How Wheelchair Users Travel

How wheelchair users travel? It is something that one should think about. A friend by name Stan had a flight to catch from New York to Johannesburg. Like every other traveler, he spent a great deal of time getting ready for the long trip. He packed his bags, and also, as usual, avoided food and water. That was his best way of making it through the 14 hours, 50 minutes flight.

Stan (not real names) doesn’t fancy using the plane’s bathroom. That’s what he dreads the most. The same applies to every other person who travels on a wheelchair. Stan has spinal muscular atrophy. His experience is documented on his blog at Curb Free with Cory Lee.

According to Stan, he could easily transfer from his seat on the plane to the bathroom using an aisle chair but will require assistance from a companion. Sadly, both he and the companion cannot fit into the bathroom at the same time. By the time he arrives Johannesburg, he’ll be more than ready to drink an entire gallon of water.

How wheelchair users travel is an experience to write about. Figuring out the best way to answer nature’s call is just a tip of the iceberg of what wheelchair users face or need to think about.

The majority of this planet hasn’t been designed with the needs of the different body or ability types in mind, and getting around it can leave travelers in dangerous and humiliating situations.

But anyone can be bitten by the travel bug – and wheelchair users pass through numerous logistical challenges in a bid to travel around the world. So how exactly do wheelchair users travel? What are their experiences? Let’s see…

Turbulent journeys

There’s one popular mantra used by travelers, and it goes thus…“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” But the thing is, this quote can equally apply to the most difficult part of traveling with a disability.

Wheelchair users experience physical and emotional stress when traveling, especially flying.

Stan does his best to get to the airport at least 3 hours before the flight time. Going through security takes some time. In his words… “I always have to get a private pat-down and they need to swab my wheelchair for substances.”

Climbing the stairs isn’t an easy task either. Travelers have to make arrangements with airport staff to move them into a transfer chair before boarding the plane.

Airport staff is always courteous and ready to help, says Martha, a wheelchair user. After getting onto the plane, you’ll then have to move from the transfer seat into your seat on the plane. If you can’t do it on your own, then you’ll have to seek assistance from someone on the crew.

How wheelchair users travel is a deal. They have to worry about their physical safety, while also entertaining the fear that their scooters and wheelchairs may be damaged by flight attendants.

Wheelchair users take great care to reduce the risk of damage to their wheelchairs, detaching them into smaller parts, wrapping them carefully, while also giving the attendants detailed instructions on how to move and store the chairs.

But that seems not to be enough anyway.

According to a report by the U.S Transportation Department, over 701 wheelchairs and scooters were manhandled between December 4-31, 2018 – that’s making it roughly 25 damaged wheelchairs daily.

According to the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines have the responsibility of repairing or replacing damaged, destroyed or lost wheelchairs. They are also mandated to provide loaner chairs that travelers can use pending when their custom chairs are placed.

However, because many wheelchair travelers use custom equipment, they may experience severely impaired mobility, thus making a mess of their vacation.

Making plans to the last detail

How wheelchair users travel is something that requires intensive planning and arrangements. People with disabilities don’t just travel on a whim. There are several variables to be considered. Many wheelchair users may require 6-12 months of good planning to enjoy a trip.

According to Martha, planning for a trip is an incredibly detailed, and painstaking process. One can sit for hours just to do a plan. Martha has traveled around 44 countries since she was confined to a wheelchair. The first thing she does, and which she believes every wheelchair user should do is to search for an accessible tour operating company in the country of destination, but locating these companies may be very difficult in some cases.

If she’s fortunate to find a travel company, she will have to arrange with the staff to find accommodation that supports wheel-chair users, alongside in-destination transportation and activities.

Martha can make her arrangements all by herself, but sometimes, it is fun and relieving paying a company to take care of everything.

Disabled travelers who do their planning all alone, however, have their work cut out for them. Lodging is one of their greatest concerns.

When Stan started traveling, he called in a UK hotel to ask if their facilities were wheelchair-friendly. The hotel said they had an elevator, but that was all. Neither bathrooms nor rooms were accessible, this is even though the hotel’s website said that the hotel was completely accessible.

The level of need and independence pf travelers varies, and one cannot just rely on the information on a hotel’s website.

Individuals must call on the hotel in advance to confirm the exact specifications, such as the height of beds, the width of doorways, and whether they have a roll-in shower or not. Even at that, one may still have to make compromises.

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