Eight hours after we piled in the car and pulled out of the driveway, we arrived at our destination only to discover that my wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the bathroom door.
We knew our first family trip with a wheelchair in tow wouldn’t be perfect, but we were assured the room was wheelchair accessible. It was not. There we were, in our week-long accommodation, unsure of how I was going to use the bathroom.
In those first moments of our first vacation after my paralysis, we learned two essential lessons about travelling with a wheelchair:
First, the term “wheelchair accessible” is open to interpretation – ask more questions than you think should be necessary. And second, be prepared to get creative.
It really can be daunting to start organizing a trip when you, or someone in your family or group, has a wheelchair. There are a lot of questions, and answers that are often difficult to find. But while having a wheelchair in the mix does create unique challenges, it doesn’t, nor should it, stop anyone from travelling or exploring new places. With extra organization and planning, vacations can still be fun, exciting and even relaxing. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
The hunt for wheelchair accessible accommodation is frustrating. Most hotel websites don’t typically highlight their accessibility features which means phone calls are always necessary in order to ask about grab bars, showers and door clearances. And while sites such as Airbnb have taken steps to include accessibility features, I haven’t found many home share options that are truly wheelchair accessible. Because of this, finding places to stay is the toughest part of the planning process. But the accommodations are out there, you just have to get creative as I did during that first trip and used a computer chair to get through the narrow bathroom door.
Make a list of everything you need and ask all the questions
My biggest piece of advice when it comes to booking your accommodation is to make a list of everything you need and ask all the questions. It will feel as though you are grilling the lovely person on the other end of the phone, but a hotel room or vacation rental that suits your needs will make your trip that much more comfortable and therefore easier.
Our family of five never packed light, but I will never again be the woman who only needs a carry-on bag. My motto when packing is to expect the unexpected and then bring enough supplies for the unexpected to happen twice. The last thing you want is for your trip to come to a screeching halt when your wheelchair starts malfunctioning. Make a list of the tools and supplies you need so that you don’t end up spending your precious vacation time searching for wheelchair fixes.
Expect the unexpected and then bring enough supplies for the unexpected to happen, twice!
Depending on your medical condition you will need to consider what medications and medical supplies you will need for your trip. But for the purpose of this article, I’m solely focussing on the wheelchair necessities.
Flying with a wheelchair isn’t overly complicated, once you know what to expect. In the airport, being able to jump (figuratively speaking) to the front of the security and customs lineups is a definite perk of the wheelchair life. However actually going through security looks very different for a person who is in a chair. In an effort to avoid setting off the alarms of the metal detector, a wheelchair user will have a pat-down/manual screening. Once through security, you want to find your gate and let the flight crew know you have arrived for pre-boarding.
I get a lot of questions about how I board a plane. There are two options depending on a person’s needs. There is a special aisle chair for those who need minimal assistance, which you can see me using in the photo below, or there is a lift for those who require more help. Wheelchairs are gate checked and stored under the plane during the flight. There are rare cases where wheelchairs have been damaged by airline workers so don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel like your mobility device isn’t being handled carefully.
Tips for airline travel
- Give yourself lots of time.
- Airlines want to sit you as close to the front of the plane as possible so be sure to let them know you are in a wheelchair when you book your flight and again when you check in.
- Be clear with how much help you do or do not require from the airline staff.
- Elevators can sometimes be tough to find. I have found many airports have them tucked away from the masses. Don’t panic if you don’t see one at first glance.
- Don’t go to the bathroom too close to pre-boarding or your name will be called over the loudspeaker while you are locked in a stall (true story).
Finally, the fun part of your trip! As is the theme of wheelchair life, plan ahead to avoid disappointment (especially if you don’t have a posse to help lift you up staircases). Inquire about ramps, elevators and accessible washrooms. Do the research to find the beaches that have beach mats or beach wheelchairs. Check out the amusement park’s website and call up the restaurants your friends recommended to make sure their tables aren’t all bar height. Remember your limits and schedule breaks if that is what you need to get the most out of your experience.
If you prefer to be spontaneous, then you should be! But if you’re nervous about accessibility and being disappointed then the planning effort to plan is essential.
The theme of wheelchair life, plan ahead to avoid disappointment
For me, travelling wasn’t even a question. My children would only be little for so long and family vacations were not something I was willing to give up to my injury. That is why five months after my accident we hit the beach, and three months after that we did Disneyland. There were unexpected frustrations each time I’ve travelled but they never marred the entire experience. I would do every trip again in a heartbeat.
Yes, travelling with a wheelchair is a little more complicated but also incredibly rewarding. And the more we push for accessible communities, the easier it becomes. If you are nervous, start small. Spend a night or two at a hotel close to home. Getting away from daily life is a good break for anyone, regardless of physical ability. Make a plan and go for it! You won’t regret it.
Codi Darnell lives on the west coast with her husband and three kids. She spends most of her time juggling motherhood with a spinal cord injury and writing about the results. She was recently voted 2018 Vancouver Mom Top Blogger and you can follow her story at www.helpcodiheal.com and on social media Instagram @helpcodiheal and Facebook @helpcodiheal
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