International Travel Tips for Manual Wheelchair Users

Published: Dec 11, 2019

International travel can be a serious challenge for wheelchair users. Here’s a few tips and tricks to make it easier.

Know Your Needs

When traveling, it helps to know what you are and aren’t comfortable with when it comes to your mobility. Is a shower chair absolutely necessary, or are you comfortable with just sitting on the floor? If you can’t fit your chair through the door, could you still safely use the restroom? What passes for “accessible” varies wildly when traveling, so knowing what is an absolute must for your comfort and safety will make choosing a travel destination a lot easier. And it’s absolutely okay to have deal‐breakers. I can get put up with a lot of inaccessibility in a hotel room, but if I’m gonna be staying in it for two weeks, my tolerance for inaccessible fuckery is a lot lower than it usually would be.

Virtually Walk the Streets

Use Google Street View to get a feel for the kinds of terrain or obstacles you might encounter. Make note of the paving materials, sidewalk and street widths, hills, and curb cuts (curb ramps). The pictures won’t be super up to date, but they will give you a clear idea of what to expect while you’re out and about.

This is also a good tool for figuring out what’s within walking distance of your hotel (pharmacies, bars, convenience stores, etc.,). What’s nearby can have a huge impact on where you might want to stay, so I highly recommend having a virtual look around before booking anything. To compensate for the age of the photos on Street View, I would also look around on Google Maps itself to make sure things are current(ish).

Hire an Accessible Tour Guide

If you’re going to be doing a lot of site‐seeing, I highly recommend researching accessible tour guides that specialize in the areas you want to visit. Not only can they give you a clear picture of what is and isn’t accessible, but they can also recommend hotels and resorts.

Prepare Your Chair and Your Spares

The first thing you want to do, is swap out your pneumatic tires for no‐flats. Nothing will ruin your trip faster than a busted tube. Next, pack any small spare parts you feel comfortable traveling with. For example, maybe you have an extra set of caster wheels lying around that you can take with you and easily swap out if the shitty cobblestone streets of wherever you’re visiting happen to do some damage. I also recommend packing an allen or hex wrench so you can tighten down anything that might come loose during your travels.

Several weeks before your trip, clean out the front casters, and do some general maintenance. Make sure there aren’t any loose screws or missing parts.

Practice Navigating Rough Terrain

Depending on where you’re going, street maintenance and crowd sizes may differ wildly from what you’re used it. Work on navigating through large crowds and spot hazards in sidewalks

Learn the Language

I’m not saying that you need to be fluent. I’m saying that learning a few key phrases will definitely make your life easier. I recommend learning how to say or ask:

  1. I’m sorry, I don’t speak [language]
  2. I have a mental/physical disability
  3. I am allergic to [allergy]
  4. Accessible
  5. Where is the Elevator?
  6. Where is the nearest accessible restroom?
  7. Is there an entrance without stairs?
  8. My wheelchair does/does not fold.
  9. I can/cannot walk/stand.
  10. I need/don’t need help.

Keep Track of Your Mental Health

Dealing with a lack of accessibility is more mentally taxing than you might realize. You’ll try and treat each negative moment in isolation: “look, a staircase with no elevator. I guess we’ll find another way”. But the truth is, that was the fifth staircase you’ve had to deal with today plus all the taxis drivers that drove off the minute they saw you. It’s going to take it’s toll, it’s going to be hard, and there’s a good chance it might hit you all at once.

So, it’s important that you have a plan to recharge and recoup when things get too hard. My recommendation is that you spend the early part of your trip finding a place that’s accessible and makes you feel relaxed and at ease. It could be a restaurant near your hotel, a bar, or even your hotel room. Whatever it is, make sure that it’s somewhere you can completely relax and not have to worry about the logistics of international travel.