Breaking Barriers in Celebration of International Wheelchair Day

International Wheelchair Day is around the barrier-free corner, and it’s a time for celebration. On March 1st, wheelchair users from around the world will honor and spread the word about how their wheelchairs have helped them live more independently.

From the United States to Bangladesh and Australia, celebrations for International Wheelchair Day have been taking place since 2008.

Wheelchairs Are Freeing, Not Limiting

Many Americans who haven’t experienced using a wheelchair or being around those who do have a preconceived notion that wheelchairs hinder a person’s ability to go about their day. International Wheelchair Day is designed to raise awareness that the opposite is true.

Kristin Secor, the founder of World on Wheels, is a wheelchair user with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy. She comments that wheelchairs “allow us to go where we want and when we want without having to rely on others to do everyday tasks.”

She adds, “Wheelchairs allow us to explore the world we live in and take part in life. With their use, we can go shopping, attend appointments, work, get together with friends and family, and even travel.”

TJ Griffin feels similarly. He’s a Program Coordinator for the Peer & Family Support Program at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which seeks to cure spinal cord injury via innovative research and improve the quality of life for individuals living with paralysis. He comments, “My wheelchair is my legs, that’s how I feel about my chair! Without it, I’m stuck in bed.”

Griffin explains, “I made the decision to go to a power chair because it gives me the most independence as a C6 quadriplegic. I can open doors, go over steep ramps, go for a drive, or whatever it might be. I’m a very independent and empowered quadriplegic due to my power wheelchair.”

The Impact of ADA Laws

Former President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990. It’s had a significant effect on making public buildings and outdoor spaces more accessible for people who use wheelchairs.

But over 30 years later, wheelchair users can’t count on having access to all public facilities in the United States.

Secor explains some of the barriers she encounters. “There have been several times when I have not been able to access a shop or restaurant because there is a step to enter.” She also emphasizes the importance of businesses making portable ramps easy to access, as well as employee help if needed.

Unfortunately, even when wheelchair users have access to barrier-free entrances, there’s no guarantee they’ll have full access to a space.

Griffin describes a recent situation he faced. “Just the other day, I went to use the elevator at a facility, and a bench was blocking the button. As a result, I could not get close enough to reach the button.”

Secor also adds that “(some) shops make aisles so narrow or add obstacles such as aisle displays which makes it impossible to move around the store once inside.”

Wheelchair Travel Interest Is High

In 2022, Virginia ranked as the state with the largest query interest for the search term “wheelchair travel.” Google Trends weighed the popularity of this search term against the proportion of all queries it received.

New Jersey ranked second for users searching for the term “wheelchair travel,” while California and Texas came in third and fourth. Travel interest among wheelchair users is undeniably in demand.

Accessible Travel Is Still Difficult

Josh Lewis, founder of The Art of Josh Lewis, has been a wheelchair user since the age of four. He’s an avid traveler despite the challenges that wheelchair travel poses.

“Security screening at airports is extra time-consuming and tedious for us,” Lewis comments. “I have even been in tears after one because I actually felt like I was being persecuted simply for being disabled.”

Once on the ground, things don’t always get easier. Lewis explains that finding a car with hand controls is often a struggle, given that such vehicles are limited. Wheelchair users must call ahead. Even then, it’s common for employees to transfer their calls since there’s little training on how to reserve vehicles with hand controls.

And then there’s accommodation. While most hotels in the U.S. are ADA-compliant, homestay experiences are a booming industry for the value they offer. Many of us think nothing of hopping on sites like Airbnb, where dozens or hundreds of options are at our fingertips. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for wheelchair users.

“Sites like Airbnb clearly have great filters for accessibility needs. However, when using them, they often yield little results,” comments Lewis when talking about booking accommodation for his family. “We are still able to find great accessible homes, though. It just takes searching through each property’s photos to discover how I might be able to use the home and also contacting the host to double-check things, which takes a considerable amount of time.”

Travel costs are an intangible barrier that many wheelchair users face as well. “The problem with disability is that it often leads to financial insecurity and less travel opportunities,” says Lewis.

Accessibility Is a Collective Effort

There are many ways Americans can improve everyday accessibility for people using wheelchairs. Sometimes, it’s not only the lack of accessible features that make a location inaccessible but the misuse of an accessible area.

Chanda Hinton, a disability advocate and founder of the Chanda Center for Health in Denver, explains. “Accessible is most effective with true intentions and awareness. I do believe that most Americans do not intend to create barriers for others, it is most often due to lack of awareness. So there is a key takeaway that can create change.”

Hinton adds, “If we all take responsibility for each other, we are contributing to the accessibility of those in our communities today, but for our own future. Because let’s face it, we all become disabled at some point, whether that be from aging, catastrophic injury, or temporary injury, and if people start to view it from that standpoint, they may have better intentions around how they handle it today, knowing they’re contributing to their own future.”

Looking Ahead

There’s a long way to go before the world becomes truly wheelchair accessible. Airlines need to offer accessible restrooms so wheelchair users can more comfortably take long-distance flights, a basic human need that most of us take for granted. And many countries still need to make basic public spaces accessible to their citizens.

Luckily, change is in progress. Secor comments that “Organizations such as All Wheels Up are advocating and showing that it is possible for someone to stay in their own wheelchair when flying.” Not only does this make for an inclusive flying experience, but it helps reduce “the astronomical number of wheelchairs that get damaged by airlines on an annual basis.”

Griffin remarks, “I hope the future of accessibility in the United States expands and improves. People living with paralysis and wheelchair users need to be top of mind when creating accessible spaces, not an afterthought.”

He adds, “More conversations need to be in place when creating new buildings and facilities to ensure ADA requirements are met and for someone to explain why these features are so important to the community.”

So, let’s embrace this International Wheelchair Day as an opportunity to acknowledge it for what it is—a celebration of the freedom that wheelchairs offer. When it’s anything but that, we must point the finger at society, not the chair.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Laura is the co-founder of A Piece of Travel, a blog encouraging self-guided travel, including for wheelchair users. She's spent most of her adult life abroad, starting with a 3-year Peace Corps service in Panama. When Laura isn't crafting her next article, you can find her befriending street dogs while searching for local vegetarian food.