I love to travel! As a software developer in the aerospace business, there have been times in my career when I’ve had to travel frequently for business, and I’ve also been lucky enough to be able to travel a fair amount for pleasure. When I started using a wheelchair, I worried that travel was going to become much more difficult, even impossible, but that’s not necessarily the case. The last 10 years have seen real improvements in how airlines, trains, rental car agencies, hotels, and restaurants accommodate disabled travelers, both in the US and in other countries.
That’s not to say that the disabled traveler doesn’t have to educate herself and perhaps do some advance work, In this article, I talk about some of the things I consider when planning and executing a trip, especially by air. It doesn’t attempt to cover the situations encountered by every disabled traveler. For example, I use a lightweight manual wheelchair—I don’t have any experience traveling with a power chair, or as a visually impaired person. I’m also the moderator of the FlyerTalk Disability Travel forum; if you have questions (especially about air travel) that aren’t touched on here, the FT Disability Travel Forum is a good place to ask. That said, here are some of my thoughts and experiences.
A really mellow attitude helps when you’re traveling, whether for business or pleasure. I already know that many of my daily activities take longer than they would an able-bodied person, and that goes double for travel. Unlike many business travelers who know to the second how late they can gallop to the gate, I allow lots of time on travel day. Travel requires more than just additional time, it requires additional energy. If most days you can get by with a cane, but occasionally use a walker (for instance), take the walker when traveling! It’s a good idea to “upgrade” your mobility aids when traveling.
Ask for help. It only took me two or three trips to get over my inhibition against asking for help. I ask for hotel rooms closer to the elevator, for help with luggage, for help moving furniture in hotel rooms, for preboarding (over and over and over again). I am liberal with thanks and tips. My employer reimburses tips, so I don’t hesitate.
Don’t apologize, and don’t over-explain. When you’re arranging travel, be straightforward and upfront about your needs, but keep it simple. If you can walk up three steps, but ten steps would be too many, say, “No steps”.
Enough attitude adjustment, already, on to some useful information.
I get non-stop or direct flights whenever possible. If I must book a connecting flight, I insist on at least an hour between flights. Sometimes this means I wait around (remember? Allow lots of time), but so far I haven’t missed a connecting flight. When connecting, I ask to be met and assisted, especially in an unfamiliar airport or when traveling internationally. This way I get someone to push me to my gate, which saves wear and tear on me, as well as saving aimless wandering around. It’s a good idea to check the airport’s website for a map, in order to try to get an idea of how far it is from arrival to departure gate.
What should you tell the airline about your disability? Every airline has what are called Special Service Request (SSR) codes. SSRs are used by airlines to capture information about special meal requests, special baggage handling requests, unacommpanied minors, and disabled passengers, among other things. Some airline websites allow you to enter this information when booking your ticket or filling out your passenger profile. For example, United’s website allows you to choose from “Person needs wheelchair, cannot ascend steps”, “Person needs wheelchair, cannot walk or ascend steps”, “Person needs assistance, no wheelchair”. If there is no way to supply this information when you book the ticket, call the airline afterwards and let them know what your disability is.
I look for two things in seat assignment: close to the front of the aircraft, and with a moveable armrest on the aisle seat. The travel agent/airline customer service agent can help with the first, but watch out for small planes—I got seat 12B on a trip between Washington and Raleigh once. On a Boeing 777, 12B is very close to the front of economy class, but on a tiny prop plane, it’s the last row! Customer service agents are not much help with the moveable armrests, sadly—the location of moveable armrests doesn’t seem to be documented anywhere reliable. Aircraft with 30 or more seats are supposed to have several rows with moveable aisle armrests, but I haven’t discerned any rhyme or reason in their placement. The newer and bigger the plane, the more moveable armrests there are. On some airlines, the agent has to place a request for a wheelchair before the computer will release one of those seats — go ahead and do it, you don’t have to actually use the airline’s wheelchair.
Despite the horror stories about checked luggage going astray, it may be necessary if you use a wheelchair. Keep carryon baggage to a minimum. Now that I travel with a laptop, that’s a little more difficult, since my employer (understandably) prefers that I not check the laptop. One solution to the laptop problem is to pack all of the laptop accessories in my checked luggage and carry only the computer itself. You also need to pack whatever is necessary for wheelchair maintenance – I pack a small toolkit, a bicycle pump with an attached pressure gauge, an extra tube, a patch kit and tire levers. If you have a flat in a strange city, a bicycle shop is probably easier to find than a wheelchair repair shop, and it costs less, too.
Wheelchair users are checked by hand, but whatever you’re carrying still has to go on the conveyer belt. In the US, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) says that you have the right to maintain eye contact with your belongings. If you are traveling alone, don’t hesitate to point this out if you are asked to do something that will separate you from your stuff. I ask the security officer who takes my bag to wait for it and bring it back, since it has my laptop and my wallet in it. Allow a little extra time for that and for the fact that security may have to track down a male/female officer to do the body check. (There’s something surreal about having a woman approach you and say very sweetly, “Madam, may I pat you down?”) In the post-911 travel environment, the hand check is taken very seriously. You may be asked if you can stand and walk. Even if you can, you do not need to say so. If you prefer not to take off your shoes, just say that you can’t, and your shoes will be swabbed on your feet to check for traces of explosives.
At the gate
Although you probably will have gotten your boarding pass from a kiosk, you should check in again at the gate. This is where you ask for a gate check tag for your equipment, and for an aisle chair if you need one. An aisle chair is a (very) narrow chair that bears an unfortunately resemblance to a handtruck. If you cannot walk at all, the aisle chair is used to convey you from the door of the plane to your seat.
In the last several years it’s been my experience that either the airline does not do public preboarding at all, or that when the preboarding announcement is made, over half the people waiting stampede to the door. I have had several fairly embarrassing experiences boarding in the middle of a crowd of people all of whom were waiting very impatiently for me to struggle out of my wheelchair and down the aisle of the plane.
The two reasons for preboarding are first, to get enough space for your carryon, and second, to get a manual folding wheelchair stowed in the cabin (see Wheelchair Stowage). Occasionally the airline will preboard me privately (i.e., without making a public preboarding announcement). I station myself near where the gate agents will see me when they think about starting to board, and this sometimes helps. If it’s important to you to get your chair stowed in the cabin, you need to be persistent. In general I’ve found that even if you get to the gate very early, the gate agents tend to forget about you in the boarding rush, so you have to keep reminding them that you’re there.
More about the aisle chair: you will be able to use your own chair down the jetway to the door of the plane, where you will be met by (hopefully) two workers with the aisle chair. You’ll need to instruct them on how to help you transfer to the aisle chair. You are strapped into the aisle chair with one belt around your legs, and two diagonal belts from shoulder to hip. Remember to take your wheelchair cushion, transfer board and any other loose items with you; they are not likely to stay with the chair in the baggage hold. Keep your elbows/arms tucked in tightly as you are pushed down the aisle to your seat. If you’ve gotten a seat in a row with a removable armrest, you’ll be able to transfer directly from the aisle chair; otherwise you may need to instruct your helpers in lifting you over the armrest or doing a standing pivot transfer.
Where other business travelers worry about losing luggage, I worry about baggage handlers breaking my wheelchair. There are two options for a manual folding wheelchair: in the cabin, or in the baggage compartment. If you have a rigid wheelchair, or a powerchair, it will be stowed below with the baggage.
Every wheelchair traveler should know about the Air Carrier Access Act. The ACAA is the airline equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (like churches and private clubs, airlines are not covered by the ADA). The Air Carrier Access Act says the airline must stow one manual folding wheelchair in the cabin if the passenger preboards. I carry a copy of the act with me (I’ve never actually had to pull it out, though!), and quote it to the flight crew if they object. Objections I encountered when I was using a folder chair included “We don’t have room” (my chair folded very small), “This closet has a weight limit” (my chair weighed 18 pounds), “We already have an aisle chair” (the ACAA specifies the passenger’s wheelchair). Many flight attendants have never heard of the ACAA and so I try to educate them as painlessly as possible. I managed to get the chair stowed in the cabin about 90% of the time. Note that you’re supposed to preboard to get this perk—I’ve had some success asking a gate agent to talk to the head flight attendant ahead of time.
Baggage Compartment Stowage
If the chair is going into the baggage compartment, label every piece – this means chair, footrests, wheels, everything. I use a metal tag (the kind you can get a pet stores for your dog’s collar) around a tube underneath my seat, and business cards taped to anything that is separate. Because I have a rigid chair, I worry that an aggressive baggage handler, used to chairs that fold sideways, will manage to do something interesting to it. When I have a connecting flight, I ask for the chair to be brought to me between flights rather than trusting that it will get to my final destination. Check the chair for damage before you leave the jetway – if anything has happened it’s best to try and get it resolved immediately. If you don’t get satisfaction, ask to speak to the airline’s Complaints Resolution Officer—every airline is required to have such a person.
I drive a car with hand controls, offered by the major car rental agencies. I also request a two-door car — because the doors are bigger it’s easier to get the wheelchair in — that’s not too low. Of the major US agencies, I’ve found Hertz to be the most reliable in having hand control equipped cars available at most locations.I bring my handicapped parking placard with me on trips to use in the rental car—it is be valid in any state in the US, and in many European countries.
Picking up and dropping off the car
Hertz and Avis both provide what they call curbside service—someone will bring the rental car to the terminal when you arrive. When I drop off the car I ask to be driven in the car to the terminal, and this request has always been cheerfully granted. Allow some extra time for this.
I call the hotel and ask for an ADA compliant room, but you can’t stop there. I ask about bathrooms, carpets, doors, restaurant, bathrooms, and transportation options.
- How wide is the bathroom door? (You need to know what your minimum clearance is.)
- Is it a straight shot from the room, or do you have to maneuver around corners?
- Is there a tub or shower? Is there a shower chair or bench?
- How about grab bars?
- How deep are the carpets in public areas? (Sadly, the more expensive the hotel, the deeper the carpets. Deep carpets are very hard to push on. I’ve tried asking the hotel how deep their carpets are, but I haven’t had much luck there.)
- How heavy are room doors? (Heavy room doors are good for security and fire safety, but are really tough for a wheelchair user to open. When I stayed at the Fairmont in San Jose, I had to get somebody to accompany me up to the room to open the door for me. I won’t stay there again (they also have deep carpets) even though the service was extraordinary. It was too much work.)
- Is the restaurant accessible?
- If you haven’t rented a car, what kind of transportation is available to get you where you’re going?
Frequently I get to a hotel and the handicapped parking isn’t anywhere near the lobby. I have parked in the drive, checked in, and then handed the bellman the keys and asked him to get the luggage and park the car. This is another example of asking for what you need.
I’ve found in some hotel rooms that I need to move some furniture to have space for the wheelchair, and to get to the electrical and phone outlets. If necessary, I call the desk and ask for someone to help move the furniture. The first night, I leave a tip for the chambermaid in an envelope that says “Please don’t move the furniture back”. Sometimes it works. If I have to move the furniture two days in a row, I call the manager, and politely explain the situation. Sometimes that works. You can also ask for another room.
Filling out the comment card
I’m very big on communication, because hotel and other travel service workers frequently are unaware of a problem until someone (guess who?) educates them. I fill out a comment card at hotels when I leave. I try to say at least one good thing before commenting on problems. If I have gotten particularly good service, I write a letter to the manager after my trip and do my best to name the employee(s) involved. At the Regal University Hotel in Durham, North Carolina, a hotel concierge had a prescription filled for me in the middle of the night. At the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, California, a hotel security employee went to a downtown drugstore and rented a wheelchair for me when mine broke, and the hotel would not allow me to reimburse them for the rental cost.
On trips I encounter two kinds of people: those who have apparently never dealt with a wheelchair user, and those who have and think they know it all. Keep in mind that you are the expert on your needs, and don’t let people push you around (literally or figuratively). I needed to keep this in mind on a recent trip to San Francisco; San Francisco airport has shuttle service to the rental car agencies quite a distance away from the terminal. The dispatcher insisted on calling for a special handicapped accessible van (extra wait about 20 minutes). When this van arrived, it turned out that the ramp into the van was about 1/2 inch narrower than my wheelchair. I had to be very firm that we weren’t going to try to get the wheelchair into the van that way—close only counts in horseshoes! We wound up doing what I do in my own car — I transferred to the front passenger seat, folded up my chair, and the driver loaded it in the back.
Wheelchair using business travelers are thankfully more common than they were when I started traveling for business, but we still have to approach the situation with humor, patience, and a willingness to educate. Perhaps I have been lucky, but while I have frequently encountered ignorance, I have rarely seen outright abuse from travel industry workers. Most people will try to help if they know what you need, and the only person who’s going to tell them is you!