My most important piece of advice: If the spirit of adventure lives in your heart, beware of naysayers. The world is full of naysayers.
One of my childhood dreams was to run away to the tropics. I am living my tropical dream in Panama. Lots of things changed between my childhood dream and the expat life I have achieved. The most significant was a diving accident, a broken neck, and most of my life as a quadriplegic using a manual wheelchair. This did not stop me from moving to Panama by myself.
I am not saying that because I have a disability and I did this, you can do it too. This is not a cheerleading article or some type of inspirational manifesto. For me to assume that every person with a disability who wants to move abroad can do it, is as wrong as all the non-disabled people who tell us we can’t. The expat life is not for everyone, that goes for disabled and non-disabled persons.
Anyone looking to move abroad should start with the same three steps:
Make a list of what you are looking for in your new land. Brainstorm, get as many items as possible on your list. These will guide you when you begin your research.
Climate? Cheaper cost of living? Beach? Mountains?
With a disability your self-evaluation must include:
- What level of accessibility is necessary?
- How much help will you require?
Accessible transportation can be a problem. As a wheelchair user, I have not seen an accessible bus in Panama. Taxis are fine with my manual chair. If you use an electric wheelchair or scooter, can you carry it in a regular taxi?
What are your must-haves? Your would-be-nice-to-haves? Your must-not-haves!
Prioritize your list. Research will not answer all your questions. Know what questions you will look to answer on your first visit.
The internet should not be your only information source. Talk about where you are interested in moving. Find people who have been there. A woman at a pool overheard me talking about Panama. Her father was stationed in Panama and she lived here for years. While she was working on her tan, she shared valuable firsthand information. This unexpected encounter led me to things I had overlooked.
Do not take anyone’s accessibility assessment! This is true anywhere in the world. I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered serious accessibility problems after being told other people in wheelchairs have been there before.
A new hotel in Germany assured my travel agent they were accessible. They had steps at the entrance and an elevator so small my manual wheelchair barely fit. A hotel in Panama City sent me photos of their accessible room and bathroom. Upon arrival, I discovered the photos did not show the 22-inch bathroom door. I had to go searching for an accessible room. My driver took me on a grueling last-minute search for a room with an accessible bathroom. We went to seven, yes seven, hotels looking for an accessible room before ending up at the Marriott.
- Personal Visit
The only way to make a proper assessment for something this important is to see it yourself. The military calls this boots on the ground. I made three visits before deciding to live in Panama for a year to make my final assessment.
My first visit was with a friend in case I needed help. On my second visit, I had appointments with real estate agents. These tours made me reconsider a condo purchase. Every condo I saw would have required significant renovation for wheelchair accessibility.
Many things I saw made Panama attractive. My third visit was to learn what I could not see. I went to a relocation conference to gather information. Assuming that because it is done one way in your country it will be done the same in another country is dangerous. Each country has laws and customs you do not know. Ignorance can be expensive.
I saw a lot of ramps, curb cuts, and designated parking spaces. This made me wonder if these were legally required. This is too important to assume. It must be verified.
Assumptions always remind me of a line from a 1930s movie.
“Never assume! When you ass-u-me, you make an ass of u and me.”
Do your research. There is a wonderful resource to help with your search. The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) is a leading U.S. civil rights law and policy center directed by individuals with disabilities and parents who have children with disabilities. Their website has a page on disability laws in other nations.
The first thing you will find for most nations is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This is recognized worldwide. It was signed by 164 nations. The CRPD is a human rights document that establishes principles. There are no mandates like in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which it was based upon. You must find out if the country you are interested in has follow-up laws.
Find the agency responsible for their disability laws. The Panama National Disability Secretariat (SENADIS) provides valuable additional information on their website. (I use Google Translate to translate their web pages into English.)
Websites normally have a contact page where you can submit questions. SENADIS is the agency where I had to go to get my disability parking permit. If you plan on renting a vehicle, ask about a temporary parking permit for your visit.
Asking a broad question like “Is your country wheelchair accessible?” is useless. Specific questions about the laws, services the agency provides, and what services you might be eligible to receive as an expat are good ideas for questions. Ask if you can have your prescriptions mailed to you. They can also help you find agencies or private disability organizations that might be able to provide additional information or assistance to you.
Visiting the Country
Multiple visits are best. One visit should be during whatever is considered the off season. My three visits were each made in different months to check out the seasons. I still decided to spend a year in Panama before making a final decision.
Your first visit should not be a vacation. This should be a fact-finding mission. A list of questions from your research is a good guide to planning your trip. You can still have fun. Just plan to integrate information gathering in with your fun.
Are you planning a hike in the mountains, a day at the beach, or other sightseeing trips? Make a trip to a large supermarket first. Buy some local fruits or snacks that you would like to add to your diet if you lived here. Look at the variety of foods, especially what you would buy if you were planning to cook for a week. Compare prices with what you pay at home. (See currency tips below.)
Your diet will change. We have more fruit and often different vegetables with our meals. Some items have different names. Pintos, a southern staple, are called bayones here. You might have to get some items shipped to you or stock up on a return visit. Grits, stone ground cornmeal, and instant pudding are imports that are an important touch of home for us.
Visit a pharmacy. Check the availability and prices of your medicine. Some medicines are cheaper here, others are more expensive.
Do not be in a rush to move. Rent before you buy. Once you are living there for an extended time you can better evaluate exactly where you want to live. I alternated my monthly grocery purchases between two very different towns. Coronado is a beachfront expat community. Penonomé is a provincial capital in an agricultural area. I spent ten months in Panama before I made the decision to make my new home in Penonomé.
You can read about my move in Finding an Unexpected Paradise in Penonomé, Panama.
Living in a new country means experiencing a different culture. You will need to adapt, or as I like to think of it, evolve. My continuing evolution includes improving my Spanish and having to learn the metric system.
Yes, you need to learn the language! Basics like “please,” “thank you,” and “speak slower” are essential. Life is much easier when you can speak and read some of the local language. People are very tolerant with my poor Spanish.
I usually manage to communicate well enough. It has been important when I need help, like going up or down a bad ramp. A joke among my wheelchair buddies is there is nothing more dangerous than a helpful walkie. So, it is also good to know how to politely decline help.
Though there are times you MUST have a translator. Not just a friend who speaks the language pretty well. Any legal matter is very risky without a translator.
Don’t Be the Ugly American
When I arrived, I was advised there are three groups of people I will be encountering. The Panamanians; who are mostly friendly and accommodating. Expats; who are trying to learn the culture and live by the laws and customs of the Panamanians. And the Ugly American expats; people who come for benefits, like the climate or inexpensive life, but constantly complain and annoy the hell out of the first two groups.
Unfortunately, I witnessed too many of this last group. Living next to a restaurant frequented by expats for my first 18 months I saw too many conversations turn into bitch sessions. Complaints about things they do not have here, things that are not like back home, or worst of all, complaints about not enough people here speaking or understanding English. The Ugly American syndrome is not isolated to people from the United States.
Remember, you are a guest in their country. You can be kicked out. It is up to you to make the best of your experience. Hopefully, your expat experience will be as great as mine.