July is Disability Pride Month, so every week this month I’m going to share a post about something disability related – whether it’s personal to me and my life, or something more general and societal.
I posted on Instagram at the end of June asking people what disability-related topics they were interested in reading about, and one of them was transportation and getting around. So I thought I’d share a little bit about how accessible (or inaccessible!) different ways of getting around – public transportation, car, plane, ride sharing – are.
Starting with the one that I use the most! I have an accessible minivan, meaning that I can drive my power chair into the car and stay in it the whole time. Basically, the middle row of seats is removed, so you have the driver and passenger row, then the empty row for me to drive in to, and then the bench row in the back. There’s a ramp that comes out from under the car on the right hand side so I can drive right in. There are tie-downs on the floor that hook onto the frame of my chair to keep me from sliding around while we’re driving.
And there are lots of different configurations and options of this, too! Since both my sister and I use wheelchairs, we’ve had quite a few different accessible vehicles over the years. Right now, my sister and I can both sit next to each other in that empty middle row, but we’ve also had a minivan where the ramp folded down in the back, and we sat one in front of each other. We also had a big, full-sized van that had a lift that got us in rather than a ramp – but when that breaks down, it’s a lot more of an issue than a ramp breaking!
And of course, some people who use wheelchairs can drive! So the driver’s seat (and actually, the passenger seat too) is able to come out so that a person using a wheelchair can drive right up to the steering wheel. There are so many different adaptations that can be made to a car so make it easier for a disabled person to drive – from something as simple as hand brakes to actually using a joystick rather than a steering wheel to drive the car. It’s really cool how many different options exist.
Ride-Sharing Services (Uber, Lyft, etc.)
This one is frustrating, because ride-sharing would theoretically make life easier for disabled people in so many ways. But in actuality, they often end up being more frustrating than useful. For me, wheelchair accessible Ubers (Uber WAVs) are great… when they exist, which is super rare. Only a few cities across the US actually have Uber WAVs, and they’re often limited in the hours they run and the number being driven at any time, which can lead to longer wait times or people being stranded at an event with no way to get home. People who use service animals are routinely turned away because the driver doesn’t want a pet in the car, even though service animals aren’t pets and it’s illegal to deny service because of one! And I haven’t really heard much about Uber (or Lyft) expanding their accessible services, either.
Public transportation is decently accessible, because it has to be, legally. But sometimes it doesn’t quite live up to its expectations. For example – less than 50% of New York’s subway stops are accessible. Less than half!! It means that you often end up having to travel pretty far out of your way and then end up backtracking, because you can only get off at an accessible stop. DC’s metro is more accessible for me… assuming the elevators are in service, which is a bit of a guessing game.
Buses tend to be the most accessible option. They all have a ramp that folds down, and a seat that folds up where someone who uses a wheelchair can park and have their chair tied down (assuming the driver know how and is willing to use the tie downs, which is not always the case). Usually the two wheelchair spots are enough space, but occasionally they’re already taken, and you have to wait for the next bus. But there are the little things to think about, too – for me, I can’t put a jacket on and off by myself. So in the winter, I can make a run for it from a car to a building without having to worry about that. But obviously, if I had to wait for a bus, I’d have to bundle up. So I’d be warm while waiting, but once I got wherever I was going, I’d need to make sure I was with someone who could help. It’s doable, of course, but just something that people don’t always realize.
I’ve written posts about flying as a wheelchair user before, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here. The long and short of it is that right now, planes are basically the least accessible option out there for disabled people who use wheelchairs! We still can’t take our wheelchairs on planes with us, which is an issue for many reasons. My wheelchair provides me with really specific support that helps me sit for hours and stay comfortable. But on the plane, I have to just sit in a regular seat – I try to use as many cushions to prop myself as I can, but it’s still pretty uncomfortable, and I can barely eat or drink on the plane. And speaking of eating and drinking – bathrooms on planes aren’t accessible! So I try to avoid eating and drinking as much as humanly possible, because I don’t want to need to use the bathroom while I’m on the plane. And the biggest problem? My wheelchair goes down in the cargo space with the rest of the luggage. While it’s there, I have no control over how it’s handled or what’s done to it. So, so many wheelchairs end up damaged in the cargo holds! I mostly spend my time in the air in a constant state of anxiety, because if my wheelchair is damaged, I am stuck and can’t do anything until it’s fixed again. Imagine flying to vacation only to find out your trip is ruined before you’ve even left the airport?!
BUT! Hope is on the horizon. Delta recently unveiled a prototype for a setup that would allow a person to take their wheelchair onto a plane and stay in their chair during the flight. This would change my life and open up the world to me, and I’m really, really hoping this becomes reality.