A Questionable Way to Evaluate Accessible Travel

I spend a good deal of my time on the road researching accessible travel. It usually involves a good deal of measuring and some copious note taking. It also includes numerous interviews, and maybe a little networking so I can get access to the things I need to see. Charles and I put in long hours; and I have to admit we don’t always do everything by the book. In short, we do what we have to in order to get the story.

But in my 15-plus years of covering accessible travel, there’s one thing that I’ve never even been tempted to do…

…get in a wheelchair and pretend to be disabled so I can experience the destination from a different perspective. And I get a tad bit irritated when I hear about folks who do that. I read about another one this morning in the Democrat and Chronicle.

Now it’s hard to find fault with this Rochester, NY nurse, because after all she was delivering a donated wheelchair to a man in Antigua. That’s a good thing. But the way she went about it was, in my opinion, questionable. Basically, she got in the wheelchair and pretended to be disabled for the flight. In the end, she said she learned a lot — about people’s attitudes and physical access — but I think that knowledge could have been gained in a different way.

First off, she could have read my Barrier-Free Travels book, or even searched my website for information about air travel. Perhaps that’s a cheap shot, but since she was very surprised about the lack of an accessible restroom on her flight, it indicates a lack of education about the basics of accessible travel. And travelers should be educated before they set out. At the very least they should know the law (the ACAA not the ADA) that governs accessible air travel. That way, they’ll know what to expect.

Second, she could have a meaningful discussion with wheelchair-users about how they are treated, the attitudes they face and what they experience. Again, she was surprised that people asked her companion questions instead of addressing her. This is pretty common, and I’ve had it happen to me many times when I’ve been out with my wheeler friends. For example, when I was shopping with my friend Betsy and her service animal Trooper, a lady came up to me and said she like my dog. Trooper was clearly Betsy’s dog, and I was standing some 10 feet away from the both of them. Yet, the lady acted as if Betsy wasn’t able to speak or understand at all. So maybe just by socializing (not studying), you can learn a few things.

And finally, if you want to learn about disability etiquette, there are a lot of good resources out there. At the top of my list is the great “Disability Etiquette” booklet by United Spinal Association. It goes over the basics, and you can download a free copy on their website.

In any case, the Rochester nurse now plans to share her new insights with her co-workers. In fact she wrote an essay about it titled “Pushed”. — because she was pushed through the airport and pushed aside by the public. It should be noted that she didn’t need to be pushed through the airport (remember she’s able-bodied), but she chose to be pushed. Perhaps that set the tone for some of her experiences. I have many friends who do not want to be pushed, because they can do it on their own; in fact, several friends don’t have handles on their wheelchairs for that very reason. They don’t want overzealous strangers running over to push them, when they are perfectly capable of doing it themselves.

Now don’t get me wrong, insight and education are good; however I hope this nurse doesn’t encourage others to put themselves in a wheelchair when they travel, just to see what it’s really like.

Why am I so opposed to this practice? Three reasons.

First off, it’s pretty condescending. If you think you can learn everything about being in a wheelchair in just a day, then you’re sadly mistaken.

Second, it’s not a fair comparison or a real experience when you are only in a wheelchair temporarily. You know it will only be temporary, and if need be (say, you really have to go to the restroom) you can get up and walk. You also know that at the end of the day you can just walk away from the wheelchair. That’s not the reality for most folks.

And last but not least, when you pretend to be disabled, you’re taking services away from someone who really needs them. How long have you sometimes waited for wheelchair assistance at the airport? Well, while this able-bodied nurse was being pushed around under false pretenses, someone else – someone who really needed assistance — could have been waiting for that employee to assist them. And that’s just not fair.

So although I’m sure she had good intentions, and I appreciate her enthusiasm, I have to give her a big zero for execution. File this under “don’t try this at home”. And please… don’t.