International Wheelchair Day is around the corner, and it’s a time to celebrate. On March 1st, wheelchair users across the globe will share their stories and raise awareness about how wheelchairs help, not hinder, their lives.
Wheelchairs offer people with limited mobility the freedom to move about in their homes and society without being bound to a bed.
Yet much of society still sees wheelchairs as limiting. International Wheelchair Day aims to challenge this view—it’s the lack of accessible parking spaces, sidewalks, and buildings that make living life limiting for a wheelchair user, not the chair itself.
I’ll admit that before I met my brother-in-law, I was among the non-wheelchair users who didn’t notice what places were and weren’t accessible. But now that I’m aware of it, I see issues everywhere, even in countries like the United States, where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulates accessibility.
Interest in Wheelchair Travel by State
According to Google Trends, there’s a high interest in accessible travel across the United States. But certain states have greater search volumes than others.
A Piece of Travel analyzed Google Trends’ data and found that Virginia had the highest query interest for the search term “wheelchair travel” in 2022.
New Jersey ranked in second place, and California, Texas, and New York ranked in third through fifth place. Note that these search terms were performed in the state, so it doesn’t necessarily correlate with people wanting to research accessible travel opportunities within the state they’re currently residing.
Google Trends calculates its data on a scale of 0 to 100. The data is proportionate. So, a higher number indicates a larger proportion of the search term “wheelchair travel,” not necessarily a higher absolute query count.
A “B” for Effort?
I’ll be zeroing in on specific destinations I’ve visited during my travels, along with pointing out general issues with accessibility that wheelchair users face.
This is by no means a complete list, nor is it intended to shame destinations for trying to incorporate accessible features.
Instead, the goal is to shed light on how challenging facilities that aren’t fully accessible are for wheelchair users. In many cases, a small fix would transform a location’s accessibility.
7 Accessible Attempts That Missed the Mark
From common to obscure, below are obstacles that wheelchair users face when using public spaces. I’ve started with sidewalks since there are so many ways they can go wrong.
1. The Incomplete Sidewalk
Mexico has a long way to go in being a country comfortable for wheelchair users to visit. But they’ve been making strides in recent years to become more accessible, including creating the General Act on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in 2011.
Nevertheless, Mexico abounds with situations where accessible features are only partially in place, creating the illusion of wheelchair accessibility when it’s anything but that.
Construction tends to move slowly in Mexico. So, we can only hope they’ll someday continue the cement sidewalk shown in the photo above. In the meantime, seeing the blue wheelchair logo is misleading to a wheelchair user who would infer from afar that they’d be able to use the sidewalk to get around.
2. The Sidewalk-Turned-Garden
It’s mind-blowing how many city designers around the world thought it would be appropriate to install gardens or plant trees in the middle of sidewalks.
While gardens and trees integrated into sidewalks can serve as pretty decor at first glance, they’re a nightmare for wheelchair users if there isn’t sufficient space on either side for maneuvering around them.
Furthermore, tree roots can cause sidewalks to warp and break over time. Whereas non-wheelchair users can step around these blemishes without giving them a second thought, they can be much harder for wheelchair users to navigate, and large cracks in sidewalks can cause wheels to get stuck.
3. The Sidewalk-Turned-Step
Before becoming aware of the accessibility issues that wheelchair users face, I never realized how many steps there are in public places.
In so many cases, a slab of cement is all it would take to transform a site from inaccessible to accessible. The photo above is an example.
What the photo doesn’t show is that this accessible drop-down curb drops off well before the crosswalk, meaning that wheelchair users must head parallel with traffic before getting to the formal crosswalk.
Yet again, creating a drop-down curb using a bag or two of cement is all it would take to allow wheelchair users to use the crosswalk with everyone else.
4. Anything and Everything Blocking the Sidewalk
People who don’t use a wheelchair often give little thought to navigating around a restaurant sign, food stall, potted plants, and more jutting into a sidewalk.
But items blocking a portion of the sidewalk can make the difference between a wheelchair user being able to access a street.
Bikes and scooters are other major culprits. It’s common for people to tie their bikes to posts along a sidewalk, making it more challenging or impossible for a wheelchair user to pass.
And in places like Southeast Asia, it’s common for people to use the sidewalk as a parking lot, forcing pedestrians to walk in the street—something that’s not usually an option for wheelchair users due to a lack of dropdown curbs.
5. Vehicle Blockers
It’s becoming increasingly common to see barriers blocking pedestrian areas in certain parts of the world to prevent terrorist attacks.
Furthermore, authorities in countries like Vietnam have resorted to placing barriers at formerly accessible sidewalks and park entrances to prevent scooters from driving through them.
When implemented incorrectly, these vehicle deterrents transform a formerly wheelchair accessible public space into an inaccessible one.
6. Dangerously Steep Ramps
Installing a ramp at the entrance of a building doesn’t automatically make it accessible.
According to the ADA, ramps in the United States must have a 1:12 slope ratio. That means a ramp must have 12 horizontal inches for every one inch of vertical rise. Unfortunately, many destinations around the world don’t account for this degree of incline when building ramps.
At best, a steep ramp is inconvenient for a wheelchair user. But as one of A Piece of Travel’s readers experienced in Tulum, a steep ramp can cause a wheelchair to tip backward.
7. Inaccessible Parking Marked as Accessible
Contrary to what many people believe, the purpose of an accessible parking space isn’t to allow wheelchair users to be closer to a building’s entrance. Instead, the open area beside the parking space is what’s important.
Sylvia Longmire from Spin the Globe gives an excellent video tutorial on Instagram about the purpose of the lines beside accessible parking spaces and why it’s so important to keep them clear.
Cars parked within the lines and parking lots not providing an option for a designated place where wheelchairs can get out of their vehicle is a common issue wheelchair users face across the globe.
The Most Accessible Cities in the World
According to a CNBC study of 3,500 people with disabilities, some of the most accessible cities in the world include:
- Las Vegas
- New York City
I’ve listed these cities in alphabetical order.
Some of the recurring themes with these cities are that they’re based in countries with laws favoring wheelchair accessibility. These cities also provide easy-to-access information on the accessibility of their different sites and venues.
The Least Accessible Cities in the World
Accessible travel blogger Cory Lee lists the following cities as the least accessible in the world:
Stairs without ramps, a lack of accessible restrooms, poor accessible public transportation, and cobblestone streets are some of the reasons these cities rank at the bottom of Corey’s list for wheelchair accessibility.
The Bottom Line
International Wheelchair Day is vital for helping to change the mindset of those of us who don’t use wheelchairs.
Wheelchairs are a valuable tool that allows over 130 million people in the world to have more freedom and independence.
We all have the ability to improve accessibility by ensuring we park away from wheelchair-designated lines, keep sidewalks clear of obstacles, and put pressure on local governments and businesses to provide inclusive features.