Staying in Control on Stairs

A college student with a physical disability gets lifted piggyback up stairs in China while her friends carry up her empty wheelchair
Two wheelchair users that have traveled the world share their tips on getting assistance abroad.

At some point in your international travels, you may come upon a flight of stairs that need scaling, whether out of necessity (e.g. exiting a Parisian metro stop with a broken lift) or sheer desire (mounting the last bit of the Eiffel Tower for an incredible view).  If you will need assistance from others to lift you and your wheelchair, there are some ways to make this tricky situation a little less harrowing.

Bruce Curtis of the World Institute on Disability says that it is important to be assertive in directing a lift, especially in situations where locals likely have no familiarity with proper lifting techniques. "Sometimes too many helpers lifting on the stairwell can be dangerous," he says. "Try to direct your assistants and stay in control of the process.”

He also suggests learning key words and phrases related to lifting in the host country's language.

  • "Don’t hold onto this; lift by the frame."
  • "Be careful, I may lose my balance."
  • "Let’s all lift on the count of three...one, two, three, lift."
  • "Would you please help me?"
  • "No, I don't need any assistance."

Susan Sygall, CEO of Mobility International USA, agrees that learning these terms in the local language comes in handy, "especially when you need assistance in going up a curb or a flight of steps." When needed, she has scooted up stairs on her own, and had others lift her empty wheelchair on to a bus or train.

She also says to keep in mind that accessibility can mean different things in different countries. In some countries people rely more on human-support systems than on physical or technological solutions.

"People may tell you their building is accessible because they're willing to lift you and your wheelchair over the steps at the entryway," she adds. "Be open to trying new ways of doing things, but also ask questions to make sure you are comfortable with the access provided."

Our Advice

You're the boss. If you are being lifted, then direct the lift, as you know what will work best.

Learn how to prevent, recognize and treat pressure sores. When traveling to a new country, you may find that the long flights, the change in routines, and the stresses of people unfamiliar with assisting can trigger new pressure sores or make existing ones worse.

Read about what others have done.  Wheelchair users share their tips in how they direct lifting or transfering and equipment they use in the stories listed in the Table of Contents.