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Johannah Sangster's Californian Adventures in a Folding PowerChair

April 09, 2020 -
Johanna Sangster in California

In February 2020, I was lucky enough to take a trip over to sunny California, to visit my family, the majority of whom are out there. Because of this family tie, 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 pain had seriously started to affect my enjoyment and abilities, even while using my walking stick, so I was very excited to see how bringing my Foldalite would impact my trip!

At the Airport

at the airport

Of course, I was anxious about transporting my chair overseas, worried that I might mess something up on a form, and nervous about the attention I would be getting. It was just a complete unknown to me.

I had often had assistance at airports, and found it to be a slightly frustrating experience.

For example, 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-sanitiser 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, where a member of staff filled in a form to attach to my chair.

I was asked about the brand, weight, on/off switch and batteries, all of which were simple to answer as I knew the Foldalite has removable, lithium batteries, meaning they can be stored with hand luggage on the plane!

Once that was sorted, I was able to enjoy total freedom in exploring the duty-free shops at will, and take my chair all the way up to the aeroplane door!

At this point it was folded down to be taken to be stored with the suitcases, with the member of staff carrying it happily saying it was the smallest he’s ever seen a powerchair fold down!

The chair was waiting for me as I got off the plane, so I popped the batteries back in and began my Californian adventure!!

Shopping U.S.A.

shopping in the USA

Immediately I felt confident and relieved as I noticed how wide and flat the pavements generally are over there, and being a much younger country, there was no dreaded cobblestone in sight!

I quickly realised that access to stores would be a dream, as younger 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 pick me up 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.

Hollywood Sign

One thing I’d never done was see the Hollywood sign, so I thought now I had the extra freedom of the powerchair, now would be a perfect chance!

Hollywood sign

We drove down to Hollywood, and parked on the side of the street beside the park with no trouble.

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 and not ready to stop there, so asked one of the many community staff about accessible paths closer to the sign. Unfortunately, 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! We were able to go about half a mile up the hills by putting the chair into high-power mode, on a track which was also being used by those with buggies.

The views were stunning and it was definitely worth the extra adventure. The only thing I would say is avoid pockets of sand on the pavements, especially if its going down a hill!

 Santa Barbara Beach Side

at the beachWe 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.

Additionally, the very short and very dry grass was also suitable for the chair at high power!

eating dessert US style

We took a trip down the pier next, traversing the totally accessible, if extremely bumpy, planks! 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 trying to have a conversation while he was behind me pushing a manual wheelchair.

The chair lets me live life how I want to, when shopping, managing pain levels, and even down to my relationship! 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 folding powerchair.

Johannah Sangster
Johannah Sangster

Johannah is a Masters student 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 modelling industry, working with Zebedee Management, and enjoys sharing her research and experiences through her Instagram page, chick_with_a_walking_stick.

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