A Manual Wheelchair User’s Guide to Navigating City Streets

Published: Jun 22, 2019

For a manual wheelchair user, city streets are full of hazards. From broken glass and nails to damaged concrete and curb cuts, it takes a lot of focus and skill to safely get from one place to another. This guide will help you navigate the hazards (and humans) you’ll find on a busy city street.

Watch the Crowds

Being shorter than everyone around you can make it hard to spot hazards. Stay safe by keeping an eye on the density and flow of the crowds around you. If a usually quiet street is overcrowded, pay more attention to your surroundings. You especially want to keep an eye out for closed off streets or detours.

Assume People Don’t See You

When moving through a crowd, assume that people can’t see you. Be prepared to dodge as folks step in front you both on the sidewalk and at intersections. Never cross an intersection before checking for traffic. When navigating a crowd, try to move through or around it instead of trying to join it. The longer you stay in a crowd, the more likely someone is going to slam into or trip over you.

If you do find yourself stuck in a crowd, try and keep at least 8 inches between you and the person in front of you. When people take a step, one of their legs becomes stationary as the other one moves. When you push, you move continuously until friction or gravity stops your chair. If you are too close to the person in front of you, there’s a high chance that your chair is going to hit their stationary leg. So, keep your distance.

When you push, bow your elbows out to create distance between your tires and the person next to you. When most people walk, there’s a roughly 4 inch sway in their step: it’s not a straight line. If you don’t have enough space between you and the person next to you, their leg is going to drift into your chair.

Be Conscious of Inclines

When exploring an unfamiliar area, it’s easy to lose track of inclines. What started off as a gentle slope can turn into difficult or dangerous terrain. So, pay attention to how steep the area becomes over time. Be aware of how steep the street is beneath you. This applies double for streets that slope sharply to the left or right. Going downhill means squeezing the opposite tire a little harder. But, going up means putting extra strain on one shoulder just to keep from sliding into the street.

At the same time, if you’re on an incline, use it. There’s no reason to not use the incline to your advantage to save time and energy when going downhill.

Watch For Construction

When going past construction zones, keep your eyes on the sidewalk. Look out for debris or sharp objects that could puncture a tire. And don’t stop checking until you are a few hundred feet from the construction zone. You’d be surprised how far away stuff can end up.

Take Time to Recover at Crosswalks

If the sidewalk is steep or crowded, navigating city streets can be exhausting. It’s important to know how and when to rest when you’re making your way through the city. While at a crosswalk, tighten your bag straps, adjust your posture, and look for hazards in the path ahead. Keep track of how much time you have by watching the traffic signals. Usually, there will be a countdown telling you how long you have until you have to cross.

When the Shit Hits Your Hands

So, you’ve rolled through (what you hope is) dog shit. First, you need to switch the grip on your wheels from the tire and rim to only the rim. When you get to a place where you can safely stop, pull hard on the wheel so that it rotates in place. This will help scrape off the worst of it. When you get to your destination, head to the restroom. Take several paper towels, soak them with water, and spin the tire while wiping the tire with the towel. This will help rinse out the treads. Finally, push the paper towel into the treads of your tire to try and dislodge anything that’s left over. Throw away the paper towels and wash your hands like you’re trying to hide a murder. As you continue to move around, your tires will drop anything that might remain.

None of this sounds ideal, I know. Trust me, it isn’t. But it’s the best you’re gonna get short of taking your tires off and scrubbing them by hand.

Dealing with Falls

Falling out of your chair is one of the most dangerous situations you can be in. And, unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of direct advice here. I’m only able to explain what I do when I fall out of my chair and that’s not going to be helpful to you.

So, my advice is this: practice falling out of your chair so that you know what to do. In a safe space, tip your chair backwards, and practice getting back up. Do this while wearing a bag, a coat, or anything else you might have with you while you’re outside. Keep practicing until your reaction becomes instinct. Once you’ve mastered falling backwards, practice falling forward and sideways. You wanna try and get your fall‐to‐recovery time to under 30 seconds, if possible. The less time you spend out of your chair, the safer you’ll be.

A word of advice: if your chair starts to tip over backwards, never ever put your hand out to try and brace yourself. If you do, you’re very likely to become the proud owner of a sprained, strained, or broken limb. Instead, fold yourself up as much as possible to keep your head from hitting the ground. It’s way safer and you’re less likely to suffer from a severe injury.

Additional Reading

I’ve written a few more specific guides about street navigation and safety that you might want to check out: