Tales of foodie, sports loving Aussie expat in the Netherlands.

New York in a wheelchair

November 15, 2017/Travel Views

Two weeks before we left for our trip to New York, I broke my ankle.

It was the second time I had broken my ankle in as many years. In the big scheme of things, it wasn’t a bad break. The doctors at the Paris hospital didn’t even plaster it or give me crutches (yep, that’s for a whole other story). I got myself a moonboot, found myself a pair of crutches and hobbled around Paris. But my mind was racing. How on Earth was I to get around New York a couple of weeks later? How was I even to get to New York?

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of my own personal experience of travelling to New York with a broken ankle, I need to say one thing that may strike a nerve with a lot of you. Before this trip, I had never seriously considered the day to day issues surrounding accessibility and the challenges people face on a permanent basis. For me, I knew that a couple of months later I was going to be walking around again, without giving my ankle a second thought. Having myself in this situation, even temporarily, has made me change my awareness of disability forever, and for the good.

At first, Paul and I weren’t sure if we were going to be able to go through with the trip. Even though we had already paid for the hotel and a few other things, we figured we could get most of it back on our travel insurance.

But we wanted to go. I did some quick desktop research and the general opinion of the online world was that if you are travelling with a disability, there’s no place better to visit than the United States.

Why is that? Two things; infrastructure and attitude. With regards to infrastructure, I’m specifically talking about the implications of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA for short), which, among other things like prohibiting discrimination based on physical or mental disability, also necessitates all public buildings built after the introduction of the Act to be accessible to everyone. In plain speak, all new buildings need to be wheelchair accessible.

Walking (or rolling) the High Line - lots of elevators, nice and flat.

The attitude part is something much harder to quantify. Generally, I’ve just always found that Americans are quite polite and deem good manners important. They also seem to be taught to give a decent amount of respect to the elderly and disabled. Say what you want about Americans, and we all know they get a bad rap abroad, but they are by and large quite lovely people. I was set to put that theory to the test, of course.

Once my doctor gave me his blessing and agreed to keep me in the moonboot (rather than plaster), we armed ourselves with compression socks, blood thinners and painkillers, and began planning.

First things first; getting there. I had been given wheelchair assistance in Frankfurt Airport the last time I had broken my ankle so I knew the deal there. I logged onto the Delta site and it was as easy as just ticking a box. We also upgraded our seats to Delta Comfort so we had a bit more room to stretch out (something that we didn’t deem necessary on the return leg). We had booked a Hilton hotel, and easily arranged for an accessible room with a shower seat (yep, all those things most of us never even consider).

Second thing; getting around. As handy as crutches are, my upper body strength is something like minus ten on a scale of one to a hundred, which means crutches can’t take me much further than the front door. Luckily for me, I had only broken my fibula (the non-weight bearing ankle bone) so I could put weight on my foot by the time we left for our trip. Whatever the case, I still couldn’t walk very far or fast like that, so we invested in wheelchair rental. The Internet is amazing; I read some reviews and booked a wheelchair with a company called Big Apple Mobility. I swear, I couldn’t fault them. They delivered the wheelchair to the hotel before we even got there and picked it up after we left. It was sturdy and perfect for New York’s notoriously uneven sidewalks.

And the third thing and in a way, the most important; our activities. I had already booked us in to a show on Broadway, and we had tickets to both the American football and the basketball. The two sports were straightforward enough; just exchange your tickets for a wheelchair section when you get there. Sounded easy enough.

Also pictured: CUP HOLDERS. Europe, get on it!

Broadway was a bit more difficult, however. Almost all of the theatres are either fully wheelchair accessible or have wheelchair sections, but these have to be pre-booked. I’d already picked us the cheapie seats to Book of Mormon in the very last row.

We decided to just cross that bridge when we’d come to it.

Researching other activities seemed pretty simple. We thought I’d be fit enough for one or two activities a day, so I checked a few museums and their accessibility options and all seemed fine.

The only major hurdle we came to was the subway; only a fraction of the subway stations are wheelchair accessible. Most stations were built before ADA came into force and therefore are staircase only. We figured we’d better get used to catching cabs.

So how did we go? Let’s just keep it simple by saying it was a big, fat, roaring SUCCESS.

New Yorkers, I take my hat off to you. You were what made this trip so enjoyable, despite my dodgy limb. The vast majority of you opened doors (oh my God, OPENING THE DOOR FOR ME MAKES EVERYTHING SO EASY), got out of my way and even said sorry for being there in the first place.

Terrible photo, but this lovely guy at Yankee Stadium symbolised the helpfulness of all the stadium staff. Look at the question on his jacket; "How may I help you?"

I will reserve my biggest hat to take off in honour of the staff at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, MetLife Stadium, Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium (and the public transport staff nearby). No question was too difficult, no request even brought forth a slight grimace. Even at the theatre, where there were no wheelchair spots available, the staff cleared the way for me, helped me to my seat and even offered to bring out extra folding chairs in a more accessible area. For the three sports (we ended up making a last-minute decision to go to the soccer at Yankee Stadium), getting to the new seats was seamless and all afforded amazing views. Hats. Off.

Other things were also easier than we thought. Read this next sentence carefully; we did not take a single taxi, Uber or Lyft during our entire time in New York. We were staying in the perfect area, right at the World Trade Center site, which sits on a plethora of subway lines, almost all with elevators. Over the eight days, I would say about two thirds of the time we were able to use a station with an elevator, and the other times I had to climb a staircase or two. (For those who are completely immobile, keep in mind that on a few occasions the elevator was out of order). The bigger issue was having Paul carry the wheelchair up and down those said stairs, which obviously took its toll after a while.

The other things, like navigating the airport, were quite simple in the end. The process for check-in and customs even goes faster as you skip the line, but security is still mayhem. We were all left shaking our heads at the screaming match between the security officers and the wheelchair assistants, where nobody came off looking better in the end.

Not everything was perfect, which was doable for me but would be extremely challenging for someone who cannot walk at all. Lots of restaurants and shops have just one or two pesky steps at the entrance, and not enough room to manoeuver a wheelchair around. I got used to leaving the wheelchair before the door at most restaurants and storing it away. One or two times the wheelchair got stuck in the doorway which was pretty mortifying (I’m looking at you, Macy’s). However, in saying that, leave all your pride at home. Accept people’s help. Smile back at others, even when their faces say “I sure am glad that’s not me.” Laugh when something’s pretty funny. If you’re thinking that you’ll be embarrassed in a wheelchair, get over yourself.

Plus, we were pretty exhausted at the end of each day. Particularly Paul; he’s the unsung hero in all of this. He had to delicately place me down at each traffic light and then violently lift me up to the curb after each crossing. We became experts at the quality of pavement all over the city. In the quieter streets, sometimes we ditched the footpath completely and I ‘became a car’ as we would joke. We quite liked it around Central Park, Midtown and the East Village. The West Village, Soho and Chinatown were trickier. And the streets around the Port Authority Bus Station were the stuff of nightmares. But somehow, we kept going. We made it across the Brooklyn Bridge and the High Line. We caught the Staten Island Ferry. We even made it out to New Jersey… twice!

Ready to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

So we did it. We even made the realisation that we did pretty much everything we would have done had we have had four working legs between the two of us. (An achievement that’s not so amazing when you take into account the fact that I never had the intention of ice skating at Rockerfeller Center or running across the Brooklyn Bridge.)

Of course, every disability is different and that is one of my main takeaways from this whole experience. I really do pledge to become a lot more aware of others and assist if I can. Americans, you’re on the right track. Europe, in this respect you have a lot to learn!

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