How to Prepare for Potential Wheelchair Damage When You Travel

Wheelchair damage. Those are two of the most horrible words to ever be put together into one phrase. It’s nightmare-inducing and anxiety-causing for anyone getting ready to travel with a mobility aid. In fact, it prevents many wheelchair users from traveling at all. If you travel anywhere near as much as I do, it’s often not a matter of if, but a matter of when your wheelchair will sustain some sort of damage, or experience some kind of operational problem like a dead battery or other electrical failure. It helps alleviate much of my anxiety to have a plan in place in case my electric scooter becomes non-operational during a trip, so I wanted to share with you some of my suggestions for how to prepare for any potential damage to your wheelchair when you travel.

What to do prior to departure

Before you even leave the house to go anywhere, you need to ask yourself one question. How well do you really know your mobility equipment?  Even if you’ve had your chair or scooter for several years, have you ever read the manual cover to cover? You know most of the technical specifications? Do you know where all the levers and switches are? Do you know what everything does?  Having this information either in your head or on a piece of paper with you when you travel can go a long way towards helping you if repairs are ever necessary. This is especially valuable abroad where measurement conversions can make things tricky and language barriers exist. The more you know about what could possibly be wrong with your chair, the more you can do to help somebody else fix it.

It can also be really helpful to bring some spare parts with you. For manual wheelchair users, this could be as simple as a spare inner tube for your tires. Any nuts or bolts that have the potential to come loose can go in your bag, too. For power wheelchair users, it’s smart to bring some zip ties for wires that come loose, duct tape for plastic or metal parts that get partially broken off, and electrical tape to cover up any exposed wiring. Keep this bag with your carry-on gear so you have it handy as soon as you land.

Do an Internet search for mobility equipment repair and rental locations at each of your destinations. Make a list that includes their addresses, phone numbers, and websites, and keep this list with you during your travels. Hopefully you will never have to contact them, but in case something breaks down while abroad, you’ll know who to reach out to in-country.

Preparing for airline damage to your wheelchair

broken scooter wheel
My damaged front scooter tire in Frankfurt

When you choose to fly with a manual wheelchair, electric scooter, or larger power wheelchair, there are generally three instances during which damage can occur to your mobility device: when your chair is being loaded onto the plane, any movement that occurs during the flight in the cargo hold, and when your chair is being taken off of the plane and returned to you at your destination. Typically, you’re not going to discover any damage until you get to where you’re going, whether that’s your home airport or somewhere far from home. You obviously have more options if the damage occurs on your return journey, but let’s take a look at what you can do in either situation.

Know whom to speak with at the airport. Your immediate concern is trying to get your wheelchair repaired as soon as possible so you can be on your way. In most cases, the damage is minor and hopefully your chair will be operational with just a few scratches. However, you might need more than just a zip tie and some duct tape to get your chair back in order. Airports have maintenance people on staff that can often make repairs on the spot. To get that ball rolling, ask to speak to an airline representative and the local Complaints Resolution Official (CRO). They work together to help determine what needs to be repaired and how long it might take.

How to Prepare for Potential Wheelchair Damage When You Travel
The maintenance crew at Ljubljana airport fixing my scooter tire

Know what your options are for a wheelchair substitute. If you’re traveling as a wheelchair user, chances are you came off of the plane in an aisle chair. If repairs to your own chair are going to take a long time or are impossible at that location, you need to be prepared with options for a temporary substitute. Some power chair users can manage for at least a little while in a manual chair, but many cannot. This is where your list of local medical equipment rental companies will come in handy. You should have a realistic expectation of what you can and cannot do if your chair cannot be returned to you in usable condition within a reasonable amount of time. Returning home, of course, is the least desirable option, but understand that in the worst case scenario, this is the best way keep you comfortable and safe.

File formal complaints when it’s all over. The only way airlines will get the message about how frequently wheelchair damages happening is through a formal complaint. You should first file one through the airline, which can usually be done online. If the airline is unable to resolve the problem to your satisfaction, you can then file a formal complaint through the Department of Transportation (DOT). Make sure you’re familiar with the Air Carrier Access Act so you can cite which section of the law the airline violated in your complaint.

When your chair quits before you do

Lots of things can happen to mobility equipment when you’re traveling. Manual chair users can get a flat tire. Power chair or scooter users could have a battery die in the middle of the Louvre. It’s heartbreaking and stress-inducing when your “legs” give out in the middle of a trip and you (temporarily) can’t use a mobility aid that’s familiar and comfortable. However, you can have a plan in place to reduce your stress and potentially salvage your trip.

Charging my unexpectedly dead battery in a clothing store
Charging my unexpectedly dead battery in a clothing store

Your number one priority is safety. If your battery leaves you stranded unexpectedly, your main concern should be getting out of traffic or anywhere that could pose a danger to you. If you have a companion, this is where they’re going to earn a lot of beer or at the very least IOU points. Have them place your chair in neutral and push you to a quiet location that isn’t filled with a lot of moving people. Use your knowledge of your equipment to calmly troubleshoot the problem. If it’s just a dead battery, then this can be solved easily.

Always keep your charger and plug adapter with you. This is especially crucial if you’re going to be out and about all day. Next, look around, search online (if possible), or ask a passerby where you can find an accessible location with an outlet to charge up. Your best bet is a hotel, shopping center, or museum.

Keep your chair manufacturer’s contact info handy. Major mobility equipment manufacturers have offices in different countries. If your power chair or scooter dies for a reason more complicated than a dead battery, you may be able to easily contact the company for technical support. They may also be able to refer you to a local repair shop that works with their products.

Return to your hotel and consider substitution options if necessary. I choose to travel alone, which is a risky proposition. If my scooter dies in the middle of a foreign city somewhere, I have to rely completely on strangers to help push me somewhere if necessary, get me in a cab to get to my hotel, etc. I have to then figure out how to get a manual chair ASAP to hold me off until I can get a scooter rental delivered to me. Usually a hotel concierge can work his/her magic to make this happen, which is why I’m always happy to pay a bit more for a hotel for this service safety net. If I can’t get my scooter repaired while on a trip, I have to figure out how to get the rolling brick home for repairs. I’m SO lucky this hasn’t happened (and hopefully will never happen), but I’ve thought these scenarios through – as should you.

Hopefully, you never have to put your wheelchair damage plan into action. But as I like to say, it’s better to have a plan and not need it than to need a plan and not have one. You should always expect the unexpected when you travel with a wheelchair and have some flexibility and a positive attitude. However, it helps alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that comes with packing a mobility aid to know how you would handle potential damage to it, from minor to catastrophic.

Do you need some help putting together your damage response plan and researching mobility equipment outlets abroad? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel for assistance!

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