Handicap Accessible Is NOT Wheelchair Accessible

August 13, 2019
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Wheelchair Accessible?

I will be honest and say that before my husband suffered from an injury that resulted in his paralysis and dependence on a wheelchair, I had no idea about the lack of accessibility for wheelchairs that existed in the United States alone.  However, since my husband’s injury, I have learned first hand more times than I can even recall that the world around us was not designed with wheelchair users in mind. What blows my mind is the very loose use of the terms “handicap accessible” and “wheelchair accessible”. 

Handicap Accessible vs Wheelchair Accessible?

Let me start by clarifying the difference between “handicap accessible” and “wheelchair accessible” according to our personal experience. 

While they may have some qualifications that cross over, we have learned over the years that they are very different things. I believe that when an establishment says they are “handicap accessible” most often that means they are meeting the minimum ADA requirements, and that may very well be true. It generally means there are no stairs or if there are stairs there is also a ramp available, wide doorway, grab bars near toilets and in showers or tubs, and in the case of parking it means the parking spot is near the front of the building and the parking space surface is flat. 

Handicap implies there is some type of mobility impairment but most often is used to refer to people who are upright and mobile but need assistance to walk with a cane or walker or at the very least a railway on a ramp. However, all “handicap accessible” locations are NOT necessarily wheelchair accessible.

Accessibility for a wheelchair doesn’t just mean a wheelchair can roll through any given area (we have seen rentals ads online with the wheelchair symbol checked and, in the photos, they show steps to get into the front door!). Wheelchair accessible means there are ramps, wide door openings and better yet doors that open with a push-button, tables that can fit a wheelchair under them with no crossbar for a base*, bathroom doors that can easily be pushed/pulled open by someone in a wheelchair, bathroom stalls wide enough for a wheelchair user, sinks that a wheelchair user can get under while also reaching the soap and paper towel holders in reach. 

Wheelchair Accessible Tables

*The photo on the left is labeled with a wheelchair sign and says accessible but it is NOT accessible for someone in a wheelchair. The photo on the right is my husband trying to have dinner with me at a restaurant with this type of table.  I hope you can all see why is it NOT accessible. He has to sit with about a 12” gap between him and his plate which is just not right. 

Handicap accessible

Here is a picture of a table that is actually perfect for any wheelchair user.  The bases run perpendicular to the table length on each end allowing plenty of room for a wheelchair user to roll completely underneath. I have also included the link to where you can buy this table in case you are a restaurant owner or are just interested in having a table like this.  It could also work as a desk for a wheelchair user.

Wheelchair accessible

Photo courtesy of Webstaurantstore.Com

Wheelchair Accessible Hotel Rooms

In a hotel room, wheelchair accessible should mean there is no solid base around the bed. So wheelchairs can get right next to the mattress to transfer.  Many hotels have a solid wood frame around the base of the bed which forces wheelchairs to be about 2 to 3 inches away from the mattress. This added distance makes more strain on the person transferring and can make a fall more likely. A wheelchair-accessible hotel room should mean that the bathroom is accessible with grab bars around the toilet and space on each side of the toilet for a caregiver to assist if necessary. 

Wheelchair accessible bathrooms must have a shower that can be rolled into without a step and certainly not a tub. The shower should be equipped with grab bars for balance and help to transfer into a shower chair. It should also have an adjustable height handheld shower head with a nozzle that is accessible. The shower curtain should come nearly to the ground with no space for water to spray and flood the bathroom floor. There should be a sink that a wheelchair user can get under to wash their hands and brush their teeth. 

The placement of the door is important as well. Laminate or tile floor is also ideal because it makes moving around the room easier in a wheelchair. We have unfortunately experienced many hotel rooms claiming to be “wheelchair accessible” that failed in one or several of these areas.

Wheelchair Accessible Travel

Airplane travel is by far the least accessible means of travel we have experienced.  We have successfully traveled on trains, buses, and shuttles that have great wheelchair accessibility and allow the wheelchair user to remain in their own wheelchair while traveling.  However, air travel requires the person in a wheelchair to transfer into a seat on the airplane. Some wheelchair users are able to do this relatively easily with no assistance, however, for people like my husband, it is quite a process. 

The Dreaded Aisle Chair

First, we have to transfer him from his wheelchair to a tiny aisle chair. This takes two airline employees to each get under one arm to lift and me to move his legs. Once he is in the aisle chair the airline employees use Velcro straps to secure his legs and arms.  Then they wheel him onto the plane and line him up to the aisle seat in the second row.

The first row would be more ideal as it has better legroom. But there are no lap trays on some planes in the first row and others have trays that fold out from the armrest. Those won’t work for him because he has to sit on his Roho cushion in order to keep his skin safe during the flight (which is one of the most concerning factors for people with paralysis or extreme immobility while flying). The Roho cushion causes him to sit about 3 inches higher making the fold-out tray impossible. 

The Roho Pictured here can be purchased by clicking here

He then has to transfer from the aisle chair into the seat with his Roho cushion already in place.  Then I get his legs placed in comfortable places and he is literally stuck there for hours. That can be a lot of time sitting in one place with no freedom to move around.

Storing a Wheelchair on a Plane

The other big concern with airline travel is the storage of a wheelchair under the airplane. The crew doesn’t always know the proper way to handle a wheelchair. Frequently we have landed only to find out they damaged it in transit.  

A Better Option

Airlines would benefit in many ways if they would make the front row of “coach” accessible for wheelchair users to ride in their chairs. If they simply removed the aisle chair and the seat next to it they could create a space large enough to accommodate even a large power chair and still leave the window seat for a caregiver.  While they would give up two physical seats on each side of the aisle, they would really only lose sales for one seat on each side if both of the wheelchair spots were purchased.

Even if they only made one wheelchair spot on every airplane, they would only lose one ticket for one seat. This would make more people in wheelchairs willing and able to fly thus increasing ticket sales. It would also reduce the amount of time spent preboarding people in wheelchairs. And reduce the number of claims made against the airline for damaged wheelchairs.  Honestly, I think it is a no brainer. 

Check out more information about the advocacy group All Wheels Up by clicking here.  

Help Change Accessible Travel

Please sign the petition to push the Federal Aviation Association to require airlines to provide designated wheelchair-accessible spaces on every commercial aircraft, which will allow passengers to remain safely seated in their personal wheelchairs.

My hope in writing this blog post is to bring some awareness to people that are not in wheelchairs. I don’t get angry at people for not knowing. I didn’t know or understand before my husband was injured either. However, I think we need to raise more awareness and be willing to speak up for wheelchair users’ rights. 

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About the Author: Julie Davis

Julie is the wife of Bill Davis and serves as both his spouse and caregiver. Julie has learned to embrace the struggle and thrive in the midst of insurmountable circumstances with her husband Bill. She has a heart to bring hope and healing to spouses, caregivers, and paralysis survivors for the glory of God.

You can connect with Julie by joining TWP Wives of Paralysis Survivors on Facebook

One comment on “Handicap Accessible Is NOT Wheelchair Accessible”

  1. I recently received a notice from my low-income housing management on another matter, but on the bottom there was a handicap emblem, only brown instead of blue. I have a wheelchair,although I rarely use it, getting around mostly with cane. There are no ramps, and no automatic doors. I only want to verify that the symbol does not legally imply wheelchair accessibility. I need my cane to climb stairs, and rely on a banister to help balance going up. I only use the banister when descending.

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