Traveling with a disability

Travelling with a disability is far from easy. But it is exactly what I have been doing for the past 36 years. I have had my disability since 1978 after sustaining a T4 spinal cord injury in a car wreck. At that time I was 20 years old and still believed I had the world at my feet and after rehabilitation, I would continue to live my life as I wanted to: working, shopping, going out to dinner, having adventures with friends and family and travelling.

In 1978, rehabilitation meant learning to dress yourself, transfer to and from your chair, safely cook in a kitchen that was not designed to accommodate functioning in a wheelchair – basically doing everything just a little bit lower than face level.

The first step in continuing a normal life (pre-injury) I purchased a van, equipped with a wheelchair lift and hand controls. Now I would have my independence back!

It didn’t take long to realize that I was now living in a world that was approximately 90% inaccessible to me without assistance, at least one person to help me with curbs, stairs, heavy doors and other barricades that were not taken into consideration when design was done.

Fortunately and thankfully, due to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility an accommodation for all types of disability are being considered in the beginning phases of architectural design, city planning, and other forms of daily living. But inevitably when travelling, some form of in-access will need to be addressed before venturing into unfamiliar territory.

Here are a few things that I do in before going to an area or building that is new to me.

If I know I will be staying in a hotel, I have the luxury of owning a laptop, smartphone and internet access. Technology can go a long way in the process of planning. The first thing to do is go online (hopefully the hotel has a website that is “accessible”) to see if they have details to their accessibility. Guidelines set forth in the ADA make standardized accommodations easy to recognize. I look at the layout of the building, accessible rooms they offer, on-site dining, pool and/or hot tub accessibility (lift) and even flooring. Thick carpet can be very exhausting when using a manual wheelchair.

Some friends with a similar disability utilize Google’s “street view” to actually look for barriers to an entrance of a building, even going so far as to drive by ahead of time to see if it’s accessible.

Next, I call the hotel and ask to speak with the manager. I ask these questions:

  • Is there accessible parking in a well lit area near the hotel entrance?
  • Do they have automatic doors, assistance to help my with my bags?
  • Does the roll-in shower have a lip around it or is it flush with the floor? (I happen to dislike doing wheelies)
  • Is there a shower bench provided and a wall mount, adjustable showerhead (does it slide up and down) and will housekeeping be willing to clean the shower bench with bleach once I arrive?
  • Are there wall mounted hand/grab bars inside the tub area?
  • Does the sink/vanity accommodate a wheelchair to roll under, if so are pipes wrapped with insulation to prevent burns due to hot water, or injury from ramming a knee or leg into the pipe?
  • Is the mirror at counter level or several inches higher? (which makes it impossible to see anything but the top of your head!)
  • Are the electrical outlets at counter level?
  • Is the blow dryer mounted low enough to reach from a sitting position?
  • How wide is the open doorway into the bathroom?
  • Can a wheelchair turn a complete circle once inside?
  • How much space is there between the wall and bed?
  • If there are two beds how much space is between them? Some people can only transfer out of their wheelchair from one side.
  • Can lights be turned off at the bedside, if so how high is the switchplate? I’ve stayed in places where I get into bed, reach to turn the light off and discover it’s too high to reach.
  • Is there an electrical outlet either on the lamp base to plug in my charger for the cell phone? And, I always travel with a small flashlight and extension cord.

I have learned that by asking these questions in advance I can save a lot of difficulties and not end up trying to find another hotel after a long day of travel. Most hotels are more than happy and willing to accommodate me. I have even had the staff take photos and measurements of doorways, and decks/balconies and email them to me in case some aspect of the accessibility looks questionable. A website like BluePath could remove this laborious task and make travelling much easier.

In closing, I’d like to suggest that, if possible, always carry your cell phone. You never know when you might need to call the front desk from your beautiful ocean view balcony and ask if there might be a staff person available to come help you get back into your room because you inadvertently managed to get your wheelchair lodged between two deck chairs and are unable to untangle yourself…yes that would be me!