Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Cruising with a Wheelchair

Alaska Cruise, July 2017
Las Vegas. Florida. Cruise ships.  What do they all have in common?  Old people!  Traditionally, at least (although some of them may be trying to shake that image).  And, probably not coincidentally, they are also quite accessible!   Some friends and I recently celebrated our 50th birthdays on a week-long Alaska cruise.   This was my first vacation without my usual helper (aka my husband), and my disability level had progressed in the past year, so despite my friends' assurances about assisting me (and despite the fact that I knew they had been working out),  I approached the journey with equal parts excitement and trepidation.  By the end of the trip, I felt only exhilaration -- from the things we'd done and seen and from friendships renewed and strengthened.  There was the added sense of accomplishment of a week away from home and husband -- asking for (and receiving) help from friends and strangers.  As it turned out, I only needed help up twice -- once on purpose, and once not so much so!  

For those of you hungry for wheelchair-related details, read on (especially the second half).  For those of you more interested in cruise-related details, check out the first part and then skim on!  For the rest of you, enjoy the pretty pictures!

Norwegian Pearl
We traveled on the Norwegian Pearl, part of the Norwegian Cruise Line's fleet.  The boat accommodates over 2000 guests and over 1000 crew members (stop a moment and consider that ratio to
The first towel creature: Mr Crabby
understand why we got daily animal creations made from folded towels).  We sailed from Seattle, WA on a seven-day, round-trip cruise, stopping at various ports in Southeast Alaska.

After the Orcas, the humpbacks performeed
Juneau: I don't know if you can see
Russia from here, but you can definitely
stock up on diamonds and tanzanite.
We started with Juneau ("We'll be stopping in You Know" said our captain in his Norwegian accent), where we avoided the jewelry stores and went on a whale-watching expedition.

Typical downtown Skagway building,
probably selling souvenirs
Skagway from the dock
We then stopped at Skagway, where we bypassed the tourist train and stocked up on souvenirs in the Gold Rush styled downtown.  The harbor and the scenery nearby were some of the most spectacular of the trip.

Skagway Harbor

Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay

After cruising through Glacier Bay (yes, there are still some glaciers left, but hurry!) ...

New Eddystone Rock in Misty Fjords

... we motored down to Ketchikan, where we took a boat tour of the insane beauty of flora and fauna at Misty Fjords.

Harbor seals in Misty Fjords

Misty Fjords

Butchart Gardens near Victoria
We ended with an evening in Victoria, BC, where we visited Butchart Gardens.  Due to this last stop, we were technically on an international vacation and even needed to bring a passport!

I am not a lawyer; nor do I have much patience for obfuscated answers.  Therefore,  I can only voice the probability, rather than the absolute veracity, of the following statement: Cruise ships -- even those flying foreign flags -- that service US ports are in fact covered by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990).  In large part due to lawsuits against two major cruise corporations, the companies running these "floating hotels" must comply with Title III of the ADA.  In addition, it seems to me that it makes good business sense for companies catering to a wide variety of ages and abilities of guests to offer the inclusivity of  universal design. Whatever the cause, and despite some inefficiencies in carry-through, cruise ships generally offer an accessible travel option for wheelchair users.  In particular, ships built or remodeled after 2010 (the first settlement) should be ADA-compliant and wheelchair accessible.  If you can survive hordes of thousands (there are some quiet spots onboard to which you can escape) and a cruise-ship mentality that would make Julie, the Cruise Director, proud, then cruising offers a wonderful savings of time and energy in planning and traveling with a wheelchair.  All of your accessible transportation, lodging, eating, and entertainment needs are covered.

Threshold at entry to non-ADA cabins

En suite ADA bathroom
No threshold in ADA cabin
All ships must offer a certain percentage of rooms meeting ADA standards (I believe the number is 3%).  The most obvious difference is that these rooms have a level threshold, allowing a wheelchair to pass through (other rooms sport a typical ship threshold at doorways of about 1 1/2 inches).  The other big difference is size -- ADA cabins are larger!  Our room included three beds and was about 300 square feet -- absolutely palatial compared to other inside cabins!  There was room for me to park the wheelchair next to my bed at night, and there were even plenty of electrical outlets nearby.  The shining gem of the ADA room was the en suite ADA bathroom.  The room itself was large enough for a wheelchair to turn around,  The shower was larger than most, with a level threshold, a shower seat, and plenty of safety bars.  The toilet also had horizontal and vertical safety bars.  The sink was a shallow, roll-under variety, and the mirror could be tilted to reflect lower images (people in wheelchairs).

Of course the ship itself was wheelchair accessible.  Our ship (and perhaps all), had a special access desk available to answer questions via phone or email before departure.  I thought there would be some sort of access desk on board, but I never saw one (instead, the guest relations staff expertly answered questions and concerns).  Hallways were wide enough for a wheelchair (though they were a bit tricky on the guest room decks when the housekeeping carts were parked alongside the walls.  The dining room tables were all high enough to fit a wheelchair.   The cafeteria had a few tables designated "disabled," and there were always plenty of staff willing to help reach food/drinks and carry trays.  The communal areas were all accessible, including lounges, bars, walk ways, outside decks, the casino, the disco, the theater, the spa, the game room, the library, the fitness room.  Rooms with multiple levels (the disco, some lounges) had ramps, the spa had massage tables low enough for wheelchair users to transfer onto, and the swimming pool had a lift (not really necessary for an Alaska cruise, since the only day nice enough to be out on the pool deck still saw adults huddled in the sun, wearing down coats).  The theater had half of a row of reserved seats for disabled guests, as well as a special wheelchair seating section.  As far as I could tell, only the hot tubs and the top-level sun deck were not accessible (no lift for the hot tubs and only stairs up to the sun deck).

Public disabled restroom

Level entry to outside decks 

Dining area
"Sunning" on the pool deck on an Alaska cruise
Pool Deck
Drinks in cafeteria were not
within reach, but cruise staff
were always there to help

Massage table in spa: wheelchair height

Theater reserved seats for disabled guests

Wheelchair space in theater
Inaccessible sun deck (not so important on Alaska cruise!)

End of (dis)embarkation ramp 
(Dis)embarkation ramp
I specifically chose an itinerary of ports that excluded tenders, since tendering can limit wheelchairs altogether or at least under certain conditions: if the weather is too stormy, if the chair is too heavy, if the person is unable to transfer him/herself without the chair.   (Dis)embarkation at port docks was no problem.  The deck and steepness of the ramp changed with the port and the tide, but there were always staff available to help the chair get on and off of the ramp.

Wheelchair lift on microbus
for whale-watching tour
The database for shore excursions allowed filtering by disability, and the descriptions included information about mobility requirements.  We chose two boat excursions and one garden tour.  One of the boat excursions began at the dock where the cruise ship parked, so there was difficulty getting there.  The other boat excursion, as well as the garden tour, required about a thirty minute bus ride.  For both excursions, the tour company provided a micro-bus with a wheelchair lift for wheelchair users and their companions.  We got our own private tour of the environs before meeting the others at the departure point or gate.  Both of the boat tours had experience with wheelchairs and had systems in place.  In both cases, I had to transfer to a company wheelchair. Boat #1 said the fire  department required all wheelchairs on board to have three inches of clearance, which mine did not.  Boat #2 claimed that no electrical wheelchairs were allowed, which mine was.  Both of the boats' wheelchairs were sub-optimal -- one had no push rims, and one had foot rests stuck at knee height and twice as long as my legs.  But they were able to get these chairs onto the boat (with the help of a rope when there was a huge difference in dock-to-boat level).  The biggest problem -- and this is a perennial problem for wheelchair users -- was that there was no accessible bathroom.  For the shorter trip this was no problem, but the longer one necessitated conscious dehydration, as well as crossed fingers and legs!

A few final thoughts and tips:

* Most boats are accessible, but "accessible" has different meanings, so before you make reservations be sure to ask specific questions about the dimensions and the things you'd need.  Boats built or remodeled more recently are more likely to have the most accessible features.

* Don't expect the crew to know anything (I waited forever for a crew member to help me unlock a designated disabled bathroom, finally calling her manager, who informed us that all we needed to do was find and press the automatic door button).

* On the other hand, the crew members are very willing to help, so don't be afraid to ask.

* As usual in hotels, the beds are too high.

* Ask about outlets before you travel, and bring an extension cord and/or splitter, if needed.

* If you were promised a swimming pool lift and don't see one, ask (it may be in onboard storage).

* Bring a bed rail
Hallway outside on main deck

* If the inside hallways are carpeted or uneven, travel outside (you may need to take an elevator to a different and even a non-desired floor).
Hallway inside on main deck

* You really need at least two wheelchairs.  Unless you are superman, you would probably want an power chair on the boat.  Distances between fore and aft are truly great, and sometimes you can't avoid traveling on carpet.  I used a portable LiteRider Envy by Golden Technologies.  However, for shore excursions -- especially for boat rides -- you would probably want a manual chair.  Ideally, you would have enough cabin space to store both -- especially if the manual chair folded up somehow.  Even more ideal would be a one-chair combination: a manual chair with some sort of power assist, like a Smart Drive.  At least I think so; I don't have one ... yet.  

Bon Voyage!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Disneyland with a Wheelchair

As a senior in a midwestern high school oh-so-many years ago, I couldn't wait to graduate and go to college somewhere far away.  I know many intelligent people who had an ambitious or academic reason for attending Stanford University, but my reason was much more simple: I had long dreamed of working at Disneyland.  Incredibly, Stanford accepted me, and I left Wisconsin for my new life on the Left Coast.  Unfortunately, it turned out that Stanford (near San Francisco) was actually 400 miles from Disneyland.  Still, having been infected with the spirit of Disney as a child, and being blessed with tons of determination, as well as a generous aunt and uncle in Long Beach, I was able to realize the dream and work at Disneyland the summer after my first year.

I have always been a believer in the magic of Disneyland, so when I had the chance to visit the park again this spring, I jumped on the opportunity.  This was my first visit in decades and my first visit using a wheelchair, so I began with a little trepidation about how it would be.

I gambled on Disneyland being wheelchair-friendly , and I was
right.  Disney was an organization that complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and applied it to its unique conditions. Perhaps as a result, I have never seen so many wheelchairs and scooters in one place in my life!

The terrain was entirely paved and mostly flat.  Disney does parades like nobody else, and the parade route -- like the entire campus --  is along these paved and flat surfaces. All of the restrooms had an ADA stall, and there were even several companion restrooms scattered around the park.  The few stores I visited were wheelchair-accessible, and I would guess the rest of them either were by nature or could be by adaptation.  I don't remember whether the all of tables were high enough to sit at with a wheelchair.  Only a few of the restaurants offer table service, though you need reservations.  Most require you to order at a counter or go through a cafeteria-like line.  However, all offer friendly cast members to help you carry food, trays, etc.

Wheelchair-accessible boat at Jungle Cruise
The level of accessibility at attractions varies.  Disney has provided a comprehensive map, which shows the locations of all of the attractions and restaurants, including the type of accessibility.  In addition, there is a guidebook for guests with disabilities at Disneyland and the California Adventure Park and a comprehensive webpage providing information to guests with mobility disabilities.

Wheelchair-accessible boat at Small World
The most accessible attractions allow you to stay in your wheelchair.   Perhaps this is expected in the sedentary attractions, such as the Tiki Room, but it was an unexpected pleasure for me to find out that a few of the boat ride (Small World, Jungle Adventure, and Story Book Land) actually had a wheelchair boat, allowing guests to remain in their wheelchairs while staying with members of their party by riding on a platform outfitted on top of part of the boat, swiveling so that a wheelchair could roll on/off from the side, but then face forward during the ride.  This was all the more exciting when, as we came to the end of our first ride of the day -- It's a Small World -- the cast member operating the boats asked if we'd like to go around again.  This was the highlight of my day, and I eagerly responded "YES!"  Interestingly, it was also the low point of my husband's day, as he was already struggling to get the insidious song out of his head!

Inaccessible Tarzan's Treehouse

The least accessible attractions are those which --- because of stairs and/or narrow pathways -- require the guest to be ambulatory and walk and part of the experience.   Surprisingly, even a couple of these (eg Sleeping Beauty's Castle) have an alternative wheelchair-accessible option.

Mad Hatter's Teacups
The accessibility of most of the attractions falls somewhere in-between.  For those who have the ability to transfer, either by themselves or with help from someone in your party (cast members are prohibited from physically assisting with transfers), most attractions are accessible.  Designated entry ways (see below), returning to the starting point (where your wheelchair was left), and knowledgable cast members make the transfer easier.  Some rides have special transfer access vehicles, with less-obtrusive  sides, that make transferring easier.  I have read that some attractions can provide special transfer seats, but I never used one.  In general, my husband would throw me into the waiting attraction's vehicle from my wheelchair and back into the wheelchair when we returned.  I was fairly bruised by the end of the day, but nothings was broken, and I'd succeeded on going on all of the rides that I wanted to that day (I passed on the Mad Hatter's Teacup rides, since three levels of spinning did not appeal to me at all).  For those who can transfer on their own or with assistance, the park is uniquely and almost completely accessible.

Entering through the exit at Hyperspace Mt
The most difficult part of transferring was the speed at which it needed to happen.  The cast members would slow down the ride, and the other guests seemed to go along with the slight delay, but the speed was still a bit stressful.  One ride, Hyper-space Mountain (apparently an updated version of Space Mountain), installed a separate bay, to which the spaceship pulled over to the side for guests to transfer into, along with the rest of the able-bodied guests directed to that spaceship.  When everyone was settled, the spaceship slid to the side and rejoined the line on the actual roller coast track.  The transfer still had to be fast, but there was not as much pressure that way.  The other rides requiring transfer, however, did not include this cool adaptation.

Disneyland is famous for its lines and for its line management.  It has experimented with various methods of getting wheelchair users and other disabled guests onto attractions.  Famously, they once upon a time allowed wheelchair-users to skip the line entirely, proceeding directly to the loading area.  However, this system was subject to abuse (most famously by Justin Bieber, who reportedly had a friend fake the need for a wheelchair while claiming Justin as a companion, thus skipping all lines).   Soon thereafter, Disneyland changed its procedures.  Now wheelchair-users can no longer skip lines, but there are procedures in place to accommodate entrances which are not accessible .

The entrances to some attractions are wheelchair accessible, and you get to wait in line with everyone else.  However, Disneyland has implemented the Fast Pass system, which allows guests to avoid standing in long lines at most attractions.  Available to all guests, but subject to certain limitations (ie you may only hold one Fast Pass at a time), guests can receive a window, during which time they may return to a much shorter line.

The scariest part of the Haunted Mansion?
The con-joined sisters being photo-bombed
by the cast member!
If the main route is not accessible, wheelchair-users are directed to enter through the exit.  Along with being accessible (no stairs or narrow, winding lines), this has the advantage of being a shorter wait, since you join the main line near the actual point of embarkation.  

Finally, there is a ticket called a "Return Time," which is similar to a Fast Pass, in that it grants you a time to return without waiting in the longest of lines.  Unlike the Fast Pass, however, this option is only open to those with disabilities.  Similar to the Fast Pass, it is subject to certain limitations.  I am still not entirely sure under which conditions this mysterious option is granted, but I know that it is a fantastic way to go.

The end of a magically fun day
Disneyland provides a magical (if somewhat expensive) way for wheelchair-users to enjoy themselves and to spend time having fun with friends.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Accessible Trails in Washington State

When I first started using a wheelchair over 10 years ago, I searched around for information on wheelchair hiking.  I found a great book, entitled Accessible Trails in Washington's Backcountry.  I was elated . . .  almost.  The book was published in 1995 and hadn't been updated since.  When I began hiking with the Freedom Chair last year, I once again pulled out this book.  My first excursion highlighted the changes in trails since the book was published and inspired me to a new goal: update the book to match present day reality and capture the information on a website, so as to easily allow for changes and additions. Well, I soon realized that this was a behemoth task, requiring time and attention to detail that I don't even pretend to possess.  So, as a paltry consolation prize, I've compiled a list of wheelchair-accessible hikes in Washington from my own experience and added some links to other resources.  I hope that this information will help other wheelchair hikers in the state, and that readers will share their own recommendations (perhaps even using this blog post as a forum?).

Keep in mind that the idea for this list actually came after many of the hikes, and that I have the memory of a middle-aged person with a chronic disease.  Therefore, it is more than possible that some of the details listed below are not exactly accurate!  Also, the type of wheelchair for which the trail is most appropriate is my own subjective opinion and is accumulative (i.e. anything appropriate for a power chair is also appropriate for a manual chair or all-terrain chair).  Finally, for more information about the hikes, click on the name of the trail to link to a website.  (Really finally -- the formatting function of this application is a mystery to me.  What looks good in the editor is all a jumble in the preview window.  I haven't the patience to figure it out and make it look pretty, so please pretend...)

Jenny's List of Wheelchair-Accessible Hikes in Washington

Location: Seattle, WA
Distance: short
Surface: paved and hard-packed dirt (roots pushing up               pavement in a couple of spots)
Wheelchair: power chair
Views: Puget Sound, West Point Lighthouse, Mt Rainier,                 Olympic Mountains, beach with driftwood,                                     wildflowers
Trailhead: with DMV disabled placard, pick up pass from                Visitors’ Center, allowing you to  park near the entrance to                                                                     the trails                   

Location: Seattle, WA
Distance: 2.8 miles round-trip
Surface: hard-packed dirt, sand dune
Wheelchair:  all-terrain chair
Views: Puget Sound, trees and grasses, birds
Trailhead: North end of parking lot near Visitor Center

Location: Seattle, WA
Distance: 1.4 miles out and back
Surface: hard-packed gravel
Wheelchair:   all-terrain chair 
View: trees and flowers  - azaleas and other rhododendrons when they bloom
Trailhead: central section of the Washington Park Arboretum

Location: Seattle, WA
Distance: about .5 miles (I don’t remember exactly) one-way downhill
Surface: hard-packed dirt
Wheelchair:   manual chair (power chair if conditions are good)
View: big trees in old-growth forest, ending at Lake Washington with views of Seattle
Trailhead: top of hill in center of park

Location: Seattle, WA
Distance: I don’t remember (less than 1 mile)
Surface: hard-packed dirt (sometimes muddy)
Wheelchair: manual chair (all-terrain chair when muddy)
View: Puget Sound, wetlands, over 200 species of birds
Trailhead: parking lot for Merrill Hall at UW Center for Urban Horticulture
Other: free tram tours first Thursday of each month

Location: Seattle, WA
Distance: 1500 feet
Surface: boardwalk
Wheelchair: manual or power chair
View: Puget Sound, swamp, water fowl
Trailhead: East side of Union Bay Natural Area at UW Center for Urban Horticulture

Location: 6 miles East of North Bend, WA off of I-90 on South Fork of Snoqualmie River
Distance: .4 miles one-way
Surface: hard-packed dirt with roots
Wheelchair: all-terrain chair
View: big trees, waterfall, along a river, through a mostly old-growth forest
Trailhead: East end of parking lot at Olallie State Park

Location: Bellingham, WA
Distance: 6.7 miles
Surface: hard-packed dirt and crushed stone
Wheelchair: all-terrain chair
View: through woods, follows coastline, Puget Sound, and San Juan Islands (sporadic)
Trailheads: Donovan Ave. and 10th St. (Fairhaven) and Larrabee State Park at Fragrance Lake Rd. and Chuckanut Dr. (Bellingham)

Location: Pierce County, WA
Distance: 15.1 miles (part of 30 miles of 6 unconnected segments of the old Burlington Northern Railway)
Surface: paved
Wheelchair: power chair
View: along Carbon River, salmon spawning in season, Mt Rainier in distance
Trailhead: four trailheads along the route at East Puyallup, McMillin, Orting, and South Prairie,

Location: Issaquah Alps,WA
Distance: 2.9 miles (not all ADA)
Surface: Hard-packed gravel, hard-packed dirt
Wheelchair: all-terrain chair
View: Woods, ferns, lake
Trailhead: High Point trailhead in Issaquah Alps

Location: Bellevue, WA
Distance: 10 miles of several segments from Lake Washington to Lake Sammamish
Surface: hard-packed gravel, paved (some city sidewalks connect trails between parks)
Wheelchair: power chair
View: Nine city parks, suburban streets, blueberries, lakes, second-growth forest
Trailhead: Weowna Park near Lake Sammamish (we parked at (Lake Hills Farm Fresh Produce fruit stand at 15562 SE 16th St).

 Location: North Cascades Highway near Rainy Pass, WA
Distance: 1 mile each way
Surface: paved
Wheelchair: power chair
View: trees, alpine lake
Trailhead: Milepost 158 on North Cascades Highway (Hwy 20); Need NW Forest Pass to park

Location: Stehekin, WA (Lake Chelan)
Distance: short
Surface: paved
Wheelchair: power chair
View: Rainbow Falls, cinnamon rolls at Stehekin Pastry Company on road down
Trailhead: Take Lady of the Lake Ferry ( from Chelan to Stehekin across Lake Chelan, and then take the accessible shuttle bus ( from Stehekin to Rainbow Falls.  The trail goes from the parking lot to the falls.   Other: You can wheel back on the paved road back down to Stehekin, stopping to sample the giant cinnamon rolls at the Stehekin Pastry                                                        Company (, and catching the shuttle bus for the                                            rest of the route.  FYI: the lodge at Stehekin has a wheelchair-accessible                                            cabin   (                      

Links to other lists and ideas about wheelchair-accessible hikes in WA (no personal recommendations here; try at your own risk!):

Wheelchair-accessible trails from Outdoors for All (compiled by two of their participants)  (last updated 2014)    (must register)

Please share your own recommendations!!!