Why Accessible Travel to the US is Hard for Wheelchair Users

I love living in the United States for so many reasons! I think we have some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, the food’s not too shabby, and the people are (generally speaking) pretty welcoming and friendly to visitors – whether they’re from a neighboring state or halfway across the world. The US is also home to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that has greatly improved wheelchair accessibility and equal opportunity. But despite our laws and advanced technology, the US can still be a challenging country for wheelchair users (American AND foreign) to visit. Here’s why, and what you can expect as a wheelchair tourist in various parts of the country.

grand teton wyoming
Wyoming is one of our most sparsely populated states.

1. The USA is a really big country. It’s not uncommon for foreign visitors to believe they can visit New York City and take a day trip to Chicago. Traveling between major cities often requires several hours of driving, or more commonly a plane trip. You want to embark on an accessible road trip across America? Give yourself at least a week, and more if you want to stop along the way. If you live here, sometimes it can be cheaper to fly to another country than to fly to another US city. If you live in a state like Florida, Texas, or California, it can take you the better part of a day just to make it across the state line. And don’t even get me started on getting to Alaska or Hawaii.

This little Spot GPS emergency beacon can literally be a life saver when you don’t have cell phone service in the US: SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger

wheelchair accessible things to do in orlando
Orlando is HUGE.

2. Most of our largest cities are very spread out. Some of our cities are compact and more rollable/walkable than others, like New York City and Washington, DC. But in other parts of the country, like Los Angeles, Phoenix, or Houston, it could take you hours (with traffic) just to get from one side of the metro area to the other. Renting an accessible vehicle may be your only option, and this comes with its own challenges (see below).

3. Our transportation infrastructure isn’t great. Europeans are often greatly disappointed to discover we have only one national train system, and that Amtrak is very slooooooowwww. It’s also not particularly cheap, to the tune of discovering that sometimes flying is cheaper than train travel. A few cities have really great subway systems with good accessibility, like the Washington, DC metro and San Francisco’s BART, and many more have excellent accessible light rail service, like Seattle and Minneapolis. But in the majority of US cities and smaller communities, wheelchair travelers have to rely on public buses, wheelchair accessible taxis (if available), or accessible van rentals to really explore.

You can get a wheelchair taxi in Huntsville.

4. Accessible taxi availability is hit or miss. Some US cities have decent availability of accessible taxis, like New York City – which is a must there, since the NYC subway is largely inaccessible. But in some areas with a high demand for them (many tourists, many seniors, etc.), you’ll find a shocking shortage of them – to include places like Orlando and Miami. Major Texas cities are notorious for their lack of wheelchair taxis, including Houston and Dallas. Yet you’ll find them in less populated areas like Huntsville (Alabama) and Rapid City (South Dakota). UberWAV service is available in select US cities (mostly in California), but wait times can be very long. And just because you got one to take you somewhere doesn’t mean you’ll be able to find another one to take you back.

5. Renting a wheelchair van may be necessary, and is always expensive. Wheelchair accessible vans are available for rent from several US locations, although these locations may not be convenient to your intended destination. They are not at the airport (although cars with only hand controls are), so you have to find a way to get to the dealer for pickup. Most accessible van rental companies also require you to return the van to the pickup location, so one-way road trips are usually not an option. Wheelchair users unfortunately pay a premium price to rent an accessible van, usually starting at $120 per day. The vans are also not set up with hand controls or transfer seats, so the companion or caregiver must be the driver.

Don’t waste money renting a GPS; bring your own. Here’s the easily updatable (and affordable) one that I use: Garmin Drive 50 USA LMT GPS Navigator System with Lifetime Maps and Traffic, Driver Alerts, Direct Access, and Foursquare data

In Rotterdam with Accessible Netherlands
On an accessible tour…in Holland.

6. Accessible tours are few and far between. If you visit Europe or go on a cruise, there are numerous companies that offer wheelchair accessible shore excursions and city tours. There are also tour operators as far as New Zealand and South Korea that offer accessible airport transfers and tour packages. Here in the US? Not so much, and I don’t understand why. If you plan to travel to Los Angeles, for example, and you want an escorted tour of major sights like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Griffith Observatory, etc. in a wheelchair van with a guide who knows the accessibility of all your stops, you’re out of luck. Some tours in high-volume places like the Grand Canyon have accessible coach buses, but intensive research is required to find them in other locations. It’s pretty easy to find out all the accessible things to do in a US destination, and there are TONS of amazing accessible national parks, museums, and historic sights to visit. However, even if you hire an accessible travel agent to put some things together for you, you’re largely on your own when it comes to moving between those sights.

This bed is way too high, but that’s not an ADA violation.

7. The ADA doesn’t always guarantee accessibility. Laws are created by people, followed (or not) by people, and enforced by people – which means they’re not perfect. It’s really nice to have a general expectation of ramps, wider doorways, etc. in places subject to ADA mandates. However, any American wheelchair user who has traveled within the US can tell you that hotel compliance can range from outstanding to non-existent. Sidewalks can be perfectly smooth, torn up from age and tree roots, or otherwise absent in many areas. Separate accessible bathrooms aren’t as common as they are in Europe, and nowhere will you find emergency pull cords or buttons next to toilets. The accessibility of public transportation also varies from city to city, even though technically it shouldn’t. The ADA also doesn’t cover things like furniture placement in hotels, restaurants, or stores, so you may not be able to maneuver between tables or racks of clothing in establishments with ramps and accessible bathrooms.

Check out this nylon “ladder” that helps me pull myself up in hotel beds and at home: Stander BedCaddie – Sit-Up In Bed Support Assist Handle with Adjustable Nylon Strap + Three Ergonomic Hand Grips

8. Despite these challenges, the US is one of the most accessible countries in the world. Because I live here and make note of accessibility in other countries, it’s easy for me to be critical. I know exactly how accessibility in the US can be augmented and improved, and it’s frustrating that it’s not – mostly because of the financial cost and the resulting pushback from the businesses that have to pay for those improvements. But I’ve been to countries where family members with disabilities are a source of shame and are hidden away from the public. I’ve been thrown looks of utter disgust, stared at unflinchingly, and pointed at by strangers. I still deal with unpleasant interactions in the US on occasion, but at least I feel like I’m a normal sight in public. I wish more of us could be out and about, but at least wheelchair users are seen much more often in the US than many other parts of the world, so you’ll be in good company. My job is to provide travelers with expectations regarding accessibility everywhere, and that includes my home country. The last thing I want is for wheelies to be surprised when they get here, or worse, be disappointed because their experience wasn’t what they expected. Americans are friendly, generous, and helpful people, and that will easily make up for any accessibility challenges you’ll find in the US.

The great news is that LOTS of US cities are VERY wheelchair friendly! Check out this list of 10 Highly Accessible US Cities Wheelchair Users Need to Visit.

Do you need help putting together an itinerary and arrangements for a trip to or within the United States? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel and we’ll get started!

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Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these companies, and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

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