Travelling In A Wheelchair? 7 Things You Can Do To Prepare

As the year is swiftly coming to an end, I feel like every day, I find myself reflecting on all that has occurred in the almost 12 months. I think about things a lot; on one hand because I want to clearly assess what I can do better in the year ahead, but mainly, the real reason is, I can’t stop my brain from overthinking. I just can’t stop.

One big thing that happened this year was all the travelling I did throughout the year and although some memories are already starting to fade away in the back of my mind, most of my favourite moment this year happened overseas. I landed in Milan at the beginning of the year as flowers started to bloom again, and later touched down on American soil in the middle of the slow fading summer heat. Canada was only a pit stop, but I surely still count it amongst the countries I ticked of (sort of) my bucket list.

All this to say that over the years, I feel like I’ve gained enough travel experience to be considered somewhat of an expert when it comes to travelling with a disability or in a wheelchair.

Travel anxiety is a real thing for me and it’s something I’ve written about in detail before. I’ve felt it more times than I can count and although I don’t always feel the desire or need to voice it or scream my frustrations out to the wind, it is a state of mind that still bugs me on a frequent basis.
I love independence, everyone does. I love it to an unhealthy degree if that’s even possible, and maybe I feel that way because it’s something I’m constantly chasing.

Moving to Manchester gave me a little more of that. Most public transportation is easily accessible compared to the small town in Italy I grew up in, and even though things are nowhere close to being perfect, it’s an improvement I have to acknowledge.

shadow of Rachy and wheelshair
Rachy in Montréal on wheelchair

Buses, trams, black cabs, trains, Ubers, planes, each and everyone I’ve been on regularly in the past few months. Some are obviously more convenient than others and some allow for more spontaneity than others.  For example, I wouldn’t just wake up one morning and head to a train station expecting to be able to get on the next train instantly. I mean that would happen in a perfect world, but unfortunately, it’s not the one I live in at the moment. In order to enter most trains without a hitch, people with physical disabilities are expected to call hours in advance to set up assistance to get on a particular train, and I can say from experience that, regardless, it doesn’t always assure a smooth sailing, peaceful journey.
God forbid you wanted to go on a spontaneous, impromptu trip on a Wednesday evening or go surprise a friend on a Friday night. That’s sort of absurd! The way things are currently set up in the world that wouldn’t be an option and as disappointing as that may be, we just have to try to find ways to work around it.

I’ve learnt to do this following experiences and let downs over the years, hence now for me planning my trips has now become a reflex reaction I just act upon together with the rest of my preparations. Here are some things I’ve learnt to do over the years to ensure a probable smooth ride to any destination I’m headed towards.

RESEARCH. GOOGLE. RESEARCH.

All I can say is thank God for google! When I visited New York a couple of weeks ago, it truly saved me from 85% of the headache that came with navigating such an enormous city for a few days. I read articles about accessibility in the city, blog posts and opinion pieces, and although most of them were pretty contradictory, they gave me a vague idea of how chaotic the situation was over there (Headed to NYC? Here’s what I thought about being there on wheels).

Research may not give you all the answers you need, and I certainly learnt that when I went to London last year and found myself in a rather inaccessible part of the city. Google maps might occasionally lead you into dead ends and inaccessible subways stations but searching beforehand may also lead you towards better options or will at least save you some time and disappointment. Also, you might not know this, but the maps app also has preferential options that include fewer transfers, less walking and wheelchair accessible routes.

MANUAL OR ELECTRIC?

I believe this goes perfectly hand in hand with my first point on the importance of research. Before travelling to New York City, the biggest question weighing on my mind was what type of wheelchair would be best to use over there.
My electric wheelchair is super bulky, can’t be dismantled, and weighs around over 60kgs. This means in a sticky situation where I’m stranded and can’t find accessible means of transportation, I’d be kind of stuck with no chance of hopping on a cab that’s not adapted for wheels.

After long consideration and contemplation on whether to rent out a manual one, I decided to still take my bulky, electric chair as it’s what I’m most used to, comfortable in and feel most independent using. Essentially, I chose to trust that one of the most visited cities in the world would have facilities in place and as I later found out, the truth was somewhere in the middle.

I did end up renting out a manual wheelchair in Burlington, Vermont the week after as accessible means of transportation for visitors where highly scarce.   

TAXI APPS AND UBERS.

I can’t count how many times taxis and Ubers have literally come to my rescue in the last three years. I’ve hopped on taxis whilst escaping the dreadful rain in Manchester or a super boring lecture when I was still a university student. Whatever the case, I’ve always found refuge in the back of a black cab as I roam around the city.

On my phone, there are at least two taxi apps I can use at any moment and that brings me some sense of security in knowing my chances of being stranded are minimised. The main apps I use are Gett and Uber in Manchester which both have accessible vehicles. Gett is a black cab app and although it’s a bit on the pricier side, it covers pretty much all areas in Manchester. In regard to Uber, however, although it will save a good portion of your coins, I’ve been told by drivers, as I’ve also experienced first-hand, that there’s a lack in the number of adapted cars available around the city. Because of this I always book an Uber first with the awareness that I may be forced to cough up a few extra pounds for a black cab, especially during rush hours and rainy days.

CRAMPED BUSES – A LITERAL NIGHTMARE.

There’s nothing I hate more than a super overcrowded bus on an early morning. I think for most people it’s not a pleasurable scenario but getting into a stuffy bus in a wheelchair is literally a freaking nightmare. It’s like trying to fit a car in a tight spot between two gigantic lorries. The only difference is that in this case what’s in the way are people’s precious feet, their shopping bags on the floor and baby prams on each side of the bus. Maybe it’s just the way the buses are made in Manchester, but for wheelchairs to get in, they not only have to slide through the tight area at the front of the bus, but they also have to do a kind of absurd U-turn (even drivers would suck at) in order to settle into the designated wheelchair area. Imagine attempting to get into a bus filled with dozens of slightly impatient bodies waiting on you to get in – even the thought makes me shiver.

For this reason, when possible, I try to be on the lookout for the less busy buses going in my chosen direction. Obviously, this is not always possible and in the end, I just have to do what I got to do. Recently, I have been taking more trams than buses, though, as I find it quite freeing to be able to hop on and off without a ramp needed on the platforms. It’s accessible (at least it is in Manchester), and unless there’s a football match, major event going on somewhere, or unless it’s rush hour, trips by tram have been the most freeing and convenient for me.

YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO EARLY.

Any of my friends reading this right now are probably laughing their heads off at me being the one giving this piece of advice. I mean, why do you think I have taxi apps at hand? It’s also because they save me from being late all the damn time. Yes, I’m an ‘occasional’ latecomer so I’ll keep this preachy advice section shorter than the rest.

The times I’ve been earlier than I had to be, have probably been some of my most peaceful journeys ever because even though the tram is still miles away or the app is not finding any cars in my area, I still have time to think and come up with an alternative without losing every cell in my brain or dripping in sweat due to all-consuming panic and anxiety.
So, there you have it, give yourself a good extra 20 minutes for hitches and unpleasant surprises which usually can be expected without fail – or take a cab. Whatever works, right?

PICK YOUR SPOT.

I can be somewhat of a control freak when I travel, however my desire to know how everything is going to turn out is, as I said earlier, as a result of ups and downs and disappointments during my daily trips with public transport. To avoid this, I, therefore, try to control everything. Duhh?

On planes, I always pick my seat about three to four rows away from the closest exit and toilet. This is just to make my life easier on a plane, especially if it’s going to be a long one.
On one occasion as I travelled from Coventry back to Manchester, I was put in a coach on the train where the toilet was out of order which obviously was less than ideal – to say the least, so you might want to enquire about that too beforehand if you can.

GIVE THE DEETS.

At least 48 hours before every flight I call the airlines I often travel with to give them all the details regarding my wheelchair and any walking aids I might be travelling with. This is so they have the correct information as well as the right equipment ready to get me on the plane.
With my experience on low-budget flights, I’ve always found myself having to give the information a second time at the airport which can be slightly redundant and time-consuming, so my advice would be to get to the airport a little earlier for that.

To be honest, I’m pretty sure if you already do travel on wheels, you already probably abide by all the tips I outlined above and none of this would be remarkably insightful as just like me, you might do them naturally already. However, I thought this could help someone going on their first trip who may be anxiously struggling to figure out what boxes to tick or consider before going out on their big journey.
Also, for those of my readers who may not be able to relate fully to this one, I hope it’s sort of a peek through the curtain that will enable you to join us in our fight for equality in all aspects – transportation too.

Your restless romantic roamer

Pictures taken in Montréal, Canada

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