Advice, Tips

Difficulties of Accessible Travel in the United States for Wheelchair Users

The United States is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, has a wide variety of eclectic food, and are some of the most hospitable and friendly people in the world.  The United States is also home to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which greatly improved wheelchair accessibility and equal opportunity. But despite our laws and advanced technology, the United States can still be a challenging country for those with limited mobility and wheelchair users to visit. Here are a few things you can expect as a wheelchair tourist in various parts of the country.

For all the talk you hear about infrastructure, our transportation infrastructure isn’t that great.  Europeans are often greatly disappointed to discover we have only one national train system, and Amtrak is so slow. It’s also not cheap, you will discover that most times flying is cheaper than train travel.  Few American cities have great subway systems with good accessibility, (Washington, DC metro and San Francisco’s BART come to mind), and only a few have excellent accessible light rail service, (Seattle and Minneapolis). But, for most cities and smaller communities in the United States, wheelchair travelers must rely on public buses, wheelchair accessible taxis (if available), or accessible van rentals to really explore the area.

The United States is a very large country with lots of wide-open spaces.  Traveling between major cities often requires several hours of driving, or in some instances it is easier to take a plane trip. If you want to embark on an accessible road trip across America, be sure to give yourself at least a week or more to travel from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast.  In some instances, it is cheaper to fly to another country than to fly to another city in the United States.

Most of the larger cities in the United States are very spread out.  The metro areas of cities like Washington DC and New York City are compact and more rollable/walkable friendly than others.  But in other parts of the country, like Los Angeles or Houston, expect to be in traffic for hours travelling from one side of the metro area to the other. Renting an accessible vehicle may be your only option to travel in these cities.

Finding Accessible taxi availability can be a challenge.  Some cities in the United States have a decent supply of accessible taxis, like New York City, but that is because the subway system is largely inaccessible. In areas with a large number of tourists and seniors (like Orlando and Miami), even though there is a high demand for accessible taxis, there is a major shortage of them. The Texas cities of Houston and Dallas are notorious for their lack of wheelchair taxis. UberWAV service is available in select cities but wait times can be very long.  Just remember that just because you were able to get a ride to your destination, does not mean that you’ll be able to find another one to take you back.

Renting a wheelchair van may be necessary. Wheelchair accessible vans are available for rent from several locations in the United States. However, these locations may not be convenient to your intended destination. You can’t find them at an airport, so you must find a way to get to the dealer to pick up the van. Most accessible van rental companies also require you to return the van to the same location, therefore one-way road trips are not an option. Wheelchair users unfortunately pay a premium price to rent an accessible van. The vans are also not set up with hand controls or transfer seats, so the companion or caregiver must be the driver.

While the ADA has helped disabled travelers, it doesn’t always guarantee accessibility. With ADA mandates you have the general expectation of ramps, wider doorways, and general accessibility in the United States. However, as any wheelchair user who has traveled in the United States will tell you that hotel compliance can range from outstanding to non-existent. The ADA also doesn’t cover things like furniture placement in hotels, restaurants, or stores, so you may not be able to maneuver between tables or racks of clothing in establishments with ramps and accessible bathrooms. This is especially true in tourist areas where you can pass through the front door without a problem, but moving around in the store is impossible. Sidewalks can be a challenge, some will be perfectly smooth, others torn up from age and tree roots, or otherwise absent in many areas. The accessibility of public transportation also varies from city to city, so do your research ahead of time. Separate accessible bathrooms are not common, and seldom will you find emergency pull cords or buttons next to toilets. Another common problem is bed height in a hotel room, some can be extremely high making transferring from a wheelchair to the bed a challenge.

Even with these challenges, the United States is still one of the most accessible countries in the world. Yes, I know that accessibility in the United States can still be improved and can be frustrating at times.  But I have also been to places in other countries where it is next to impossible for anyone in a wheelchair to get around.  I once stayed at a hotel in Europe where the elevator was so small you could not get into it with a wheelchair. Yes, it was a challenge, but we worked it out and had a great time. The thing we need to realize is that even though travel may be difficult at times, it is always worthwhile in the end. 

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