Traveling in a Wheelchair Can Be Challenging, But the Rewards Are Priceless
- By Laurie Watanabe
- Apr 01, 2022
Traveling in a wheelchair through our less-than-fully-accessible
world can be frustrating. For example, the latest
Air Travel Consumer Report, released by the Office of
Aviation Consumer Protection, said that on average, U.S.-based
airlines damaged 28 wheelchairs per day in 2021. Accessibility at
hotels, restaurants, theme parks, and attractions can vary widely,
to say the least.
And yet, devoted travelers say all their efforts are well worth
The Truth About Travel
Cory Woodard is a Digital Marketing Specialist for Sunrise
Medical, manufacturer of complex power and manual wheelchairs
sold worldwide. But you might know him from his
popular and award-winning “Curb Free with Cory Lee” blog and
social media platforms, where he shares his travel adventures.
“I’ve traveled to all seven continents and 39 countries in the
past eight years since launching my blog,” said Woodard, who has
spinal muscular atrophy and took his first trip — to Walt Disney World — in his first power wheelchair at age 4. “And there are
certainly some ‘travel truths’ that I’ve learned along the way.
COSTA RICA: PHOTO COURTESY CORY WOODARD
Cory Lee Woodard explores La Fortuna, Costa Rica.
“The number one thing, in my opinion anyway, is to keep
a positive attitude… no matter what. I’ve had my wheelchair
damaged during flights, arrived at hotels to be told that they actually
didn’t have an accessible room, and I’ve even been hospitalized
after fracturing my skull while on a trip in New Mexico. But
through it all, I’ve tried to stay positive. It’s important to always
remember that for every problem, there is a solution. You just
have to be willing to keep a positive attitude and be your own
advocate. Being upset or angry helps no one, but by remaining
calm, looking for a solution, and staying optimistic, you can still
have a fun and memorable trip 99 percent of the time.”
Woodard is honest about the challenges of wheelchair travel,
but believes the benefits far outweigh any hassles.
“I want to be a lifelong learner and honestly, I feel like I’ve
learned more from traveling than I ever did in school, including
college,” he said. “Being on the road can teach you a lot, and it’s
quite literally changed my life. I grew up in a rural town in the
state of Georgia, and it wasn’t until I started traveling that I realized
just how remarkable this planet is.
“Traveling has made me a more empathetic person, and I
think that empathy is the greatest asset that anyone can have. If
everyone on this planet had a passport and could travel internationally
at least once, I really believe that we would be living in a
different, and much kinder, world.”
Being a Prepared Traveler
WESTERN WALL: PHOTO COURTESY CORY WOODARD
Cory Woodard visits the Western Wall, located in Jerusalem.
Woodard has an adventurous spirit when it comes to travel,
but he also has learned how to improve his chances of having a
“Transportation is always the first thing that I research when
I’m planning any trip,” he said. “If I didn’t research accessible
transportation beforehand, flew to a destination, and then
arrived only to discover that the destination had no accessible
transportation options, I’d be stuck at the airport for the
remainder of that trip with no way to leave or get to my hotel.
So, I always make sure that there are ample ways for me to get
around within the destination before I plan to actually travel.
“To find out about accessibility information in destinations,
I rely on other accessible travel blogs and Web sites, including LiveQuickie.com, and Facebook groups. One of my favorite
Facebook groups is Accessible Travel Club, because it has over
13,000 members and for almost any destination I want to visit,
some other wheelchair user has already been there and is willing
to share their input in that group.”
Sylvia Longmire has not only traveled the world while in a
wheelchair — she frequently travels solo, and she’s worked as a
travel agent, specializing in accessible travel. Her newest book,
What Happened to You? A Solo Wheelchair Travel Memoir (available
for purchase on Amazon.com), is both an official record of where
she’s been, and a deeply personal account of the people she’s met
and truths she’s learned from traveling.
While criss-crossing the globe — more than 50 countries
visited, more than half of them while flying solo — Longmire,
who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004, has had
plenty of opportunities to hone her travel-planning skills.
VENICE: PHOTO BY SYLVIA LONGMIRE;
Sylvia Longmire in St. Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy.
“The sad part is that it takes me probably three to four times
as long to plan for a trip as it does for a non-disabled person,”
she said. “I often work in reverse. Some people do the flights
first, then they’ll do the hotel, then they’ll do the reservations for
sights and attractions. I have to work backwards.”
That means starting by checking our her destination,
Longmire noted: “Let’s say, Paris,” she said, as an example. “The
first thing I’m going to do if I want to go to Paris is to research:
Is there anything for me to do there? Is the Louvre accessible, is
the Eiffel Tower accessible? Is there enough there that I can do to
make it worth the hassle of getting there?
“Some people say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
Nope! For me, the journey sucks; it’s all about the destination! If
there’s a lot to do, awesome.”
Step two: “Is there a way for me to get to those places? So,
transportation is next. I can have accessible things to do, I can
have a great hotel room, and I can have an easy flight. But if I
don’t have a way to get from the airport to the hotel, or the hotel
to these sights, then it doesn’t do me any good to go there. So
transportation is #2, and that can be accessible taxis or public
transportation. It could be an accessible tour company that has a
van. I have to find one of those things.
“Then the next thing is the hotels. Is the hotel within rolling distance of many of those
places, or is it near a metro
station or a bus stop? Is it
convenient in that regard?
And then, especially if it’s in a
foreign country, is the accessibility
good enough that I
know I can stay there without
it being regulated by something
like the ADA [Americans with
Consulting with the
Finally, Longmire tackles the
flights. “The last thing I do is
look at the airlines with a heavy bias toward direct flights, which
from Orlando [Fla.] can sometimes happen, but not always. If
I can’t get a direct flight, where is it convenient to me to have a
layover with regards to the time of the layover, and the weather?”
Because of the possibility of bad weather — and potentially
being stranded in an airport — Longmire said she rarely travels
during winter. She prefers the time savings and convenience of
direct or non-stop flights, and also looks for accommodations
that are roomier. “I fly premium economy or better because it’s
going to be more comfortable for me,” she said. “As somebody
with spasticity issues, I need to have more space. I cannot do 12
hours in coach.”
BOOK IMAGE COURTESY SYLVIA LONGMIRE
Given how much pre-trip planning is typically involved, does
Longmire use a travel agency to help out?
“If it’s a place that I can travel [to] independently, then I’ll do it
myself,” she said of making reservations. “But if it’s a place where
I don’t know the lay of the land, if it’s a foreign country — I will
usually pay an accessible tour company to arrange all my stuff.
If they can arrange my hotel, arrange my transportation, arrange
my tickets and itinerary — I would be like, ‘Take my money and
do all the work,’ because it’s a pain. Especially if it’s in a country
where I’m not familiar, I’m not going to do it.”
Accessibility, as well as potential language challenges,
ultimately determines when Longmire will consult with travel
professionals. “The more challenging the accessibility, the more I
will rely on a local company to do the legwork for me. But I can
go to London, I can go to Spain, Canada, Australia — there are
some places I can do myself.
“China was difficult. I was able to get a local tour company to
help me with some of the tours, but when I got there, the people
in the hospitality sector speak English, but other than that, like
in Shanghai, nobody speaks English because nobody has to.
Maybe in the financial sector they might, or if they have a lot of
international visitors, but — everybody who goes to Disneyland
in Shanghai [is] from China. I was very often the only American,
the only Westerner, in all of Shanghai. So that was a big
challenge. But in Europe, anybody and everybody in tourism
speaks English. I know a few words here and there, so I can get
by. My French is okay, my Italian not so okay, but good enough.
And I speak fluent Spanish.”
Many Challenges, Many Rewards
Despite significant challenges to traveling in a wheelchair,
Longmire said the sights she’s seen — and more importantly, the
people she’s met — are why she keeps venturing out.
“Obviously, I love seeing the sights, seeing the tulips outside
of Amsterdam, or the Parthenon or Iceland and the glaciers,” she
said. “I published my solo wheelchair travel memoir last spring,
and the common thread was my interactions with the people.
That’s the great thing about solo travel: If you’re traveling with
somebody else, you’re generally talking to the people you’re
traveling with, and when you interact with the locals, it’s often
on a tour.
“But when you’re traveling by yourself, you have no one else
to talk to. I’m a social person and I like to meet the locals, and
as a solo wheelchair user, people are curious about me. People
want to know why I look perfectly healthy, and yet I’m in this
space-age chair — and what am I doing by myself? I get to
interact and ask questions and learn so much about some very
colorful and interesting characters in different countries. That’s
what makes the experience unique.”
Woodard echoed the opinion that traveling is a particularly
wonderful form of education. “Is traveling as a wheelchair user
exhausting at times?” he asked. “Absolutely! But I know what’s
waiting for me on the other end of every flight, and I constantly
look forward to learning more and sharing with others, so that’s
why I continue to travel.”
He suggested that novice travelers start with more modest
itineraries. “I would encourage them to start traveling locally and
then work their way up to bigger — maybe international — trips.
By doing a staycation or weekend getaway just a couple hours
away, you can learn how to book accessible hotels, how to plan
which attractions to visit, etc.
“After doing these smaller, more local trips a few times, you
should start to feel more comfortable with the idea of traveling
further. I’ll be the first to admit that traveling as a wheelchair
user comes with its challenges and can be nerve-wracking, so
having the con dence to travel is key.”