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.  

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