Tips for Travelling with a Wheelchair

This series is designed to help parents manage specific aspects of bringing up a child with a different learning path. We’ve chosen a slight variation this week, as the festive season approaches: travelling with a family member with limited mobility.

The festive season is almost upon us! Off we will go to those end of year get-togethers, where we’ll eat copious meals and of course, give and receive gifts. We will probably spend hours in transport to get there, alongside hundreds of millions of people around the world.  At Irisada, we wondered: how do families with wheelchair users cope?

We spoke with Pascale and Hervé, whose experience of physical disability is relatively recent. Hervé suffered a stroke four years ago and is now hemiplegic, with slowed mobility and frequent wheelchair use.

Ensuring the Destination is Accessible

Pascale is in charge of logistics. Her motto is to always prepare for whatever might go wrong. “Whenever we travel, book a room or even visit friends, my first thought is to understand if Hervé will be comfortable and able to move around. I always look at photos, and often call for more information,” says Pascal. The obvious reason, being to confirm how accessible the destination really is, the second being to limit the unknowns in the equation. “We can’t improvise anymore – unless we already know what might be problematic.”

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It’s not always easy to find accessible bathrooms

“When renting, the most important rooms to look at are definitely the bathroom and the bedroom,” she explains. “The bathroom is the scariest place for people who aren’t steady on their feet. Especially when the floor is wet.” So Pascale always makes sure there’s enough space for Hervé to walk around comfortably, or even use his chair if he needs to. They also bring their own material: the invaluable shower stool, a portable shower bench, shower mats and a couple of suction grab bars for the shower.

As for the bedroom, the couple is most vigilant about how the bed is placed in the room. It can’t be too close to the wall, and height can be an issue.  “We recently travelled abroad, and found ourselves confronted with an unusually high bed, which was a big problem.” Hervé wasn’t as autonomous in those conditions, so they’ll be on the watch in the future. As they like to have breakfast in bed and Hervé spends a lot of time reading, they also bring an Invacare Backrest so he can sit up.

Choosing the Right Mode of Transport

So far the couple has tested travelling by car, train and plane. “At first we would only travel by car,” says Pascale, “because we felt more autonomous.” The first few trips were long, perhaps even too long. “I remember once we crossed the border and couldn’t find a place to stop for Hervé to use a bathroom. That was unnecessarily stressful.” They have got better at evaluating how long they can drive without wearing Hervé out. For them, driving is still the most convenient mode of transportation.

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Quan Peng’s inspiring travel story has been picked up in China (for more, see links section)

“We’ve only flown once since Hervé’s stroke,” says Pascale, “and it was not a satisfying experience.” The small awkward spaces, lack of adjustable seating and overall poor organisation did not make them eager to fly again. “I suppose we’ll try again in the future, but it will require more organisation.” Meanwhile, taking the train can be either a smooth ride or a bit of a fiasco. “So far”, says Pascale, “the TGV service in France has been amazing, but in the only other country we’ve taken the train, customer service was less than average.”

Making the Most of the Celebration

Once you get to your party or your holiday home and the room is buzzing with chatter, how do you make the most of the celebration? Both mentioned that in his case, he tires faster in noisy environments. Moreover, Hervé prefers to stand than sit in public, which is also physically tiring. “I like to know there’s a quiet place he can retreat to if it becomes too much,” adds Pascale.

One reason Hervé stands is to maintain eye contact and connect more. “When I sit, I prefer people to come down to my level – sit or bend – so I can see their faces,” says Hervé. “But if I’m in my chair, I don’t want my disabilities to become the centre of all my conversations.” Little things count.

Generally speaking, Hervé is conscious that his social interactions are still distorted by his handicap. “Sometimes people want to give me a hand, but they don’t know how, and that can stress me out,” he says. If a friend or stranger tries to help by holding his immobile side, they will unbalance Hervé. “It’s difficult to ask someone not to help you, or to do it some other way.” Similarly, he needs to draw a line. “Often I’ll say that I don’t need assistance with a certain task because otherwise, I’ll regress!”

And in the end, surrounded by family and friends, his stress and preoccupations evaporate. Good food, loving people and fun gifts have a way of doing that.

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Mélie Aboul-Nasr

Mélie is an English and French language writer who has worked in consulting and social entrepreneurship. She helps Irisada develop relevant content for carers and customers.

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