next few years, along with Madagascar.
“I’m really, really curious about the culture [of Saudi Arabia],” she says, before adding that she’s attracted to the biodiversity and nature of Madagascar.
Each time she visits a new place, Bruns tries to seek out a local and “just chat with them about their family, life and culture.”
“To be able to chat with a local person and just get to know them is one of the most rewarding things for me,” she says.
“It’s such a solid reminder of how much human beings have in common, and how much we are the same.
“There’s so much hate in the world, but when you really sit down with people from all over the world, [you find that] we are really all the same. And it’s really refreshing.”
Bruns, who shares stories from her travels on her Instagram page, has been contacted by fellow travelers with disabilities for advice, and says she sometimes reaches out to others in the community for guidance when visiting somewhere new.
“There’s not a lot of wheelchair travelers,” she says. “So it’s really cool to be part of that small little community.”
She hopes that her experiences will help to inspire others like her to get out there and see more of the world.
“My biggest message would be to all of the young adults and children thinking about doing this, who are afraid to do it, especially if you have limitations, just jump in and do it,” she says. “It’s a big world and there’s a lot to see. You won’t regret it.”
Over the past few years, Bruns says that a number of physicians have questioned whether the diagnosis she received, which was apparently based on physical attributes, all those years ago was actually correct.
As a result, she is currently in the process of having her DNA examined to determine whether a formal diagnosis can be given today.
While she’s learned a great deal from her travels, Bruns stresses that the confidence she’s gained from going it alone and having to make all of the big decisions along the way herself has probably been the biggest takeaway.
“If I messed up, it was my fault,” she says. “If I had a great time, it was also my fault, which is a beautiful thing.
“And just knowing that you can go out to the other side of the world with a limitation or a challenge and do it by yourself is the biggest confidence booster I think anyone can get.”