Monday, May 25, 2015

How to rock Miami Beach in a power wheelchair

By Louise Kinross

In February, Maria Tassou did something she’d never done before.

She flew to Miami Beach with a friend to hang out at the ocean.

Maria, who is a Toronto real-estate lease administrator, had never travelled without her family.

That’s because Maria has Arthrogryposis, a condition that causes stiff joints and weak muscles. She can’t propel herself over distances in a manual wheelchair or carry luggage. The places she’d travelled to in Europe with her family hadn’t been accessible enough to bring her power chair, so she relied on her parents to help her navigate in her manual chair.

This year, Maria planned a trip to Miami with her friend Michelle, who also uses a power wheelchair, knowing she could count on better accessibility. Michelle also had lots experience travelling on her own in the United States.

BLOOM asked Maria how she planned for the trip and what she’d recommend to parents travelling with children with disabilities.

BLOOM: What were some of the barriers you’d faced travelling?

Maria Tassou: I can’t push anywhere long distance in my manual chair and lifting bags was challenging. I had a suitcase with two wheels but it was difficult for me to manage it with my power chair. So I wouldn’t have been able to leave my condo alone and get to the airport with my suitcase. Now you can get luggage with wheels galore, and that’s really helped. I bought a suitcase with four wheels that spin and it’s easy for me to manage it from my power chair.

BLOOM: Did you have any problems with flying?

Maria Tassou: Because my knees don’t bend nearly as much as someone else’s, I have to have extra leg room and the ability to sit forward in the plane so that I can change my posture during the flight. Even though I’d fill out forms asking for bulkhead or window seating, I often didn’t get it. In one case, when I was on a charter flight with my family, the seating was so cramped that I couldn’t move for nine hours. By the end of the flight I could hardly handle the physical pain I was in. My Dad tried to help me but he couldn’t get me out of my seat. Two grounds people had to come and someone took my legs and someone took my arms and they lifted me up and over the seat. That made me nervous about flying on my own.

BLOOM: How did you solve the seating issue on this trip?

Maria Tassou: My friend had experience flying on a number of airlines and had had the best experience with Air Canada. She said ‘It's worth paying a little more if need be to fly with them because they know how to treat you and your chair right.’ Since I was travelling with someone who wasn’t able-bodied, I wanted to make sure everything went as smoothly as possible. I contacted Air Canada about getting elite seats, where there’s a little bit more room. Typically people pay a small fee for these seats, but I’d read that sometimes they’ll provide them to people with disabilities. Air Canada gave us those seats and we didn’t have to pay for them. They were great and made a big difference for me.

BLOOM: Did you have any issues with checking your power chair?

Maria Tassou: One thing we liked about Air Canada was their policy that you can keep your power chair while you’re in the airport right up until you get to the door of the plane. On some airlines they take your chair an hour or two before the flight and give you an old-style manual chair to sit in which is hard to push. With Air Canada, the grounds people who are going to put the wheelchair in cargo meet you at the door to the plane and ask what the vulnerable areas of the chair are. People with disabilities are boarded first and they bring the flight chair to you so you can transfer in privacy.

BLOOM: How did you make sure that the Miami area you were staying in was going to meet your needs?

Maria Tassou: You can find out a lot online, and then you have to phone to be sure. I did a Google search for ‘wheelchair accessible Miami.’ For example, there’s a website called where they often put ‘best accessible places to stay’ for a given city. also I found out that every bus in Miami is accessible and there were a fair number of wheelchair cabs.

BLOOM: What about your hotel?

Maria Tassou: Most hotel websites have filters so you can ask for a ‘wheelchair accessible’ room. But you have to phone to clarify exactly what they mean by ‘wheelchair accessible’ and what you want. We wanted a roll-in shower, not a bathtub, and luckily the hotel was very clear on its website, and with their images, that they had a roll-in shower.

BLOOM: Were there any other issues with your hotel room?

Maria Tassou: I had called to confirm we were getting a fully accessible room that included the balcony. We felt if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right, and we wanted to sit on the balcony and enjoy the ocean. When we got there, we realized there was a step onto the balcony. I told them ‘We paid a lot of money to come here on the understanding that the balcony was accessible and, to their credit, they dug high and low and found some very sturdy ramps for us.

BLOOM: What was it like navigating the beach outside your hotel?

Maria Tassou: There was a great pathway behind our hotel that went for a long, long stretch before you had to get back to the sidewalk of the street. I had googled ‘Miami Beach accessibility’ and found a
Miami Beach government site showed where you could find mesh mats. These are mesh pathways with runners on the beach so that you can travel on the sand with your chair and not get stuck. On the same website, when I scrolled down, I was surprised to find that they also had motorized beach wheelchairs that they loan for free to people with disabilities.

BLOOM: What kind of chair is that?

Maria Tassou: It’s a basic power chair with really big flat wheels that can travel on sand—like a little dune buggy. It’s amazing because the mesh mat only goes so far on the beach. The ocean rescue staff told us: ‘We only loan them to people with disabilities so that they can experience the same things everyone else does walking along the water line.’ The beach chairs were a fun adventure that we don’t get to experience here in Toronto.

BLOOM: What was it like to be away with a friend rather than your family?

Maria Tassou: It was freedom. I’m an independent person and when I’m at home I do everything myself, so it’s weird to have to rely on people when I travel with my manual chair. Being somewhere else and really enjoying it with my friend gave me confidence that I can travel with anyone.

BLOOM: What advice would you give parents who want to travel with their kids with disabilities?

Maria Tassou: The key thing is to plan. I found reading online, phoning and asking as many questions as you can ahead of time helped make our trip smooth. If you're told something is ‘accessible,’ ask what that really means. Don't take it for granted that their definition is what you need.

BLOOM: Any other recommendations?

Maria Tassou: When it comes to access and accommodations 'you get what you pay for.' By no means would I say overspend, but where a price differences isn't significant and is something within budget, experience has shown me that in terms of accessibility, treatment and so on, you'll be glad you spent that little bit extra.