What It's Like to Travel in a Wheelchair
Updated: Jul 9, 2021
Article originally featured on Travel Pulse
“The travel industry still doesn't take us seriously as a lucrative market segment,” says Sylvia Longmire. While Sylvia is an Air Force veteran and a woman, it’s not these two identities that the travel industry is failing. It’s travelers with disabilities.
After Sylvia was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she had to use a wheelchair, but continued traveling the world, which would result in starting a site called Spin the Globe, focused on “Wheelchair Accessible Travel.”
“The latest data from the CDC says that 23 percent of Americans have some sort of disability. Our population is aging, with the number of adults using wheelchairs, scooters, walkers or other mobility aids increasing every year,” Sylvia explained. “People with disabilities spend $17.3 billion just on travel every year. More and more companies in the travel sector are marketing to other minority groups because they recognize the value. Why not us?”
It’s a good question, and unfortunately, people with disabilities have fought decades to change policies in the travel industry to make traveling and destinations more accessible to those who use mobility aids. While they’ve made some headway, advocates continue to try to raise awareness about the travel needs of a large segment of the population.
With that in mind, we decided to interview travelers who use wheelchairs or scooters to get an inside look into their travel experiences.
Memorable Travel Experiences
For 20-year-old Lilia Kamata, Hawaii was her most memorable trip, for as she says, “I got to ride in a helicopter.” Lilia has been traveling with her mom Suzanne Kamata, author of Squeeky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-Tuk and Wheelchair, since she was a child.
Alternatively, New York City sommelier, para-athlete and co-founder of Wheeling Forward, Yannick Benjamin’s most memorable travel experiences are related to work: “I love traveling to wine country...I am in the wine industry, so I just feel so great when I am around vines and hanging out with the winemaker.”
Cory Lee, travel blogger of Curb Free with Cory Lee, said that aside from his love for Iceland, which he’s visited twice, Morocco was one of his most memorable trips. In addition to seeing “snake charmers in Marrakech,” he said, “I rode a camel in the Sahara desert. It was a phenomenal, and surprisingly accessible, experience in Morocco. I’ll never forget the emotion that I felt sitting on the camel and looking out at the vast sand dunes.”
Sylvia recounted her first international trip as a full-time wheelchair user in 2016 to Dubai: “I was visiting friends who were living there at the time, so it helped to have a place to stay and people who knew their way around to help me. But still, it was...unlike anywhere I had been before.”
Yet it would change her outlook on travel forever.
She said, “I was keenly aware of how I was being perceived as a woman using an electric scooter. After getting back from that trip, I was like, if I can fly 16 hours each way by myself to the Middle East, where can't I go? It really boosted my confidence for future travels.”
The travelers we spoke with usually plan their own trips, but as Yannick said, “There is a lot of planning that needs to be done as opposed to someone who is able-bodied.”
As a mom of a child who uses a wheelchair, Suzanne said, “I enjoy researching and booking trips on my own, but perhaps in the future, we will reach out to a specialized travel agent.”
For Cory Lee, he plans his own trips for the most part, especially in the U.S. or Europe, adding, “I do start planning at least 6 months, but sometimes a full year, in advance. As a traveler that uses a wheelchair, I need more time to research the destination, find an accessible hotel, figure out what wheelchair-friendly transportation is available, etc.”
“However, if I’m traveling to somewhere like India and I’m wanting to visit multiple cities, then I’ll use a tour company that specializes in accessible travel. Doing so makes the process less stressful for me, so I do love using accessible tour companies. The only downside is that they can often be a lot more expensive.”
Travel concerns are at the forefront of every traveler’s mind, but for those who use wheelchairs or scooters, there are other things to consider.
As a parent, Suzanne is always concerned with finding accessible toilets for her daughter. “In some countries, like Japan, squatters are common, and it may be difficult to locate a Western-style toilet at short notice,” she said.
For Yannick and Cory Lee, transportation is the biggest concern.
“Most able-bodied people can just fly to a destination, hop in any taxi, get around on the subway, and not even think twice about it. For me, I have to carefully plan how I’m going to move from one place to another,” Cory Lee explained.
Yannick added, “Unfortunately, airlines have a terrible reputation for breaking wheelchairs when loading them on the airplane. That is my biggest issue with traveling...praying to have my wheelchair back in one piece.”
Cory Lee echoed Yannick’s concern and they’re both right to worry. In December 2019, 890 out of 69,160 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled, meaning 890 people had to deal with broken or damaged mobility aids, which doesn’t just ruin a trip but could ultimately reduce or take away the feeling of independence.
Accessibility is key and often wheelchair users are subjected to choosing destinations that are most accessible.
“Frequently, I’ll hear other travelers say something like, ‘To truly experience a place, you have to go off the beaten path.’ While I would love to venture into the unknown or go outside the metropolis cities, that simply isn’t possible as a wheelchair user sometimes,” said Cory Lee.
Sylvia echoes this with some humor: “What power wheelchair user is going to stay in an over-the-water bungalow in Bora Bora?”
She adds “There are some athletic manual chair users who don't mind being carried or 'roughing it' to visit more remote or inaccessible places, but that's not my travel style. I would absolutely love to touch wheels to ground in Antarctica, but even if I could get past the thought of crossing the Drake, no ship is set up to do that for me.”
Small towns tend to be a problem for those who use mobility aids, as Cory Lee pointed out that many towns don’t have accessible shops, restaurants or even accessible curb cuts. Some smaller towns and cities like Bordeaux are making an effort, according to Yannick who visits every year, but the process is slow.
Yet even some of the world’s biggest cities have their accessibility drawbacks. “I am born and raised in NYC but I find it to be the most disappointing city considering with all of its available resources, we still haven't caught up with modern times and are way behind and not as progressive as we think we are,” said Yannick.
“I find Chicago to be most accessible city from my own personal experience. All of the stores and restaurants are all ADA compliant and taxis are wheelchair accessible as well,” he added.
Suzanne recalls some hard travel moments in which her daughter Lilia was let down because of the lack of accessibility at amusement parks.
“During a visit to Universal Studios Japan, we found my daughter was not allowed on some of the most popular new rides because she couldn’t walk. My daughter was disappointed, to say the least,” she said.
“Similarly, I once got my daughter all excited about donning a kimono and having her make-up and hair done at Toei Movie Land in Kyoto. Once we arrived at the theme park, we were told that wheelchair users could not be accommodated.”
Sometimes to visit a city, those who use wheelchairs have to spend exorbitant amounts to explore a place.
“In Paris, the metro wasn’t wheelchair accessible, so I could only use the one accessible taxi that the city had. I had to reserve it days in advance and it was over $600 per day to use it,” said Cory Lee.
“Unless I wanted to be stuck at the Eiffel Tower though with no way to get around (my powered wheelchair can only go about 8 miles per day), I had to pay it.”
He added, “Since that trip, accessible transportation within the destination is always the first thing that I Google whenever I’m even briefly thinking about visiting. If there aren’t any accessible taxis or public transportation, I know that I can’t go there.”
Solo Travel and Traveling with Others
“People think we can’t travel, let alone travel solo,” said Sylvia, an avid fan of solo traveling. She loves the freedom of traveling alone and how it “puts me in a position to meet and interact with people that I might not if I were traveling with a companion.”
“As a wheelchair user, independence is also an amazing confidence booster. With every trip, I learn exactly what I'm capable of, and also what my physical limits are,” she said.
That being said, some people who use scooters or wheelchairs prefer aids to accompany them on trips. Minors, of course, require a parent to travel the world. Suzanne always wanted to travel with her daughter and a wheelchair wasn't going to stop them from doing that.
“We started out small, taking day trips, and then traveling greater distances with other family members,” she said.
Suzanne added, “Do some research in advance to avoid disappointment. Remain flexible. Ask for and accept help when you need it!”
Parents looking to find some support can always read Suzanne’s memoir about her and Lilia’s travels. “I wanted to raise awareness about accessibility, while also entertaining and engaging readers. I also hope that the book will inspire people with disabilities, or with family members with disabilities, to travel,” she said.
Representation and Access in the Travel Industry
The travel industry still has work to do in making travel more accessible to people who use wheelchairs. Till then, people like Yannick will share his own personal experiences with wheelchair users through Wheeling Forward, Sylvia will do the same on Spin the Globe, and Suzanne and Lilia will bring awareness to families traveling with children with disabilities through Suzanne’s book.
Representation is important, and sometimes the first steps toward change are changing the minds of those who use mobility aids and are nervous to travel the world.
“My goal is to show others what’s possible as a wheelchair user, so if I want them to push past their fears and see the world, I have to do the same,” said Cory Lee. “The world is an awesome place and it’s worth the risks.”