Special Mobility Series: 4 Tips on Traveling as a Student in a Powered Wheelchair

Arden Lee is a Chemistry and Creative Writing student at Susquehanna University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia in 2015. Arden is a Special Correspondent for Unpacked, writing a series on mobility and study abroad.

My original thought—as a slightly naïve study abroad student in a powered wheelchair—was that I just needed to get myself to Perth and all my transportation problems would go away. My biggest initial worry was getting off the airplane with both myself and my wheelchair intact. I’d only taken a manual wheelchair on planes before, which can handle a lot more without being irreversibly damaged. And of course, I’d decided to go study in a city that required no fewer than three flights to get there. Miraculously, my chair and I got to Perth unscathed.

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and hope everything will turn out all right. No matter the outcome, it’ll definitely be a story.

Powered wheelchairs aren’t something you can just throw around. A distracted kid running into the joystick could be enough to mess up the chair. They have, thankfully, gotten a little more durable over the years. They’re usually completely custom-made with the user’s needs in mind. And because of that, they can be as expensive as a car. Mine cost around $30,000 USD. And while I could probably get it repaired if something went wrong on the flight, that would entail finding a place that would do it, getting the custom parts, and involving the always ever-so-cooperative insurance company. If you’re in a powered wheelchair and have never traveled with it, I have some tips for you:

1. How to take your powered wheelchair on an airplane (or 3).

  • Make sure the airline can support taking a powered wheelchair on their planes. There might be some general information on their website, but also call them and make sure.
  • Call the airport and airline beforehand to make sure they know you’re coming. And possibly again. Because they’ll likely forget.
  • Get to the airport early. Whatever you think, go an hour earlier. When you go check in, reiterate to them your specific needs such as “I need this the second I’m off the plane” or “you’re not taking this until it’s time to go on the plane” or “this chair cannot come apart.”
  • If you can’t walk at all, be prepared for a pat-down search when going through security. They will also swab your chair.
  • Make sure you know what kind of battery your chair has (hopefully it’s a sealed, dry cell battery, because that’s the kind allowed on planes), its voltage/wattage, and its weight.
  • On that note, keep in mind the voltage of the power outlets if you’re traveling to another country. We actually had to buy a transformer for my charger so that my chair could charge. If you have to buy one as well, make sure you know how to use it beforehand; they can be a little tricky to understand.
  • Tie notes—in the official languages of the countries you’re visiting, if necessary—onto your chair with specific instructions on how to turn the chair on and off manual mode, because every chair is different and the crew might not know how to do it. Better safe than sorry.

You can either choose not go or take a chance. I happened to take chances and they ended up being great experiences.

Even if you do everything you can to prepare, some things can still go wrong. On my flight home from Perth to Melbourne, I was apparently getting on a plane whose storage bay was too short to hold my chair. The two options they gave us were to unhinge the back of my chair so it would lie flatter or I would have to wait for the next flight, which was the next day. The latter wasn’t going to work with two more flights waiting for us. So while it wasn’t ideal, they got my chair to fit and everything turned out okay. I suggest, if you’re traveling with someone, for that person to watch the crew to see what they’re doing and so you can relay it to the crew on the other side when you land.

2. All aboard! Australia’s public transportation is wheelchair friendly.

I never found myself in a situation where I was stuck somewhere because of the public transportation.

I can’t speak for other countries, but Australia is fantastic when it comes to accessibility. (It’s also just fantastic in general, but that’s beside the point.) Every train station had a lift to get to the platform and the gap was small enough so that I could get into the trains easily. However, some train station platforms had a slightly different height than the train. The solution is either risk the small drop (I only encountered a 2-inch difference at most) or go to the next station. While that may be inconvenient, there’s always a way to get there. Almost every single bus had a ramp to get on and off, as well as two areas in the front where you can park your wheelchair. I never found myself in a situation where I was stuck somewhere because of the public transportation.

3. For taxis and coach buses, plan ahead!

If public transportation isn’t up your alley, there are also taxis. The safest bet is to call a company ahead of time to find out if they have accessible taxis and schedule it. This is the same advice I’d give if you were going somewhere on a coach bus—if the company is given advanced notice, then they shouldn’t have any issues accommodating you. I traveled down five hours to Margaret River for a few days by coach bus myself. We started planning a month in advance, which involved finding accessible places to stay, as well as ways to get around the area.

4. Sometimes you just have to take a chance.

Another form of transportation that I ended up going on a few times were boats, and boats are tricky for people in wheelchairs. The best experience I had was with Rottnest Express to Rottnest Island. I called ahead of time, found out which port I needed to be at, and they had a very flat ramp to get onto the ferry. Other situations were not as smooth, even with advance preparation. In cases where it doesn’t seem feasible for your chair to get on that boat, you can either choose not go or take a chance. I happened to take chances and they ended up being great experiences. They involved putting my trust in others who may have never encountered a wheelchair before. But Australians are some of the nicest people I’ve met and are willing to help in any way they can.

4 Tips on Traveling as a Student with a Powered Wheelchair
Perth at sunset, on the Swan River. Getting onto this boat was a bit of a hassle and stressful, but this view was definitely worth it.

The main takeaway is that with enough planning beforehand, nothing should be off-limits. And if things don’t go as smoothly as you would like, sometimes you just have to go with the flow and hope everything will turn out all right. No matter the outcome, it’ll definitely be a story. So of course, no worries, mate.

This is part 2 of Exploring the World From a Seated Position: Studying Abroad with a Physical Disability. For more insights into the study abroad experience for students with disabilities, read Part 1 and Part 3.

Explore Programs

One thought on “Special Mobility Series: 4 Tips on Traveling as a Student in a Powered Wheelchair

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *