How Do You…Adapt When You Travel?

By Amy Saffel Contributor, Amy Saffell

We’re starting a new series at! We have a leadership team of experienced women chair users who want to pass on some of our wisdom that we’ve gained over the years about how to successfully live life from our chairs. Maybe you’re new to using a chair and wonder just how it’s truly possible to do the things that you once enjoyed. Or maybe you’re a longtime chair user. It’s always surprising to me that despite being in a chair for over 30 years, I get stuck in a rut with my old way of doing things and can always learn a new way of doing something from someone else. We hope for you, too, that these articles are helpful. We’re also not naïve enough to think that we have all of the answers. Share your tips on our Facebook page, and feel free to ask your own “How do you…?” questions for future articles.
Since it’s summertime when many people are eager to travel, I posed the question, “How do you adapt when you travel?”. You can build a routine based on familiar surroundings of your home, but all of that goes out the window when you travel and are somewhere totally new. People with disabilities should feel free to see the world, in whatever way personally possible, and here are some tips for doing it.

My husband and I are both quads, so it's really difficult for us to travel. It takes a lot of planning, so we rarely fly anywhere, only twice in the 22 years we have been married. But we do drive to the Outer Banks every September.

One thing I have done over the years is to create a checklist on the computer that I can add to as needed. It really comes in handy, especially when we need to remember so many more things than an able-bodied person.

We use stackable crates for our bulky medical supplies (i.e. chucks, gloves). I also use the under bed Rubbermaid bins for things that I always take with us. It's easy to store under your
bed when you get to your destination. Plus, it's usually packed with things I don't use throughout the year so I store the filled bin in our garage for next year’s trip.”

Tape down any removable pieces on your chair or remove them to keep with you. Also, take wheels, if possible, with you on board. Pack medical supplies in carry-on, making certain not to over-pack it or they will take it and put it below increasing your chances of losing it! Make certain that you remove necessities from your carry-on to keep with you before they put in overhead bins. I always make certain that I have all that I need for cathing easily accessible. Also, I try to cath before they get ready for landing because you don't know how long it will take to land and get your chair.

I use a collapsible, armless camping chair for a shower chair. It fits in a large suitcase, and it's
inexpensive. (I always have help transferring but you need to be careful since it's not the sturdiest of chairs!)  If you have to buy things to modify for accessibility when you get to your destination, you can always leave them in the hotel room.
If I can't get under sink where I stay, I use the desk or table in the room and wash my hands in the ice bucket if necessary.

With regard to medical advice, I tend to get urinary tract infections, so my doctor prescribes an
extra refill that I can keep with me just in case I get an infection while I’m away.”

I have just flown by myself for this first time over the past few years. I drive, and I learned that if your airline has curbside check-in, you can pull up to the curb, and the airline will do curbside check-in from your car so that you can park without having to then bring your luggage back too be checked in. I also always make sure to either take off parts of my chair that are removable or to secure them to the chair. I once had an airline screw off a part to my chair, so I now tape on
"When the airline gives you your chair back,
 does it looks like it's been dropped from thousands of feet in the air?"
certain parts that don’t make sense for me to have to take off but that I don’t want the airline taking off either. I also wrap the front part of the frame of my chair in ace bandages to keep it from getting scratched. Chairs get scratched underneath the plane with all of the other luggage, and since the front of the frame of my chair is what people, see, it’s important to me that it stays looking good.

When it comes to packing, I now know that anything considered durable medical equipment flies as free baggage if you pack it separately, so I make sure to do that where it makes sense. I also pack more supplies than I would normally need, just in case something happens.

I recently purchased a travel shower chair that is easy for me to transfer in and out of. It’s not terribly small, and I need someone to help me put it together, which a hotel worker has always been happy to do, but I’m not a great transferer, so being able to take a shower safely is my first priority.

When it comes to other accessibility needs, it just takes planning and being willing to be flexible. Using an ice bucket in the shower if there isn't a hand-held shower, getting into bed at the foot of the bed instead of the side if the bed is positioned awkwardly, keeping antibacterial wipes with me to wash my hands if I can’t get to an accessible sink, rinsing after brushing my teeth into a cup instead of the sink if it’s too high, and bringing my own mirror in case a hotel’s is too high are all things that I sometimes have to do to adapt while travelling.”

I've learned the hard way that when booking a rental car from a major rental company that will
equip the car with hand controls and a spinner knob, be aware of two things: 1. If you don't specify that you need a spinner knob, you might get a car with only hand controls and no knob; and 2. Be sure to double-check that the car is being prepared and especially do so just prior to your trip. I've shown up at the airport to find they forgot about the hand controls. Major problem!

Some disabled rooms have roll-in showers but no shower chair. Or, other hotels may have disabled rooms that have wonderful showers, but the pull-down bench in the shower may not be comfortable for your needs. Always check these bathroom specifics in advance if they're important to you.

For any plane ride, I like to sit on my Roho cushion. Whether you're in the air for 2 hours or 5, why not sit in comfort and prevent skin issues?

If you're seat is all the way at the back of the plane, don't be shy...prior to boarding, ask the gate agent if he/she can move you up closer. Many times this will be done free of charge.”

 FLYING-When I fly I use a manual wheelchair so that I can set up my reservations online and put into place that I use a wheelchair for mobility.  You can also do this if you use a walker or other devices to help you walk. If you use a power wheelchair or need to bring other equipment, it may be best to call and speak to an agent at the airlines to inform them of what you need to bring and find out what steps you need to take when bringing all of the equipment on board.  I took my power chair once, and they had to dismantle the batteries before take-off and then will need to put them back once you land, so it is best to speak with someone ahead of time to get everything set up. I always arrive early (probably 1 ½ for domestic flights 2 for overseas) since I am the first to board. When I go through security, I am taken aside and given an option for privacy as I will need to be body searched by a TSA since I cannot go through the machine. I am body searched, and then my chair is also searched with a swab to make sure there are no powders or any other substance on it that would be a concern. My cushion is searched too. Once I am through, I go to the agent, and they in person can help me find the best seat for my needs. On occasion, I have been put in first class if there is an open seat without charge as it is much easier than taking me to my seat if too far away.  So get there early, and they will help set you up. Once leaving the place, I am always the last off, so if you have a connecting flight make sure you have time to get to your next flight. On the plane, it’s become more common to have wheelchairs to escort you to the bathroom if need be, but be aware that the bathrooms are small and if you cannot stand or walk, may be more challenging.  Know the length of your trip, and prepare before you fly.

CRUISING-I love to cruise and have taken four in my lifetime. Overall, the ships are very
accessible, and the crew is always a big help. Just like with flying, you can set up with an agent ahead of time to make sure you have an accessible cabin with a larger bathroom. For the most part, the ship is very accessible. There may be a few locations that you may encounter a step depending on the line or age of the ship and or a hump to go over when going to the deck to get some sun, but for the most part there are elevators everywhere and ramps to get around. The ports, however, may be more challenging, but for the most part I have had no issues. Perhaps check with the crew or cruise director when hitting different ports to see what they have for persons with disabilities and how the lay out of the land is. I like to live it up and have gone snorkeling, swam with sting rays, gone on Pirate Ships for cruises, swam with dolphins and the staff on shore really have been a great help to me, but it depends on your needs and abilities as everyone is different.

TRAVEL OVERSEAS-I have traveled to Europe, much of the US, Canada and South America (Peru and Ecuador), and each country is different from the other. I found that in Europe, due to the age of buildings and structures, there were more steps to encounter; however, it has been a few years since I have been to Europe, so things can always improve. Again, it is good to speak to an agent or if visiting people plan with them on the lay outs of the country. DO NOT USE OLD TRAVEL BOOKS, AS THEIR UNDERSTANDING OF ACCESS IS DIFFERENT FROM REALITY. I LEARNED THE HARD WAY. I found that Germany had more access in certain cities and areas then France or Italy, for example. In many countries, the main attractions, like The Eiffel Tower etc., tend to be more accessible. Also, the newer parts of the city have better access, just like it is in the US. Be aware that the older hotels, no matter the cost, are old and may have lots of steps. London cabs are great, as my whole chair has fit in the back of some of the cabs. Stay away from underground transportation, as they are never accessible, and if you plan ahead and save money, cabs or other access would be the best option. In Peru and Ecuador, I found that there are newer hotels that are cheap and very accessible. Towns may be complex, but when I traveled to Ecuador, some cities and towns actually had curb cut outs and may be better today, as it has been years since I was in South America. 

TRAVEL GROUPS-If you look online, there are many travel organizations that may specifically take people with disabilities on world trips and know how to accommodate your needs. I have taken two trips with Wilderness Inquiry out of Minneapolis, MN, and although they are for all abilities, they specialize in taking people with disabilities on trips. I have also taken a Kayak Trip on Lake Superior and a Dog Sled Trip to Northern MN. In 2015, I hope to take a Safari to Tanzania.”

Columnist Amy Saffell lives in Nashville, TN and works in the music industry. She enjoys spending time with friends, concerts, and volunteering for a local youth wheelchair sports and independence group. 


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