Woman sets record for visiting the highest number of countries in a wheelchair in one year

Renee Bruns shares her experiences on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/wheelstravels/)
Renee Bruns shares her experiences on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/wheelstravels/)

An American woman has set the world record for travelling to the most countries in a year in a wheelchair.

Renee Bruns, 38, was diagnosed with diastrophic dwarfism when she was 16 years old and spent much of her early years travelling around the US with her mother to see medical specialists.

By her 16th birthday, she had already visited all 50 US states, an experience that inspired her to see more of the world.

After experiencing burnout, Bruns took a sabbatical from her job as an insurance executive in 2022 to pursue a year of “intense full-on travel”.

While she’d previously travelled with a companion or her partner, Bruns opted to travel alone on her big trip, booking a one-way ticket to Bali, Indonesia.

“It was a very scary and liberating experience for me,” she told CNN.

“I don't have a dedicated medical assistant or a helper, if you will.”

Bruns says that while there is more awareness of wheelchair users compared with when she was growing up, there are still challenges, saying: “it hasn't been easy to navigate a world designed for people who use two legs”.

She said: “What I have seen in my lifetime is just a lot more awareness. 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.”

She cites Norway, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand as the countries with the most inclusive infrastructure, noting that more historic destinations tend to be poorer on this front.

While she accepts that the process of making a historic temple in Indonesia more accessible might be a challenge, she describes air travel as the biggest disappointment when travelling, stating that airlines have “a lot more to do” when it comes to making travel more inclusive 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 airlines 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 travelling] and just the treatment that the airlines give to people with disabilities.”

Despite this, Bruns says her experience of travelling using a wheelchair has given her an additional insight that non-disabled people may lack, citing an experience in Indonesia when she found herself temporarily stuck after she couldn’t get down a particularly high curb. In the end, a group of strangers came to her aid.

“In a strange kind of way, [being a wheelchair user] has allowed me to see humanity differently than an average traveller will see, because they can just go about, and step down that sidewalk and back up again,” she says.

“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.”

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.

With each new country she visits, Bruns aims to seek out a local person and “just chat with them about their family, life and culture”.

She says: “To be able to chat with a local person and just get to know them is one of the most rewarding things for me.

“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 described the Middle East as one of her favourite regions to visit, calling it “fascinating” and the people “some of the kindest in the world”.

The destinations she’s most looking forward to visiting next are Saudi Arabia and Madagascar.

Sharing her adventures on Instagram, she hopes her experiences will help inspire others to see as much of the world as possible.

“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.”