In Accessible Travel

by Bert Abbott

Bert Abbott at the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Bert Abbott at the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Several years ago my wife and I went to Washington, DC.

The first night, we arrived at our supposedly wheelchair accessible hotel room at 11:00pm only to find that there was a one foot step into the room. Not only that, there wasn’t enough room to wheel beside the bed to get to the bathroom door that was beside the bed. The bathroom entrance had a step that you couldn’t access even without the step because you could not turn your wheelchair sideways in the narrow space beside the bed. Finally, on top of all that, the bathroom door was too narrow!

I had taken all the right steps; it looked good on the website, I called the property, I asked questions, I got assurances that other wheelchair users had stayed there etc.

Unfortunately, because of the late hour, the front desk person didn’t speak enough English to help us find other accommodation. So, Plan B, our cab driver found us an accessible room at a nearby hotel.

What to see and do

The first station wagon ever off the assembly line at the Museum of Natural History.

The first station wagon ever off the assembly line at the Museum of Natural History.

Our main reason for choosing Washington is we both like museums and we wanted to see the Smithsonian Institute that is made up of 19 different museums. They are mostly located in easy wheeling distance within the National Mall and downtown Washington. The National Mall is the national park that has the Capital Building, the White House, the Smithsonian Museum, Vietnam War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and more. The museums vary in size and are too many to describe but you can check them out here .

The highlight of our trip was the Museum of Natural History that is absolutely fantastic. We planned on seeing three museums a day but we did not comprehend the scope and size of the museum and we only went through the Museum of Natural History on the first day. We could have easily done another half day or more in that museum alone.

The Natural History Museum has everything you can imagine from the first station wagon ever made, to the first Apple computer, to the Wright Brother’s airplane, to Marie Antoinette’s jewellery. It even has as section full of meteorites. A smaller museum, the National Archive, is dedicated to the American constitution and has the original constitution on display. There are also two art museums that are spectacular. The great thing about these museums is that they are all free.

A civil war site in Frederiksburg, Virginia

A civil war site in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Other highlights in Washington include the National Mall which is a must see. A warning: if you are wheeling from one end to the other of the square, it is farther than it looks. In the mall, we went to see the Capital Building, the White House, Vietnam War memorial and Lincoln Memorial. I thought it would be nothing special however, both impacted me greatly.

Other must sees include Arlington Cemetery, the Spy Museum, and the old Georgetown Districts. We drove by the Pentagon and it is massive in comparison to how it looks when you see it on TV.

Also within short driving distance, at Fredericksburg, there is a driving tour of Civil war sites. The Atlantic Ocean and North Carolina beaches are an hour away. Around Washington, you will see a lot of black cars with tinted windows just parked everywhere. I bet my wife $5 that I would be the first to see a secret agent get out of one of them (didn’t see one).

This is also the one of the most visited cities in the world and you can find great eating, great entertainment, sports and lots to see and do.

Road trip to NYC and Atlantic City

Atlantic City

Atlantic City

Halfway through our stay in Washington, Hurricane Jeanne hit Florida. There was a prediction of ten inches of rain in Washington, however the good thing about hurricanes is that they move really slowly. So rather

than stay in our hotel in Washington to avoid the rain, we drove a few hours north to Atlantic City where we spent a day on the boardwalk along the ocean. We lost some money in the casinos but had a great day.

The next day, we drove the couple hours to New York and had a great afternoon seeing the sites. One of the highlights of my trip was driving down Fifth Avenue with the taxis. It was like being in a stock car race on the bumpiest road you can imagine – the streets are horrible. Some of the sidewalks in New York can be a challenge because they are not level, have cracks, man holes, and patches that can make for rather rough terrain.

That night we stayed across the river in New Jersey, a 40-minute drive, because the hotels are one-third the price of New York. A note: parking in New York is very expensive, up to $14/half-hour in some places downtown. At around 11pm we were going to bed and then thought, what are we doing, New York is The City That Doesn’t Sleep.

Times Square at midnight.

Times Square at midnight.

So we hit Times Square at midnight and it was packed with people. I highly recommend doing it late at night, it was so exciting. Another note of warning if you stay in New Jersey, and you drive into New York: make sure you know the name and the highway number you want to take. You will be exiting through one of the four lane tunnels under the river and when you come out of the tunnels there are around 20 highway exits. We panicked but luckily chose the right exit.

In the morning we went to the Statue of Liberty and headed back to Washington. By this time, we were driving back through the end of Hurricane Jeanne. Although the precipitation had diminished quite a bit, it was still coming down hard. Imagine the heaviest rain you have driven in and double it—that is about how much rain was falling; around 6 inches deep on the main highway. What should have been a four hour drive from New York to Washington DC turned into an eight-hour marathon.

Americans are actually really nice

Overall, we found the people there to be very nice and helpful. One of the great things about travelling is meeting people and hearing about their lives. The Taxi driver was an immigrant from a Somalia refugee camp. He said he found life in the United States too stressful with working, bills and cold weather, even though it was 20C degrees out.

Driving along side the taxis on Fifth Avenue in New York

Driving along side the taxis on Fifth Avenue in New York

Back in the camp he lived in everything was provided. He had lived in the US for five years and had never been to the Atlantic Ocean because he worked 16 hours a day, six days a week. The ocean and beaches are less than a 2 hours drive away. We convinced him to go.

We ventured into all areas of Washington, dubiously dubbed one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but we found the people to be great and helpful.

In one instance we were lost in a seedy section of town when stopped at a traffic light to look at a map. A pimped out car blasting rap music beeped its horn at us motioning us to roll down the window. We did and the young man in the car asked us what where we were looking for and gave us directions.

Another time when we were lost and hungry, we stopped at a House of Pancakes and the manager, the biggest man I have ever seen, was so impressed to meet Canadians that he gave us both a huge hug.

Accessibility in Washington D.C.bert abbott

Washington DC is very accessible. Public transportation is very good both on buses and subways. Several different states border Washington DC and boroughs along the borders are all linked by a great subway system.  We stayed in Arlington Virginia—a short subway trip or a 25-minute drive from the White House and downtown Washington—because the hotels are more than half the price than in DC.

Renting a car with hand controls

We rented a car with hand controls, and because the car rental company didn’t have the midsize care we ordered, they upgraded us to a luxury car for the same price. We always order a mid-size car but we usually get upgraded to a full-size because it is easier for them to install the hand controls. Most car rental agencies will install hand controls and there is no extra charge for them or the installation. They require at least 48 hours notice.

Getting on the plane like Hannibal Lector

bertabbottforkliftTo board the airplane at the Washington airport for the return trip they board you right off the tarmac. You transfer into a Washington Chair and then they wheel you onto a box that is fixed on the front of a fork lift. They then raise the fork lift to the height of the airplane door, move the forklift over to the door and transfer you on.

The day we left was 26C and even hotter on the tarmac.  When the fork lift had me half-way up, it ran out of fuel. I was stuck in the box at that height for about twenty minutes while they called for fuel. It was super hot and I wasn’t too happy.

Unlike the regular boarding procedure where they board the people with disabilities first, they boarded everybody before me. When I was finally boarded, my wife was besides herself laughing because when they loaded me everyone went quiet. Apparently, they were all talking about the killer in the special chair until they started wheeling me down the aisle—they thought I was like Hannibal Lector from the movie Silence of the Lambs.

Bert’s Accessible Travel Tips

  • Bert Abbott puts on some shades and taps into his inner secret agent.

    Bert Abbott puts on some shades and taps into his inner secret agent.

    If in doubt about the accessibility of your room, ask them to email you a picture.

  • In the bigger airports, don’t stand in the long lines. Ask one of the airport staff for disabled boarding and they will take you to the front of the line.
  • As soon as you get to the airport, let them know you need a Washington Chair to board the aircraft, and if you have transfers at other airports, let them know you need your wheelchair at the airplane door when you arrive.
  • If your flight isn’t a direct flight and you have to transfer, and it is late, ask one of the flight attendants to find you assistance with locating the next flight and they will assign you someone. In some airports you need to take a train or two to your connecting  flight and the staff can help you get there faster and easier than trying to find it on your own.
  • Cab drivers can be your best friends as they know lots about the cities you are visiting. If lost, flag one over, provide a tip and they will give directions, find you a hotel, tell you about events or unique site to see.
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