Denise Through the Looking Glass

Wheelchair and StairsDenise is a new reader and temporary wheelchair user who writes about her recent experience attending a college graduation ceremony. She was surprised at some of the accessibility issues she encountered, and is asking how to make accessibility happen. You can read her entire comment at Williamsburg Trip: Disability Moment #3, but I’ll hit a couple of points here. Perhaps some of you more experienced folks have some advice or suggestions for her.

Let me start by saying that entering the world of disability (or alternative mobility) is a little like going through the looking glass, or moving to a foreign country. And like moving to a foreign country, things will work out better if you do some research in advance.

I am new to the wheelchair, and traveling with one has proven to be enlightening and frightening at the same time. I thought it would have been common sense at the airport in Tampa that, if I?m in a wheelchair, and have checked a wheelchair, that it is unlikely that I could walk onto the plane. I didn?t know I had to ask for an aisle chair.

It’s a common misconception that all people who use wheelchairs cannot walk at all. I’m not aware of any statistics, but if I had to guess, I’d say that a majority of wheelchair users can stand and perhaps walk short distances. So don’t be surprised if service providers ask if you can stand, walk, or climb stairs. Regarding airplane travel in particular, be aware that airlines classify wheelchair users under several different categories, and not all of them imply the need for an aisle chair. See Airline Special Service Request SSR Codes for more details.

Several other times I had issues with bathrooms. Either there wasn?t enough room to turn around so you could either close the stall door or transfer to the commode. There wasn?t enough room under the sink for me to pull up to wash my hands, or the paper towel dispenser was too high for me to reach.

These sorts of problems are, sadly, all too common. When I encounter them, I try to find a responsible person and explain the problem. I try to do this as politely as possible, assuming that the problem exists because of ignorance rather than deliberate omission. Sometimes you have to actually take that person into the restroom in question and demonstrate why something doesn’t work well, because it can be very hard for an able-bodied person to visualize these issues. There’s a danger here, though—just because something works, or doesn’t work, for a person with a particular disability (skill level, type of mobility equipment) does not mean that it will work (or not work) for every disabled person.

Keep in mind, too, that something that may seem impossible the first (or second, or tenth) time you try it in a wheelchair is not necessarily impossible once you’ve gotten more skilled. Just like nobody rides a bike perfectly the first time, nobody is automatically a skilled wheelchair user. The Dalhousie University Wheelchair Skills Program has a boatload of videos online demonstrating a bunch wheelchair skills.

Self-advocacy and self-education are also key skills. I know that at the beginning it’s hard to even figure out what questions to ask, but asking questions is imperative. How will I get from my car to the check-in counter? How does the airline get a wheelchair user onto a prop plane? How will I get to the restroom during the flight? Does the hotel room have a tub or shower? A shower chair? A wall hung sink? A lowered rod for clothes?

Don’t sweat the small stuff. There’s no point in getting angry about an iron in a hotel room that’s up too high – call the front desk and ask them to send someone to the room to get the iron down for you.

Knowing current regulations and statutes will also make your trips (and your life) easier, if only by helping you know what it is reasonable to expect. As a disabled person living in the US, I refer to both the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) frequently.

The point of all of this is if someone can tell me where or whom to write to express my concerns and suggestions for change, I would love to do so. I just don?t know where to go or how to start.

Thank you all for listening.

In the US, there’s no one place to go or one agency to complain to. If you encounter a particular access problem, you need to do the research to find out who is responsible. It may be a business owner or a city or county agency. It may be that there’s no requirement to actual provide the kind of access you envision, in which case education is the way to go. Each of us has to decide for herself how much energy we want to expend to trying to make changes, but in many cases, it’s the only way that change will happen.

Denise, I’m sorry that you’re having to visit the foreign country of wheelchair users temporarily, and I hope you recover quickly, but I’m glad that you’re having the opportunity to have your eyes opened to access issues wherever you go.



  1. che koala

    How about the training of a diplomat, the patience of a proverbial saint and the philosophy of Alice??

    My recent travels on airlines with a rollator brought me in the firing line of similar frustrations: rollator not turning up at destination until 36 hours after I had arrived, staff addressing queries exclusively to my travel companion & ‘parking’ me in front of them like a piece of luggage, being told one thing by the airline over the phone and a different thing at the airport about whether I could take the walker to the gate or had to use an airport wheelchair…
    definitely a steep learning curve on handling the emotions!

    1. Katja (Post author)

      I like the philosophy of Alice part!


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