She completely lost her sight. Then she decided to travel the world

Editor’s Note: Sign up for Unlocking the World, CNN Travel’s weekly newsletter. Get the latest news in aviation, food and drink, where to stay and other travel developments.

On a recent trip to New York City, Sassy Wyatt stood atop the Empire State Building, the wind in her hair, soaking up the experience.

“I heard a helicopter flying by, I heard the sirens, I heard the birds, I heard people around me. I could smell the kind of the grittiness of the air – where it’s part clean air and part dusty is the only way I can explain it. And then feeling the kind of rattling – that’s what it felt like, the rattling – of the building underneath my feet,” Wyatt tells CNN Travel. “I realized how high up I was.”

Wyatt, who is now in her early thirties, lost her sight completely about a decade ago. The recent trip to New York was her second time in the city. She also visited before she became blind, back when she was 16.

As she stood at the top of the Empire State Building, Wyatt reflected on the difference between these two trips.

“I couldn’t really tell the enormity and the vastness of where I was in retrospect to when I was sighted, at 16 years old,” says Wyatt. “I couldn’t tell the scale of the size of the buildings and the vast expanse of what I could see beyond, and how everything got tinier and tinier and tinier, the further away it was. Of course I couldn’t experience that in the same way that a sighted person can.”

But Wyatt felt like she had a greater appreciation of the “essence” of New York City this time round, as she focused on absorbing the city with her other four senses.

Plus, standing next to Wyatt on her 102nd floor was her best friend, who described the view of the sea of skyscrapers “in her words, through her eyes.”

And as she stood there, Wyatt had an acute sense of the spirit, the atmosphere of New York. The city felt “fun and exciting and overwhelming.”

The experience brought “the city to life to me, in a different way,” says Wyatt.

And for Wyatt, this experience epitomizes why she loves traveling – because, not despite of, the fact she’s lost her sight.

“I really do believe that my blindness has actually opened up the world to help me see it better,” Wyatt says.

Losing her sight

Here's Wyatt photographed by the Empire State Building. She enjoyed visiting New York City in 2023 and absorbing what she calls the "essence" of the city. - Sassy Wyatt
Here's Wyatt photographed by the Empire State Building. She enjoyed visiting New York City in 2023 and absorbing what she calls the "essence" of the city. - Sassy Wyatt

Wyatt grew up in the UK with parents who prioritized travel. She recalls happy times spent on “camping trips, caravan trips and then further afield to Europe for one-, sometimes two-week all-inclusives.”

Then, aged seven, Wyatt broke her arm (“I was trying to ‘out tomboy’ my friend – jump off the swing at the highest point and do all the crazy stuff that 6-,7-,8-year-olds do.”)

A broken arm was unfortunate, but didn’t seem like anything much to worry about. No one was overly concerned until shortly after the injury, when Wyatt started experiencing unexplained swelling across her body.

Doctors investigated and Wyatt was diagnosed with arthritis, which had started attacking her organs, causing swelling and discomfort. She spent much of her childhood as a wheelchair user. Then, at 14, the arthritis started to impact Wyatt’s eyesight.

“I started to have a lot of inflammation and pain in my eyes, and my eyes were getting very painful, as well as bloodshot,” recalls Wyatt. “My vision started to go a bit blurry.”

In her late teens, Wyatt was registered blind, although she still retained some of her vision.

It was a blow, but Wyatt’s parents had fostered in her a strong belief that “travel was for everybody.” She’d traveled as a wheelchair user through most of her childhood and her family had adopted the attitude of, “‘we’ll figure it out – if we don’t have the answer, we’ll find someone that does,’” as Wyatt puts it.

So Wyatt went into her early adulthood with that mindset – sure, her sight was failing, but she wanted to experience college life, to go to bars and clubs with her friends, to travel and enjoy life.

On vacation, she enjoyed paragliding and winter sports.

“I felt really empowered as a disabled person being able to do activities, like skiing, which is an adventure sport,” Wyatt recalls.

But then, in her early twenties, Wyatt lost her vision entirely. She was in the middle of a college degree and felt lost. She temporarily lost confidence in everything, dropped out of university, and faced down a slew of job rejections.

“I took about two years to physically get back on my feet, deal with my situation, get support for my mental health, my physical health,” Wyatt says.

“I did fall into a state of depression. But I also realized that I didn’t want life to stop. So I started volunteering in my local area, and giving back to people who were in the sight loss community.”

During this period, Wyatt slowly regained a sense of self and purpose. She started dating her now husband, a long-term friend who was there for her during this tough time.

“And the more I built my own confidence, getting back on my feet, the more I was like, ‘I would like to see the world. I don’t want my blindness to stop me seeing the world.’”

It was this mindset that led Wyatt and her partner to RSVP ‘yes’ to a friend’s wedding in Malta in 2016. It was to be Wyatt’s first trip abroad since losing her sight.

The couple tried to travel without any expectations, without putting any undue pressure on themselves.

“We just had it as a break, and as a quite relaxing holiday where I got to see my friend get married,” says Wyatt. “Except for the fact that I broke my leg whilst in Malta…We look at it now, especially, as quite an amusing experience that the first time I ever plucked up the courage to go and be abroad, completely blind, I go throw myself off a cliff and break my leg.”

It wasn’t an ideal outcome, but Wyatt wasn’t deterred by this bump in the road.

“I couldn’t have a fear of traveling or leaving my country or leaving my own front door,” she says, adamantly. “Because accidents can happen at any time to anybody, it doesn’t matter whether you’re blind or not.”

Plus, on Wyatt’s next trip abroad she had extra support, in the form of her guide dog, Ida. The duo headed to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, to attend a travel conference.

It was the first time Wyatt had traveled on a plane solo – or at least “without another human.” She wasn’t really alone, Ida was there by her side the whole time.

Ida’s role in Wyatt’s life was transformative. When the duo travel, she guides Wyatt through the airport, through train stations, and helps her find her way in hotel rooms, vacation rentals, on cruise ships.

“I feel like she’s given me my brain power back,” says Wyatt of her guide dog. “She allowed me to get lost, but feel safe getting lost.”

Traveling the globe

Here's Wyatt and her guide dog, Ida, about to board a small airplane for a flying lesson. - Sassy Wyatt
Here's Wyatt and her guide dog, Ida, about to board a small airplane for a flying lesson. - Sassy Wyatt

Around the time Ida entered Wyatt’s life, Wyatt started a blog, called Blind Girl Adventures, chronicling her travels.

Wyatt grew her following quickly, and started going to more travel conferences and industry meet-ups. Along the way, she met people who traveled for a living and realized that, while they all shared a passion for traveling, Wyatt was often one of the only disabled people in the room.

“People were interested in my lived experience. How I travel, how I do things and how other destinations can make their marketing or their digital inclusion or their hotels, their clients – the whole aspect of travel – how they could make it better for disabled people,” says Wyatt. “And then that light bulb flicked on. I realized I could scale this into making it into a career.”

Today, Wyatt works full-time as a travel and accessibility consultant, with a goal to “help change the landscape of accessible tourism.” On social media and on her blog, she speaks candidly about her experiences – the good and the bad. She posts videos explaining how she takes in the inflight safety demonstrations and blogs about how to book special assistance in the airport. Wyatt’s honest about the frustrations and limitations of traveling while blind – such as the need to arrive at airports much earlier than other travelers. She also embraces humor, and gives her followers tips and ideas of what to do on their vacations.

“When I travel, it’s about embracing the moment,” says Wyatt. “Whether that’s meeting a local person in a cafe and speaking to them about how they built their business, or being on an excursion with a bunch of travel bloggers and when the tour guide says, ‘Hey who fancies hiking down the side of the gorge?’ being the only one to say ‘yes.’”

Wyatt always does a lot of research before undertaking a trip – usually looking at blogs, books and articles to get a sense of her destination.

“Most people, if they’re traveling and really trying to throw you into the experience that they’ve had, they will write with all five senses – how they’ve seen it and how they’ve expressed it and how it made them feel,” says Wyatt.

Wyatt engages with podcasts and travel videos too – she especially enjoys when the footage includes the natural soundtrack of “the birds in the background, or the motorbike whizzing by.” When film clips get overlaid with music, Wyatt finds it a bit frustrating.

Before heading on the airplane, Wyatt also studies the language of her destination and learns key phrases so she can explain her needs and requirements to hoteliers, Uber drivers and anyone else she might come into contact with.

Then, when Wyatt arrives at her destination, she approaches the experience with an open mind – happy to put all her research to one side if need be.

“What I love about travel is the unknown excitement that you can get from it,” she says. “Yes, you can plan it to the nth degree, and you can have an itinerary that makes your time worthwhile in that country or in that destination. But it’s about saying yes to the unexpected, and seeing where it takes you.”

‘Open book’

Wyatt loves exploring the globe. Here she is in Paris, photographed by the Eiffel Tower. - Sassy Wyatt
Wyatt loves exploring the globe. Here she is in Paris, photographed by the Eiffel Tower. - Sassy Wyatt

Wyatt describes herself as an “open book” who loves making new connections when she travels. She enjoys chatting to strangers on buses and trains, answering their questions and enlightening them on the reality of her experience as a blind woman traveling the world.

Meanwhile on social media, Wyatt loves it when she can “convert” someone who approaches her page with negativity or skepticism and instead invite them into her world.

For example, one of the most common questions she gets is how can she read the Instagram comments and reply if she can’t see. In response, Wyatt will politely explain that she uses the accessibility features inbuilt within smart phones.

Wyatt also gets some commentors question her love of traveling.

“People ask me: ‘If you can’t see, why would you bother traveling?’” Wyatt says. In response, Wyatt tells them about how she engages with places with her other senses, and gets to know destinations in different ways.

And while she comes face-to-face with the occasional troll, Wyatt is largely followed by people who are inspired and entertained by her content – from people looking to be better allies to disabled travelers to people who live with disabilities themselves.

Wyatt isn’t necessarily setting out to be inspirational – she’s just being herself, and is always looking to learn from others’ experiences too.

Still, she loves getting messages from people who say her content has motivated them to travel to a big city with their visually impaired child for the first time, or prompted them to book a trip they’ve been anxious about, knowing their guide dog will be in tow.

While Wyatt has a positive mindset, she is also open about the limitations she experiences. Navigating airports can be difficult, for example. Public transport options can be frustratingly limited. And Wyatt’s only traveled with her guide dog within Europe, where she feels protected under European accessibility access laws, and because taking Ida further afield could be complicated.

On her honeymoon to Jamaica, for example, Wyatt left Ida at home as she was concerned her dog – used to cold British climes – wouldn’t adapt well to the heat. Despite Ida’s absence, it was a fantastic trip and Wyatt and her husband made the vacation work for them both.

Here's Wyatt on board a cruise ship on one of her adventures. - Sassy Wyatt
Here's Wyatt on board a cruise ship on one of her adventures. - Sassy Wyatt

Wyatt says her husband is a great travel partner and “an excellent guide.”

“He’s very good at describing the world around me,” she says. “He’s very good at explaining things in museums, and he loves people-watching – so he explains things like that to me, which I find really fascinating.”

Wyatt and her husband are a good team, but they do have slightly different travel styles – Wyatt’s husband would happily lie on a beach all day or restaurant-hop, while she’s more of an adrenaline junkie. She loves “kayaking, or rock climbing, or ziplining, things like that – even just hikes.”

In general, Wyatt always enjoys feeling that she’s “at one with nature, at one with the people that I’m with.”

And while she’s always been a bit of a thrillseeker, Wyatt suggests there is also a correlation between her love of adventure sports and her lack of vision.

“You don’t have to have sight to appreciate the thrill of adventure,” explains Wyatt. She adores experiencing “the wind rushing through your hair and your clothes when you’re on a zipline” or feeling the gushing water and “everyone screaming with laughter or bashing off the riverbanks and stuff and people getting stuck” during white water rafting.

“I just find the chaos of that [adventure sports] fun,” says Wyatt, laughing.

Enjoying the moment

While these adventurous moments are some of the highlights of Wyatt’s travels, she also enjoys the quieter calmer moments of reflection.

She recalls a moment in Malta, on that first trip she took after losing her sight. She was “standing on the beach with my toes curled into the sand, feeling the heat press upon me, and listening to the waves lap against the seashore.”

Wyatt remembers “just breathing in that fresh sea air, and being surrounded by nature, its beauty, and feeling significant and yet completely insignificant. I was like the grain of sand that’s upon the beach,” she says.

For Wyatt, this was an absorbing, incredible and unforgettable moment.

“I didn’t have to be able to see the blue waters and the golden sand to know how beautiful and extraordinary it was and experience being there,” she says.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com

Advertisement