The Wheel Deal: The Secret To Navigating Public Transportation With A Disability

“You cant understand a city without using its public transportation system”- Erol Ozan

Growing up in Southern California, more specifically the Inland Empire, public transportation has never been a big part of my daily life. With everything being spread out, cars were a necessity to get from one destination to the next. My experience with public transportation didn’t come along until I began traveling — and boy was it an experience. Buckle up, because public transportation with a disability can be a wild ride!

Katie on a bus in Paris, France

Katie on a bus in Paris, France

Bus

I was finally in Paris, France exploring the city that, until this point, I had only dreamed about. It was the summer after my first year in college and I was 18 years old. For the past eight years when I blew out my birthday candles I wished for the opportunity to visit The City of Light. This was my first international trip and I did not know the best ways to get around in a foreign country. I figured my best bet was to ask the locals because I was sure they would have the most accurate information; however, when asking two young Parisians, they insisted I take the bus.

What? In a foreign city — where I didn’t speak the language — I was expected to take the bus? I didn’t even know if France had accessible public transportation laws — established to provide equal access for persons with disabilities in various aspects of public transportation — for disabled travelers. But, when in Rome — or in Paris — one should do as the locals do. So, I did.

I waved down the next bus and asked the driver about bus accessibility. To my surprise, he informed me most buses in Paris, although not all, had accessible lifts. On the bus there was a designated section for wheelchair users where the bus seats folded up, allowing space for wheelchair users to park themselves. The bus driver locked my wheels to the bus floor and then we were off. I couldn’t believe it was that simple.

When traveling, I try to avoid being too touristy, and was hesitant about asking for help because I thought it would be a dead giveaway; however, this incident taught me that it never hurts to ask for assistance when you need it — especially when it can help lead to a memorable experience. Riding the bus gave me insight into the daily lives of the people of Paris, but it also gave me freedom as a traveler.

public transportation

BART. Photo courtesy of Wally Gobetz

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART):

This June I kicked off my summer vacation with a trip to San Francisco, California. The only time I had been to San Francisco was before my injury, so this time I would be exploring the city from a different perspective.

The directions I was given to get to the entrance for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) — a heavy-rail public transit and subway system that serves the San Francisco and Bay area — said to turn right at the next light. Sure enough, there it was…located down a steep flight of stairs.

Didn’t know BART was underground? Neither did I.

It seemed the person who gave me directions was oblivious to the fact that I was sitting in a wheelchair. Thankfully, a friendly homeless man watching my confused reactions directed me to a nearby elevator that would take me to the underground transit.

As I arrived underground, I noticed the elevator brought me to the opposite end of the entrance to the BART ticket and loading platform. It seemed odd that the “accessible” entrance was inconvenient; however, this was most likely due to the original structural plan, which did not include accessibility for people with physical disabilities.

Once my bearings were gathered I made my way to the ticket window, happily surprised to find a discounted ticket price for travelers with disabilities. Yes! This must have been management’s way of saying “I’m sorry our transportation isn’t completely accessible. I hope this discount makes up for it.” It did. I would rather wheel 200 feet and receive a discount any day.

With my ticket in hand I waited on the platform for the BART. As the massive train pulled up next to me and flung open it’s doors, I began to get nervous. The process of getting on had to be very speedy or else you would be left behind. Luckily I made it through the doors and, once inside, locked my wheels and held on tightly to the grab bar. The doors shut and the train took off just as quickly as it came.

I encourage you to not let an initial set back keep you from pushing forward and exploring. I could have seen the steep flight of stairs to the underground BART and immediately wrote it off, but instead I kept pursuing the idea and found a solution. The process of finding the elevator to the underground level, buying my ticket and rapidly getting on the BART added to the thrill of the experience. I no longer felt like a visitor of San Francisco, but like I belonged in this city just as much as the San Franciscan sitting next to me.

public transportation

Taxis. Photo courtesy of bikeriderlondon.com via Shutterstock.

Cab

Taking a cab is one of the simplest ways to get around a new city. When taking a cab, there is no need to look at a map and figure out which route you need to take to get from point A to point B. Simply hail a cab and get in.

“Excuse me miss, where should I put your bicycle? Does it tow easily?” I burst out laughing, which, looking back now, I realize was a bit rude. I just couldn’t help myself. My San Francisco cab driver was referring to my wheelchair as a bicycle. I couldn’t understand if he thought he was being sensitive or if he was just confused.

Riding in cab does come with some difficulties of its own. One of the most entertaining aspect is describing how you need, or don’t need, to be assisted into the car and how your wheelchair can be broken down to fit in the car. As a person with a disability, you become the expert on your needs and the ins and outs on any equipment you may require.

In my experience, cab drivers feel the need to physically help me transfer into the car — without asking for my permission. If you take away one thing away from this article, please understand that you are in control of your body and equipment and you have the right to deny assistance. Speak up for yourself and let the cab driver know how is best to help you, if at all!

The style of vehicle also matters. If you are a wheelchair user and must transfer in and out of the car, a smaller vehicle may be best. The front passenger seat is usually your best bet in relation to plenty of space; however, if you must transfer into the back seat, try and avoid a 4-door SUV. This style of vehicle has the rear wheel hub that interferes the amount of space you have to transfer. Instead of sliding from your wheelchair to the seat of the car, you must lift yourself up and over the wheel hub just to get in.

The more you travel and use a cab as a mode of transportation, the more familiar you will be with what works best for you. It is easy to feel out of your comfort zone while traveling, but it is essential to speak up for your needs. Don’t be hesitant to try different things because that’s part of the experience.

As a traveler with a disability, it can feel intimidating to branch out and try foreign transportation. Just remember that exploring is part of the experience. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Have you navigated public transportation with a disability before? Please share your experience and tips in the comments below.

By Katie Estrella. Follow her adventures at DiscoverKatie.

Also Check Out:

Do You Want To Explore Italy’s Amalfi Coast Like A Local?

Traveling With Disabilities: Ultimate Research & Planning Guide

Total Immersion: How To Make Your Life More Like Travel

 

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Katie Estrella

Wheel Deal Columnist
Katie is an adventurous soul who enjoys exploring new places. She loves drinking too much coffee, expressing herself through dance and getting lost in a good book. In 2006, Katie fell from her horse and suffered a spinal cord injury, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. This injury has not stopped Katie from pursuing her dreams, and she hopes to inspire others to do the same, regardless of what obstacles they may face. Stay connected with Katie and follow her new blog DiscoverKatie

7 Comments

  1. I agree that with what you said, “you cant understand a city without using its public transportation system”. I think that is so true. When I traveled in Taiwan it was fun to use the underground rail system. There was a lot of culture to be seen there. This was fun to read. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You have a very positive attitude about the explanations that must take place to share your accommodation needs with others as you travel. You make a great point when mentioning that wheelchair users often become the experts for their needs.

  3. Undoubtedly that with what you said, “you cant understand a town without using its public transportation system”. I feel that is so true. When I traveled in Taiwan it was fun to use the undercover rail system. There was a lot of culture to appear there. This kind of was fun to learn. Thanks a lot for sharing.

  4. You’re right about the Inland Empire and many parts of California as a whole. General mobility can be nearly impossible without the assistance of some type of vehicle.

  5. Well it all depends on how you look at yourself. People are so busy with their lives but still if you have disability they will look at you like you are some orc who stepped in the bus. It has happened with me and my friend and we still don’t care much. We travel as we want to and we don’t pay much attention to what people has to say. Let them do their stuff and we will deal with ours.

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