In this commentary, Leanna Lee shares the financial and health-related pros and cons of her experiences as a disabled digital nomad.
This commentary is part of the Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, a partnership with TCF’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. Voices of Disability Economic Justice showcases disabled writers’ first-person perspectives on the economic issues that matter most to them.
As a chronically ill, freelance digital nomad, I’m very aware that being able to live and work anywhere is a big privilege. But the things I love most about being a nomad—freedom and flexibility—can be a double-edged sword.
I’ve lived with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and complex-PTSD for most of my life. In 2013, I realized being a freelancer would make managing chronic illness easier because I could dictate my own schedule and work life. When COVID hit, I found myself getting restless and struggling to maintain my health and energy. My partner and I finally decided to give nomadism a try in late 2021 to see if a change of pace and country would help.
Now it’s hard to imagine living any other way, though there are pros and cons to this lifestyle.
Being a digital nomad requires the ability, freedom, and desire to move. In some ways, being disabled and a digital nomad seem directly opposed, but they both focus on the same end goal: finding ways to live well.
Digital nomadism is a form of geoarbitrage, the practice of living in lower-cost areas to increase quality of life. It’s infinitely flexible because it allows you to tailor your lifestyle to the accommodations, locations, and travel style you prefer. As a nomad, I can choose to live in big cities or the middle of nowhere. Rather than being bound by costs of living or housing prices in my home state, I use homestay rental platforms to pick affordable accommodations.
My partner and I often need very specific things in a home: a second bedroom for my insomnia, multiple workspaces, nearby amenities, and access to outdoor space. We couldn’t afford the monthly rent that having these features would normally cost, but by picking our destinations carefully and staying a few months at a time, they become more accessible.
We also save crucial time and energy on bills. High-speed Internet and other utilities are generally included in our housing costs wherever we go. We only take what we can carry and always have a furnished home to go to, which is a big financial and mental load taken off of us. And by picking a country, region, or town with a lower cost of living, we also buy into a slower-paced lifestyle—often with better views.
But as someone with conditions often triggered by stress, uncertainty, and financial issues, the nomad life also poses certain challenges.
Starting over each time does bring expenses. We may live in furnished homes or hostels with all bills included, but there are still hidden expenses we have to swallow at each location. Grocery staples like flour, spices, and cleaning supplies aren’t always provided and we often find ourselves filling these gaps, only to leave them behind when we move on. We’ve collected plug adaptors, extension cords, and random odds and ends. The weight—and cost—add up.
Another huge disadvantage can be the lack of access to health care. When I’m abroad, health care is readily available and cheaper than in the United States. But there is still a limit to the therapies, medications, and resources I can use to manage my conditions, such as cannabis. Some countries and states still ban it, while others require a medical card or have limits around amount, type, and how you can travel with it.
But back in the United States, I often have to choose between staying in higher-cost areas so I can see health care providers and cheaper locations farther from my care support network. For example, therapy restrictions in the United States mean my access to the therapist I’ve worked with for seven years is completely cut off once I leave my home state.
Living as a disabled digital nomad can feel contradictory at times—a tug of war between different aspects of quality of life. Do I choose more affordable housing and better surroundings or steady access to comprehensive health care? They both have a significant impact on my health.
As difficult as these choices may be, I still find that being a disabled digital nomad feels natural. People with chronic illnesses and freelancers already live on the fringes of society, so in many ways, it’s simply an extension of the life I already know.