Travel & Holidays

Martyn Sibley: Overcoming my disability to volunteer abroad

Disability Horizons’ Co-Editor Martyn Sibley is heading off on an amazing journey to volunteer in sunny Spain

For my readers who know me personally or have read my blog since day 1 (, July 2009), you know what a journey I have been on. Getting through childhood, gaining my masters, managing full-time work, setting up my own business, my hectic social life and love of travel; all relished alongside my disability, reliance of technology and personal care assistance. Well, I write to you today with news of my biggest personal adventure yet!

I have tried to kept my transitions in life as simple as possible, because when you are disabled, nothing is easy and straight forward. To go to university and move to London you cannot imagine the hoops I had to jump through. Therefore my deeper desire to travel the world for longer periods was delayed whilst I arranged my foundations. Having mastered everyday life, and as you know travelled far and wide for the odd week, I’ve been yearning to travel somewhere for a longer period. For me, to truly learn a language you need to immerse yourself with native speakers. To taste world foods (something I’m bad at in England) you need to dine in that country. Finally, to meet different people with different perspectives, you have to get under the skin of a place.

Do not get me wrong, I love a good holiday and always will, but I’ve been longing for more. With my recent changes in work structure and some graft, I think I have cracked this wish at last.

When I was in a California a few years ago I expressed this sentiment during the high of our 12 day road trip. My ex girlfriend and carer for the trip, Tina, suggested I look into the European Voluntary Service (EVS). If selected for a project with a ‘host organisation’ anywhere across the European Union (EU) you then work with a ‘sending organisation’ to apply for the funding. If successful you have your flights, accommodation, food and a small living budget to volunteer on a variety of cool social projects.

At this stage I was in full-time employment and didn’t know whether I could request unpaid leave. However, I figured that looking into the scheme and the potential projects wouldn’t hurt. With my winters in the UK being so hard, the idea of somewhere hot appealed. The South of France, Portugal, Greece and Italy all could have been on my hit list. The trouble is that I am a guy who knows what I want and, in this case, it was Spain or bust. I simply love the language, of which I know 10 words from one year at school and ‘la cuenta por favor’ from the Canary Islands!

I set off to the EVS projects database and began searching. Whilst the project is important, and there were many cool ones, the important aspect was access. I sent a few enquiries and either didn’t hear back or heard they could not cater for me. This was going to be a long slog! I then had a breakthrough when I was put in touch with the great Chris Fisher from Leonard Cheshire’s ‘Can-Do’ volunteering project. He came to visit me where we discussed Spain, my needs and an action plan. A couple of weeks later he had contacted all of the Spanish agencies on my behalf. Very helpful.

So some weeks passed, some responses came in negatively and life rolled on. I don’t remember consciously giving up, but it all seemed impossible. None of the agencies grasped my needs or had the facilities to host me. It was then September when I was in New York (now self employed and concentrating on a million and one other things) that I received an email. It was from a lovely lady named Vane who remembered my query. She project manages Europa Aqui, which runs in Spain. They had recently moved to accessible premises and felt they could take me on. She recommended instead of doing 12 months, we apply for 2 months as a trial, then if all is ok I can always use my other 10 months another time.

Chris and Leonard Cheshire Disability brought expertise on disability and were keen for the first disabled person like myself to undertake EVS. However they were not an official ‘sending organisation’. We found one in Leeds called Everything is Possible – nicely named! I visited them last year to discuss everything. Next, this crack team of European wide agencies and little old me embarked on a rollercoaster of a mission.

Between us we had to seek funding for my basic needs as a volunteer, plus any other expenses for my disability. As I would only be away for 2 months, my social care package was fine (there can be a problem if you are out of the country for 6 months or more) therefore my care was covered. My PAs would need to fly to work, so they put this in the funding budget. Vane secured a free hoist, shower chair and electric bed from the Spanish Red Cross. Also her brother is disabled and has participated in EVS in Germany, so she knows it is possible. This was nice to know.

With all angles covered (care, equipment and money) we sent the application off. I heard in the first week of January this year that it was approved – over one year after I began the process. I was elated, especially as I seem to have been constantly communicating, planning and edging closer to this becoming a reality.

Whilst I will not have any costs, I will not be earning, so I am looking to sublet my flat for the 2 months of March and April. Please share this link if you know someone who needs a nice, affordable, accessible London flat

I will be volunteering on a project located in Aviles, Asturias on the north coast of Spain. My main tasks will be to teach basic English classes, promote EVS to Spanish people, promote my experiences of living abroad (no probs there then) and carry out some disability awareness training to local organisations. I will also live with 4 other volunteers, learn more Spanish and grow as a person. It will not always be easy, like with anybody away from home, but that is the adventure.

My 2 PAs do longer shifts now, so they’ll fly in and out to share my rota. I’ll take my wheelchair, the equipment is ordered and the rest I’ll figure out. I am heading there on the 16th to 19th February for a ‘planning visit’ to check it will be ok. Then I have a training day in Leeds, before heading for 2 months on 5th March. Exciting times.

I will have launched my employment e-course by then and obviously will not take on any consultancy projects. I will continue to run my blog, Disability Horizons and my monthly webinars; do not despair. I plan to post regular updates on my progress in Spain, sharing the ups and downs with you in true blogger fashion.

I’ll finish by saying: do not ever let your disability, or indeed any other reason in life, stop you living the dream! I have not, am not and will not… It takes vision, research, graft and resilience, but trust me it is all worth it.

By Martyn Sibley

Thinking of travelling yourself? Take a look at our Travel section to discover how other disabled people have enjoyed adventures around the world.

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