“We’re going to need him to stand,” a DMV employee tells my mother, as she attempts to get a new state ID for my older brother Maxwell so that he can fly to Florida for my college graduation. The camera for the ID photos moves, but it can’t be angled low enough to properly photograph someone in a wheelchair. My brother can’t stand, though — he’s never been able to. With his cerebral palsy, his legs are too stiff to straighten or bend more than they do as he sits in his chair. Thankfully, my mother is able to lift him up, just enough to get his face within range of the camera.
It’s the first hurdle they’ll have to jump in traveling with a disability: In a few weeks, he and my mother will be racing toward the gate of their flight as the intercom calls their names because he had to wait in a special line in order to get his chair thoroughly inspected. Though the gate is already closed when they arrive, the pilot will come out and personally escort them onto the plane.
Approximately 12 percent of the American population reported a disability in 2017 and about 1 percent of the global population uses a wheelchair. For them, traveling is filled with seemingly endless ups and downs. One minute you’re told it’s impossible, you can’t do it, the world isn’t made for you. The next, a pilot is delaying a flight in order to make sure you get on board.
Cory Lee is acutely familiar with all of this. Having visited six continents and 32 countries, he has far more travel experience than the average person despite having type 2 Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which has kept him wheelchair-bound his entire life. The 29-year-old Georgian runs a travel blog called Curb Free with Cory Lee. There, he documents his trips and offers advice to fellow disabled travelers about accessible sites, hotels and experiences.
For him, the process of planning a trip begins up to a year in advance. While most travel can be booked online, making calls is an essential part of traveling with a disability. “I will start by Googling like, ‘wheelchair ramps to use in Amsterdam.’ Transportation is the first thing that I always look up. Then I’ll be able to see more than just the airport when I land. Then I’ll actually be able to get around the city,” he explains. “If I find that they have plenty of transportation, I will move on to finding out about accessible tour companies, hotels, flights or whatever it may be.”
For Lee, by far the most challenging aspect of travel is flying. Even for domestic flights, he often arrives two to three hours early. “Flying is my least favorite part of travel, totally,” he says. “I always have to get the pat-down at security so that takes a bit of time and then actually finding an accessible bathroom that’s in the airport and actually getting on the plane, and being the first to board the plane, it’s always a big-time endeavor.”
Not to mention, most planes don’t offer the option of remaining in a wheelchair or other assistive devices, meaning that using the bathroom on-board could be impossible. In Lee’s case, his chair goes into the cargo of the plane. “The biggest worry for me is always getting on the plane. The airport workers have to physically lift me up and transfer me into the plane,” he says. “I’m separated from my wheelchair and worried about getting balanced, and when they’re transferring me into the plane, a lot of times it’s really abrupt. They don’t ask questions or know how to lift me. It takes me being my own person to speak up and tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. If I don’t, they’re just going to be in a rush.”
It’s also possible for the wheelchair to be damaged in cargo, which would be catastrophic to a trip — and his life. That’s why Lee often takes apart the chair as much as he can and puts the pieces in his carry-on. “I’ll even put my phone number on a sign on the wheelchair and tape it to it so if they have any questions while they’re loading it, they can call me,” he explains.
All that said, Lee still finds that the benefits of travel still outweigh the challenges. He’ll soon be traveling to New York City to receive a Webby for his blog, shortly after which he’ll head to Costa Rica, a place that once seemed off-limits, with too few resources available for the wheelchair-reliant. Fortunately, more accessible tourism groups, hotels and transportation have been developed globally, opening up places like Costa Rica to the disabled.
“That shows how much demand is out there for accessible travel,” he says. “I’m not the only one out there searching for accessibility around the world, and wanting to create positive change. It’s really made me aware of accessibility around the world, and how much better it could get for all of us. Because even people who aren’t disabled today, I mean, next week, they could be.”
John Morris, a 29-year old from Orlando, fits into that group. Morris was a lifelong road warrior when in 2012, a car accident left him a triple amputee. Afterward, he decided to start a recount of all the countries he’d already visited. “If I hadn’t been in my wheelchair, then I hadn’t been at all,” he says. In the ensuing seven years, he’s visited around 35 countries.
His own website, WheelchairTravel.org, is a database of resources for disabled travelers. He organizes the site by continent and creates guides to each city he visits. He grades them according to five features: public transit; wheelchair accessible taxis; sidewalks; hotels; and attractions. Berlin, for example, got a four out of five from Morris in all categories except taxis, which got a zero.
Traveling in the U.S., however, isn’t necessarily easier than going abroad — particularly because the Americans with Disabilities Act is often ignored. Case in point: Morris has stayed in 12 hotels in the last month, and none of them had an accessible shower. Meanwhile, the websites for many popular attractions say nothing about whether or not they’re accessible. “If your business is accessible and open to people with disabilities, you need to be marketing to them and creating a page about accessibility on your website. It’s honestly the cheapest marketing strategy there is,” Morris says.
He’s filed numerous complaints on the Department of Justice site for ADA compliance. None of them, however, have ever been addressed. Luckily, there has been some success from other complaints. In 2016, for instance, Greyhound lost a lawsuit filed by the DOJ for their lack of accessibility. As a result, disabled passengers (or attempted passengers) received compensation, and Greyhound buses were made accessible. “People with disabilities in the future will hopefully be able to find a world where accommodations aren’t necessary because it’ll be universally accessible,” says Morris. “It’s better when we’re able to interact with society without needing anything.”
Despite some obstacles on what was his very first flight, my brother raves about his trip to Florida. He says he can’t wait to travel again, with dreams of going to Tennessee to visit his cousins, and to cities with interesting radio stations he discovers on his iPad, like San Antonio. And whenever I call home, he asks, “Is this Los Angeles speaking?” Then he adds something new before we hang up: “When can I visit your apartment?”