Monday, July 5, 2021

Traveling with a wheelchair (revisited)

A recent trip to Wisconsin included a visit to -- 
you guessed it -- a cheese factory!

A recent flight to WI t
aught me a lot about myself and my relationship to the Corona-virus pandemic.  It also reminded me about the challenges of flying with a wheelchair.  After I returned, I took a short road trip to a neighboring state to see some friends.  This jogged my memory about the challenges of staying in a hotel.  I'd recorded some of my travel tips before, but these recent trips were a good memory-dredge, so I figured I'd mention them again.  

Travel Wheelchair

My husband has a collection of skis and chooses a pair based on conditions.  Likewise, I have a collection of wheelchairs and choose a chair based on conditions.  For most domestic travel, I choose my Golden LiteRider portable battery-powered chair.  The pros are that it dissembles and fits into a space as small as a Toyota Prius trunk.  The heaviest piece is 35 lbs.  The battery seems to last as long as I need, and it takes me up significant hills.  I can roll a carry-on suitcase behind me with the non-joystick hand, and the charger fits in the basket below the seat.  The cons are the lack of customization (one size fits all), and the wiggle in the joystick that makes it difficult to steer.  There are always plenty of outlets in airport, so emergency battery charging is not a problem, and I bring an extension cord for charging in hotels, which are sometimes limited in outlets.  When I board the plane, I take the joystick with the cord and the charger with me.  So far -- knock on wood -- the chair has not been extensively damaged.


When making an online flight reservation, I always find and fill out a form requesting wheelchair assistance (and some airlines have even more forms) that lets the airline know I'm traveling with a wheelchair.  These forms differ and require different details.  I've found that some airlines don't allow me to check in at a kiosk, because of the wheelchair, but I never know which ones they are, so I always just head to the line to check in.  I always remind them at check-in that I require an aisle chair to get to my seat, because that information seems to get lost.

Airport Security

I think that my golden ticket for flying is my TSA pre-check authorization.  Yes, it costs ($85 for  5 years), but it is worth every penny, because it allows you to keep your shoes on, to leave your  electronic items off, and -- most importantly -- to skip the extensive and invasive "body search". Instead of the whole long and painful process, the assistant simply swabs your cushion and hands to check for suspicious residue.

Aisle Chair

If everything goes smoothly, you can ride your own chair to the plane's entrance, where you will swap it (don't forget to take the joy stick and charger with you and to turn off the brakes) for a narrow aisle chair, pushed by two assistants. They will often assert that all straps must be buckled (and there are a lot), but not tightening the straps can cause your knees to bump or your clothes to get caught. You may have to remind them that many aisle seat hand rails can be moved up and out of the way when a secret button is pressed.  For de-planing, this process is done in reverse.  Remember that you are usually the first to board and last to de-plane, so arrive at the gate extra early (about an hour) and avoid tight connections.  In fact, you will probably reach baggage claim after all of the baggage has been removed, so you may need to go to the unclaimed baggage office to collect yours.  If everything doesn't go smoothly (I'd say about 20-25 % of the time), everyone -- including you -- waits to get on, or you wait to get off.

Airplane lavatories

Most airport bathrooms are reliably accessible.  Most airplane lavatories are reliably not. When wheelchair users no longer travel, the most common reason is the difficulty of going to the bathroom.  Dual-aisle planes are required to have an accessible lavatory (usually this is accomplished by temporarily collapsing the wall in between two neighboring lavatories), but this requirement is not very helpful.  Firstly, it only covers dual-aisle planes, which are generally a subset of trans-oceanic flights.  Secondly, accessing such a lavatory necessitates calling the flight attendant for assistance, assuming there is an aisle-chair on board (legally, there should be), assuming that the flight attendant knows how to assemble the aisle chair (you may want to learn how before your flight, just in case), cutting in front of the line of waiting people while the lavatories are combined for you, transferring to and from the toilet by yourself, and pulling down/up your pants on a public toilet or wheelchair.  

For many, this is understandably too much.  Some consciously dehydrate and hope for the best, which is risky and probably unhealthy.  For men, the best option may be a condom catheter with a leg bag and collection bottle.  For women,  the best option may be an in-dwelling Foley catheter (urethra or supra-pubic) with a leg bag and collection bottle.  All in-dwelling catheters must be inserted in the hospital, but a temporary urethral one can be inserted rather quickly and painlessly by a urology nurse, can be kept in for awhile, and can be removed at home by you.

Hotel accessibility

The other big ticket item is lodging, which often requires a lengthy conversation with the front desk agent, even when the room is advertised as "ADA compliant."  The main thing is a level entrance to the building and room, with doors wide enough to get into room and bathroom.  I've found that asking someone whether or not their location is "wheelchair accessible," is often useless, as people have different interpretations of that definition, and they often don't consider one small step a problem.  If the room is not specifically ADA-certified, I ask the front desk person to measure the bedroom and bathroom doors, then I compare that to my wheelchair width. Remind them to measure passable width with the door open, and not the width of the door frame, since the hinges impede passage.  I have taken off the bathroom door by removing hinges, when it was just inches too narrow (a good reminder to bring tools and a handyperson or else ask hotel engineering).

Hotel bathrooms and beds

For the shower/tub, ask if you can get in (width, configuration, shower door, threshold) and if there's a shower chair/bench.  If the shower has a fixed bench, ask how far it is from the controls and from the shower head (holder).  For the toilet, ask if you can get to it (width, configuration), how high it is, and if there are any grab bars.  You may have to bring your own vertical pole or toilet seat ???riser or even a commode chair.  For the bed, ask how high it is (the perennial problem!), if there is space beside the bed for a wheelchair, and if there is an electrical outlet nearby to charge your chair at night.  You might want to bring a bed rail or vertical pole, and an extension cord.  If the bed is too high, you may have to remove the box spring or base frame (lots of work!), so again, be prepared with those tools and engineers.  You may even have to use a roll-away bed (they're usually lower).  

Accessible activities

We found accessible activities where we didn't expect them.  Along with internet research before leaving, we relied on on-the-spot personal referrals, informational phone calls, and tourist brochures.  If  someone is savvy to accessibility, then asking them about accessibility by name may work. Luckily, it seems the world may be heading in this direction.  In many cases, however, it might be better to ask specific questions related to your needs.

Obviously, there are a lot of challenges and a lot of preparation involved in traveling with a wheelchair.  To me, it's still worth it.  

On the road again -- post(?)-Covid travels

Passengers arriving at CWA (Central WI) airport with masks

I have spent the last year living in fear --only a low level, but fairly constant. I take an immuno-suppressive drug to counteract an auto-immune disease, leaving me susceptible to the weakest virus. So during the Corona virus pandemic, I adhered strictly to WA state's restrictions, and isolated myself from family, friends, and travel.  For those of us in WA, those restrictions began in March 2020, so that was a very long time, and there were very few exceptions.  Doing my part to "flatten the curve" for the community morphed into doing everything possible to protect myself.

For me, the approval of the vaccine was almost a miracle.  I say "almost," because there was some concern as to the effect of the vaccines for those with suppressed immune systems, leading to the depressing thought that I might be stuck in isolation forever.  However, my neurologists assured me that the vaccine was probably working for me through unmeasurable mechanisms.  With this, I felt this miraculous sense of freedom and permission to once again see friends and family, interact with people, and travel.  I decided to take advantage of the extra security of airports and planes still requiring masks, in order to fly to WI and see my parents.  

I think that the trip to WI was the best thing I could have done to ease myself out of a Covid-restricted life.  Flying was not as scary as I thought it might be: my neurologist assured me that airline flights were not known virus-spreaders, my research indicated that plane's air filtration systems worked to prevent disease spread, and Delta was very conscientious about requiring all passengers to wear masks, except when eating or drinking.  Airports were also not as frightening as expected, since they required masks and distancing, as well (though the passengers in SeaTac and MSP were a little less likely to comply, and the staff was less likely to enforce the rules)

Sign at MSP airport
Sign at MSP airport

Free vaccinations and coffee
at the MSP airport

At my destination, I mainly visited with family and friends, who were also vaccinated.  When we did venture into public spaces, it was always and only outside.  WI was a scary place for a West-Coaster to visit, because of a contentious history with the virus, masks, and restrictions.  Still, I clung to the data showing that no case of Covid-19 transmission had occurred outside.  Every time I've visited, the town has been different: at first, changes, such as the installation of city utilities, seemed oriented toward residents.  Then the big-box stores moved in, incorporating the desires of the whole region.  Current changes are oriented toward residents and visitors alike, and the concept of "accessibility" seems to have entered into the language and mind-set.  For example, a local park has a paved and accessible path, a paved walk-way was built along the river, and botanical gardens were being built with an eye toward accessibility. Thus, we were able to enjoy outdoor activities relatively free of crowds.

New river walk in Wausau, WI

Sign for accessible paved path to Eau Claire Dells, WI

I doubt that the cavalier approach to potential virus transmission was good for the state of WI.  Still, I think it may have been good for me -- confronting my extreme caution with extreme unconcern may have allowed me to settle on a happy medium, which helped me to prepare for the flight home and the upcoming end of restrictions in WA. I realize that the articles in The New York Times may be accurate, and my immuno-suppressant medicine may yet be proved to render the vaccine less effective.  However, for now, I have to believe in the power of these vaccines, the assurances of my neurologists, and my experience during my travels.  And I must admit that it felt wonderful to travel again!