Why You Don’t See More Wheelchair Users in Public

According to the latest US Census data, almost 20 percent of the US population has some sort of disability. About 10 percent have a visible physical disability or some sort of mobility impairment, and well over 3 million Americans use a wheelchair full-time. And don’t forget to take into account everyone who uses a walker, cane, or crutches for assistance in walking. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the US, meaning there are more of us than blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and people who identify as LGBTQ+. So where is everyone???

Everyone knows that people with mobility impairments need some kind of device to help them get around. That could be a walker, a manual wheelchair, power wheelchair, or electric scooter. Technology has advanced a lot in the world of accessibility, and now there are power chairs that raise us to allow users to reach items on shelves and just have eye-to-eye conversations with people. But if you think about your last outing somewhere with your family and friends, how many wheelchair users did you see? Was it roughly 10 percent of all the people around you? Of course not, and here’s why.

Wheelchair users have ways to get around their homes and equipment to live day-to-day. This includes caregivers to help them eat or change clothes, bathe, get into bed, etc. But not every wheelchair user has an easy way to go out in public. I am very fortunate to own a wheelchair accessible SUV with a deployable ramp. It is my lifeline, my freedom, and I can’t enjoy my preferred active lifestyle without it. But mobility vans are very expensive, and obtaining a grant to help offset the cost can be very challenging. Even if you are lucky enough to own one, parking and getting out of the van can be a real hassle. Accessible van parking spaces are always in limited supply, and often people place obstacles (shopping carts, motorcycles, cars, etc) in the striped areas between spaces that are designed for the deployment of wheelchair ramps and safe egress and entry.

If a wheelchair user doesn’t own a van, his options for transportation can be severely limited, both by his equipment and physical condition as well as logistical limitations. For example, I can’t walk at all because I can’t lift my legs. However, I can stand up and pivot to transfer into a sedan taxi, and my scooter will disassemble to fit into a trunk. But someone who relies full-time on a large and often heavy power wheelchair for mobility can’t just call any taxi; they need an accessible taxi, which sadly are in very short supply in many major cities in the US – the home of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Texas cities are notorious for their lack of accessible taxis. I once waited over an hour outside the Houston airport in searing heat for one to show up, and they were not an option for me at all during a recent trip to Dallas. They are virtually non-existent in small towns, unless an independent contractor is using their own accessible van during limited hours.

The next option is public transportation, which is at best a mixed bag – even for able-bodied Americans. For all practical purposes, the New York subway system is off-limits for wheelchair users. Only a handful of stations have elevators to the platforms, and often those elevators are not working. Many larger cities are doing a good job in providing accessible buses for residents, but some bus stops have no nearby pavement for a wheelchair user to safely roll on to after getting off the bus. Based on their destinations, some wheelchair users can spend hours on a bus or two to travel only a few miles because of the route layout, as well as limits on what buses they can board. Many local tram or rail systems offer no accessible transportation options to help wheelchair users travel beyond the tram/rail stops.

These are just some of the obstacles involved in getting wheelchair users from point A to point B. Upon arriving where we want to go, we still have to deal with the standard accessibility challenges, like flat entries, doorways, accessible bathrooms, etc. Every choice we make is a cost/benefit analysis. We ask ourselves, how much work and cost and trouble is it going to be to get to [destination] versus the enjoyment or benefit we will derive from being there? Sadly, a majority of the time, it’s either too difficult for wheelchair users to simply go somewhere, or just not worth the effort.

We are figuratively invisible because many people and government officials and business owners just never think about us when making important decisions that affect our ability to be part of our communities. But we are also often literally invisible because so many wheelchair users live in places or in circumstances where they can’t be a part of the public space. It’s heartbreaking that I have had more positive experiences with accessible transportation in foreign countries than I have in my own. However, wheelchair users are doomed to remain invisible behind closed doors if we don’t speak up to encourage US cities and towns to promote the expansion of accessible (and affordable) transportation options.

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  1. Jose Schaefer

    Great post! The growth of science and technology has made everything possible.

  2. Erica Lewis

    This article only covers one issue: transportation. They are many more reasons, the main one being that entrances to most buildings and businesses are not accessible. Many sidewalks are impassable for various reasons, including snow and ice in winter, uneven, bumps, holes, too narrow, etc. Most wheelchair users live in abject poverty and have no money for transportation or to spend at those few businesses that are accessible. Some people who use wheelchairs also have medical problems that make it quite miserable to leave the peace and familiarity of their own homes, such as chronic pain, severe fatigue, etc. Another reason is most public washrooms are not accessible, and even if they are, depending on the person’s degree of impairment, using the washroom can be an ordeal that takes a long time. Most of these things are the reasons I only go out two or three times a month for food and a medical appointment, but another reason is to avoid the constant and degrading interference from strangers who take away my independence by forcing help on me I didn’t ask for and then becoming verbally abusive when I ask them to stop. I am treated like a helpless imbecile every time I go out in public.

  3. Shannon

    I’m a wheelchair user, don’t have a car, and I do go out, but you are right about many of the difficulties. I have been taking Uber and the drivers have been nice and helpful, but I never know what kind of vehicle they will come in and it’s hard to get into some of them. There are no wheelchair accessible taxis in my city and many of the taxis are SUVs, too high to get into without a lot of help. New York City, despite the subway problem, I find is pretty good for getting around. I push the chair or take the bus. There is a number you can call where they will dispatch an accessible taxi, but I don’t have too much experience with it. I used it a few weeks ago. First one said I was a no show although I was sitting right there, the second one came quickly. I travel there by train quite a bit. We have buses where i live and they are accessible, but the nearest stop is a bit tough to push to – bad curb cuts, uneven pavement, a bit uphill in some places, and when there is snow or ice not really doable. I am signed up for paratransit but I have not used it… has to be planned in advance.

  4. […] install ramps or spend any money to make their businesses more wheelchair friendly because they say they never see wheelchair users in the area or never get asked for access. Do businesses in the travel industry ever think, if we install more […]

  5. Incredibly accurate. I remember trying to get to a important work meeting, but my van was broken and could not find a ride. Paratransit, Uber, and Lyft did not have any options. The bus system would have taken me 3 hours to go 23 minutes away and was on an inaccessible route. I also would have hurt my body because it was so cold out that day. So I missed that meeting. Disabled individuals aren’t lazy, they are constantly trying to find ways to do things. The adventures of unequal access certainly can limit options.

  6. […] we only represent a tiny fraction of typical conference attendees. This may be because we are not a well-represented demographic in the professional world, or because wheelchair users just find it too daunting a task to attend a conference in the first […]

  7. […] couple of years ago, I wrote a post on my accessible travel blog about why you don’t see more wheelchair users out in public. A huge part of the reason is lack of access to accessible transportation. Another part of it is […]

  8. Sarah

    I’m in a wheelchair and have to carry a bag of medically necessary items and when taking the bus or going to the store or doctors the bus drivers and some strangers complain that I have to much stuff. Some bus drivers have refused to let me on the bus even though they have the space for me to get on. All because of my medical bag.

  9. Mae

    The state I’m in is removing handily things that help disabled people from buildings because they don’t look historical. They have taken the buttons that open doors off even fromdome of the hospitals that one really surprised me and I was told it’s all in an effort to look more colonial for tourism there also adding cobblestone to walkways that makes it hard to roll over in a chair. I live in the USA in Virginia as it’s a commonwealth state they pretty much do what they want. I’m blessed that I do have a spouse that helps me get places and can stand on one leg for transfers and use that leg to help in stealing my chair I lack arm strength often. But it’s difficult sometimes. I took a Lyft the other day and a wonderful driver helped me but inside it was hard in my chair I could not push myself far lack of strength and can’t use the store chair where would I leave my chair? Also very true about bathrooms most “ handy caped bathroom won’t fit a wheelchair. I could use a class on pushing a cart for shopping with my chair I find myself just shopping online it comes to the house. Also how some people are so rude.

  10. Randy Marshall Sr

    It is sad that people with a handicap get treated with the rude respect. There should be more things done for the ones in wheelchairs.

  11. Ruth

    I am a full time wheelchair user, due to a spinal cord tumor, level T1. I use a manual chair at home and a GoGo scooter when I go out. I have a Toyota Sienna van with a side door lift on the driver side. My biggest frustration is trying to find parking where I can unload. We have good laws for handicapped parking in Oregon but they are not widely enforced, by building inspectors or police. I have become quite knowledgeable of these laws. I did contact our local town board and they adopted an ordinance to allow their police to be able to start enforcing Oregon state laws. Even our fairly new local hospital did not stripe and sign their parking lots per federal and state laws.
    I have always has difficulty finding a spot there to park and unload. So I recently took an inventory of the number and configuration of their spaces. They have a number of spaces that have handicapped signs…but no adjacent aisles to unload. They have some spaces on a hill, so it is unsafe and even impossible for me to load or unload (like dropping off a diving board). They also have numerous spaces that have inaccurate signs and striping, like “van accessible” without a space to unload.
    Sidewalks and store entrances have numerous challenges, as mentioned by others. Ramps that go up to entrance doors without a flat space in front of the doors are difficult, especially if it is a heavy door opened manually.
    Restrooms in restaurants and some stores are particularly challenging: not enough space to turn around or transfer; soap and faucets out of reach; doors difficult to open, shut and go through.
    These are regulated by civil rights laws and I have filed complaints with stores and threatened to file a civil rights violation. I have also written complaints to local stores and their corporate offices.
    There have been mixed reactions. Some ignore me, others have added corrections.
    As for the reactions of other people… they vary, from looking over my head and ignoring me, to stepping in front of me in lines, to offers of help. I get the most negative reactions from others who are parked illegally in handicapped parking. Many people believe the striped areas are for motorcycles! Every time I go to Walmart I usually see a man sitting in a wheelchair user space, in his car, in the driver’s seat, waiting for his wife to shop, or even using her handicapped sign when she isn’t with him. Both are illegal.
    It is challenging to be in a wheelchair. I have learned about laws and how to use my voice as an advocate. This can be exhausting and frustrating, in addition to just how difficult it is for us to physically get around.

  12. Lori

    I’m a wheelchair user and my problem is people(out of fear or just not wanting to learn how) not inviting me anywhere. I’m either told someone or I could get hurt/wheelchair is too heavy. People with an appropriate vehicle and physically able to handle a wheelchair need to realize that calling themselves a good or close friend of a wheelchair user also means inviting that person out to socialize just as they do non-disabled people. Our caregivers had to learn how to handle the wheelchair, so others can, too. If you have the right vehicle and are physically able to get the person out, then there really is no excuse not to do so

  13. Jessica Miller

    How do you plan an outing to a local place without knowing if it is wheelchair accessible or not? What if you get stuck somewhere by yourself?

  14. Charlayne

    Good article. I’m one of the folks who goes between a cane/walker/wheelchair, depending on how far I have to go. Any time I have to go further than 40 feet, it’s the wheelchair. We don’t have a van with an automatic lift or ramp, our 2013 Toyota Sienna doesn’t. We did buy a 10-ft aluminum ramp that has to be pulled out by hand and put together. My husband has to lay the back of the chair down and then use the joystick to take it up or down from the van. This takes 10 minutes to do and he’s now 65 with his own health issues, he does it so I can go out.

    You’re correct, the power brokers don’t see us. When they are planning to get us all into electric vehicles, there is no totally electric that will work for us, they’re all smaller cars, not vans. There is now a conversion by Braun for a Toyota Sienna hybrid that runs between $75,000-89,000 for a new one (there are no used ones when I looked.)

    I’m afraid of that we’re going to be sentenced to staying in our house when they tell us there will be no more oil.

  15. Matt

    I read this as i was curious why i hardly see anyone out in a wheelchair in the uk. I was planning how to make my indoor market stall more wheelchair friendly, but realised i never seen a wheelchair come in for years, even though the market has wide aisles and no stairs. I wonder if things like online grocery deliveries and banking have made venturing out less of a need

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