Travel with a Wheelchair: An Unexpected Problem

When I travel with my daughter Beth, I try to anticipate obstacles with her manual wheelchair. However, during one memorable trip, our plans derailed because of something completely off our radar.

Beth was injured in a car accident when she was fourteen. During physical therapy in the rehab pool, she loved the freedom in the water and gradually learned how to swim independently. Two years after her injury, she began to compete as an S3 swimmer. We traveled to many swim meets.

In March of 2007, I lived at home in Ohio while Beth was a college student in Massachusetts. We flew separately to a Paralympic meet in Montreal and I met her at the airport. She surprised people by traveling alone. She carried a duffel bag on her lap and a big pack on the back of her manual wheelchair.

I usually rented a car for swim trips, but for this meet, we were told that public transportation would work. It did, but only if you could climb several flights of steps. We took a taxi to and from the pool, driving through a heavy March snowfall on the last morning of the meet.

After her early races, one of Beth’s big wheels flattened, a first in seven years of air-filled tires. It had never occurred to me that it might be a problem. Hoping for a quick fix, we were overly optimistic that a new inner tube in an odd size could easily be found at a local bike shop. 

On a Sunday. During a snowstorm.

I left to save the day while Beth rested in our hotel room. I planned to return to pick her up before the last finals session with an inflated wheel. In hindsight, a better idea would have been for her to borrow a wheelchair to get to finals with her coach, Peggy, since friends with a prosthetic leg sometimes used manual wheelchairs on the pool deck instead of crutches.

I hailed a taxi holding a flat wheel and a list; thankfully, Montreal had several bike shops. A friendly driver headed for the nearest one while I called others. Phone recordings said that some were open on Sundays, but no one answered. When I left the third bike shop, Beth called me in a panic. She learned that it was a big deal to miss a finals race, with paperwork required in advance. There wasn’t much time. Plows blocked roads and piled snow on parked cars.

The fourth bike shop had the right size for the inner tube, but by the time they fixed the wheel and I made it back to the hotel, finals had already begun. The taxi waited while I ran up to our room with the wheel and flew back down with Beth, who wore her swimsuit under sweats. Peggy called us from the pool. We might make it in time for her first race. A traffic jam tested our patience and dampened the beauty of the white wonderland.

Finally—finally—after I paid the taxi driver way too much, we rushed to the pool deck where Peggy waved frantically. Next to a starting block, Peggy and I stripped Beth’s coat and sweats off in seconds and literally dropped her in the lane for the race. We laughed about it later, but it wasn’t funny at the time. I bought a set of foam-filled tires the next day and Beth has never used air-filled tires since then!


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  1. Great article So glad you had friendly helpful taxi driver As I too have travelled with a child who uses a wheelchair the unexpected can really throw your meticulous plans into a tizzy !!

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