California Dreaming: Travel Guide in a Wheelchair

About the Author: Johannah is a recent Masters graduate in Birmingham, focusing on the accessibility of events. Through this, she is working to create an industry standard for accessibility. Johannah is also an advocate for inclusion in the modeling industry, working with Zebedee Management, and enjoys sharing her research and experiences through her Instagram page, @chick_with_a_walking_stick.

This Feb 2020, I got to take a trip over to sunny California, to visit my family around the coast. The family tie means over the years I’ve made several trips across, however, this would be my first as a powerchair user! My previous trip a couple of years ago had been great fun, but hip and shoulder pain due to hyper mobility had seriously started to affect my enjoyment and abilities, so I was super excited to see how bringing my chair would impact my trip.


I was nervous about taking my powerchair overseas, it was just a complete unknown to me. I had often had assistance at airports, and found it to be a slightly frustrating experience. Like, it’s great being on an electric buggy, zooming past the queues, but not so great when you’re left in the waiting area for an hour in a non-self-propelled manual airport chair on a high pain day, trying to work out how to get a bottle of water without leaving your hand luggage ‘unattended’ at the risk of your hairbrush and hand-sanitizer being blown up for the sake of national security.

Thankfully, this was a totally different experience. On arrival at the airport, I was directed to an accessible check-in desk, and I was able to enjoy total freedom in exploring the shops at will (duty-free make up and time to kill was a dangerous combo), and even take my chair all the way up to the airplane door! Happily, the chair was also waiting for me as I got off the plane, so I popped the batteries back in and began my Californian adventure!!


I was relieved as I noticed how wide and flat the pavements generally are over there, and since the US a much younger country, there was no dreaded old cobblestone in sight! I quickly realised that access to stores would be a dream, as newer buildings are generally more accessible, and sure enough, there were very few narrow doors or stepped access. I was in a fantastic mood and felt much more carefree than my previous visit, when I’d have to take frequent breaks, or get someone to pull the car around after overestimating my abilities! Around this time I think my partner wished the chair had a lower maximum speed, as I was gleefully darting shop to shop at 5mph.


We couldn’t resist the chance to be touristy so drove down to Hollywood, and parked on the side of the street beside the park. There was a paved path leading onto the solid ground in the picture, so I had no trouble getting close enough to get a nice view of the hills. I was feeling ambitious, so asked one of the community staff about accessible paths closer to the sign. It was a public holiday so the main accessible route was closed, however we decided to check out another route that I’d seen online. This was slightly awkward to get onto, but do-able, and we were able to go about half a mile up the hills. The views were stunning and it was definitely worth the extra adventure!


We then drove across to Santa Barbara to soak up some rays. I love the sea, so was really pleased to see long pavements running parallel to the beach, giving wheelchair users (as well as a lot of skateboarders) the chance to take in the views without hitting the sand. 

We took a trip down the pier, traversing the totally accessible, yet extremely bumpy, planks (sports bra advised)! My favourite thing about my life since having a powerchair came to light on this walk, which is being able to travel side-by-side with my partner. It’s a thing so many take for granted, but it had been years since I’d been able to reliably move at the same speed while walking, or without struggling to have a conversation while he was behind me pushing a manual wheelchair. 

My family were all relieved to see how well I was getting on with my condition using a powerchair, and saw how I was much happier and more ‘myself’. I’m so glad I decided to bring my chair with me, as it led to a much more carefree, lower pain trip than when I came with my walking stick two years ago. Even though I was sat in a powerchair, I rarely had to think about my disability or account for it, which is a strange concept, but it remains true that although the ‘wheelchair’ is a universal sign for disability, I’ve never felt more able since getting my powerchair.