On the Ground

Wherever you go, look up your options before you go. Also keep in mind that what a place says they have for ADA compliance may be different from what is functionally there. Do a search for “accessible __insert_place_here__” before you go for the real scoop.

a man in a conductor's cap wearing white gloves and carrying a wheelchair ramp at a subway platform signals the train
subway accessibility guide in Tokyo

Subways: This is the most likely to go wrong in the USA. Many cities have broken elevators at their “accessible” stops, and the accessible stops are limited. Some cities have fully accessible trains. Some cities like Tokyo have systems where a guide helps you on and off the train with a little hand held ramp. Their subway system is great for accessibility. Search the web about accessibility on the system you are visiting before you go. There is generally a space where the seats flip up and you can get against a wall so you aren’t shoved as much. You do not generally strap in on subways but if you carry your own straps there is sometimes a way to do it.

Above ground trains: Some cities like Portland Oregon have excellent brand new ADA enabled trains, some don’t. Check. Ditto on the seats that flip up and the strapping.

Buses: Buses in many cities and even some countryside areas are wheelchair enabled. A lift goes down and picks you up while the bus “kneels”. Then the driver should strap your chair to its connection points (make sure they don’t attach to the wrong thing!). Some buses have connection points, but no straps. If this is something that concerns you, you might want to carry your own straps. In most places you go to the front of the bus to show the driver you are there and then they show you how to get on.

Cabs: This is very hit and miss and only in big cities. Call the cab companies in the city you are going to and find out if they can handle your specific chair. If your chair folds, you can get in almost any cab. If not, you will need a special wheelchair cab. Make sure to ask the cab company what hours they have both a wheelchair cab and a driver available. In San Francisco, for example, the drivers in the major companies don’t seem to work until 10AM and stop at 6PM and may not work weekends. In New York you can flag down a wheelchair cab, and the yellow cab app lets you pick a wheelchair one that will accommodate a large power wheelchair. In Tokyo you have to book a cab ahead with the company. It depends on the city and its individual cab companies.

Some cabs are actual vans, some are cars that will barely fit a power chair, but generally if it is a “wheelchair cab” there is a way to get even a big chair in.

  • US Cities I know that suck with wheelchair cabs: San Francisco. It is possible to have no wheelchair cab drivers on duty in the entire city for hours at a time.
  • US Cities I know that are awesome with wheelchair cabs: New York, Las Vegas. You can get a wheelchair cab as fast as a regular cab.
  • US Cities with ok wheelchair cabs: Los Angeles. You can get a wheelchair cab, but may have to wait an hour, maybe even two as the available cab gets across the city to you.

Trains: Most trains are now designed to be fully accessible. Still check what the policies are before you go. There may be a special ticket or section for you. In Japan you can get a lovely compartment to yourself with a companion seat.

Wheelchair Van Rental: Your only option for outside the city in most places if you have a chair that doesn’t fold or you need to remain in your chair throughout. Wheelers is a rental company in the US that is a franchise (as I understand it). There are other companies but I haven’t tried them. Different people rent the van(s) they own. This means the service and availability varies wildly. I had a great experience with them in Honolulu. In New Hampshire they canceled on me the day before my flight in because the guy renting the only van hadn’t returned it.

Wheelchair Vans (of your own)

a white wheelchair van with stickers on it that make it look like a Star Trek Galileo shuttle

Depending on transit in your area, if you get a big power chair, you may need a wheelchair van or car. Go to a showroom to try these out with your chair and practice going in and out slowly. As a rule alway go into low speed when boarding a van or any other vehicle. Wheelchairs with a recline need to go into the upright position and it helps to tuck your controls in. The Mobilityworks I went to sent a wheelchair van to pick me up in my chair to bring me to the showroom and back.

There are power ramps and manual ramps. If you can use them, manual ramps are way easier, cheaper, and don’t hiccup and break. Power ramps can be finicky about where they extend (curb too high, etc.). They have a back up system and a manual back up to the back up, but it’s a pain. Manual ramps are very light and easy to lift if you can move to lift them or are always with someone. They will sometimes work where a power one won’t. I got a power one in my van, but I have rented a manual one and found it surprisingly easy.

Some vehicles open out the back (better for people who live in areas with driveways and mostly parking lot parking) and some open in the side (better for people who live in cities with mainly street parking). You need to get a van accessible (space on the side) spot in a parking lot if you have a side entrance.

There are used models for sale all the time which are cheaper. Insurance can (if you can make them) cover some percentage of the cost of the adaptive part of the vehicle.

Be prepared for your warranty not to be honored. The car company won’t service an altered vehicle under warranty. The place where you bought the van will have the best idea of where and how to service it, and will probably handle the servicing of the adaptive parts themselves. 

Handicapped Placard/Plate

If you get a wheelchair van you should get a handicapped plate for it. In the USA the process starts with online for your local DMV where you download a form for your doctor. You then bring or send it in depending on how your DMV works.

You can have both a handicapped plate AND a handicapped placard for when you are in a rental van or if you have a folding chair. Never forget it when you travel. Even though it is state specific, I have never been ticketed using it in another state.

You can get the equivalent of wheelchair van AAA roadside assistance.

It is called Protectionworks and will pick you up in a wheelchair accessible vehicle and know how to repair your accessible vehicle.

Generally during ground travel do local research and try to have a back plan wherever possible.

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