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Using Power Wheelchairs Abroad

Megan close up in black and white, looking over her shoulder
Megan close up in black and white, looking over her shoulder

Megan Smith has an insatiable appetite for international travel. Here, she dispenses her wisdom from over the years when it comes to the art of power wheelchair maintenance abroad.

As my fellow disabled travelers may know, total equipment failure can happen anywhere. While most people were reading the stories of Camilo José Cela on a warm bench surrounded by freesia, I spent the majority of my time getting down and dirty in the mechanic shops of Seville, Spain, where I was studying abroad for 8 months.

Before leaving the U.S, I bought a new wheelchair thinking it would be far safer then my seven year old chair. It turned out I had bought a lemon. When mixed with cobblestones, “the lemon” led to my gradual breakdown. I felt like Mr. Potato Head with his various bits falling off—first my foot rest, then my arm rest, then my second footrest—eventually I would see my tire run down the road…without me… on a regular basis.

The upside is that I probably have the highest scores for mechanical vocabulary of any student who has returned from Spain, and if you need a Sevillian mechanic, I can tell you who’s the best!

Regardless of where I travel to volunteer, study, or work abroad, here’s what I have learned over the years:

  1. Consider taking a foldable power wheelchair. These weigh much less than standard power wheelchairs and are easier to transport.
  2. Assess how the power wheelchair will handle rough terrain by checking its ground clearance level and wheel durability.
  3. Contact a representative from the wheelchair manufacturer ahead of time to determine if the company has a branch in the host country. This can help with potential repairs, rentals and other issues.
  4. Remove detachable and fragile parts from your wheelchair and taking them as carry-on luggage when flying. Use name tags to label each piece of equipment, including removable parts, to ensure that nothing is lost or misplaced.
  5. Take a note in the native language of the host country with instructions on how to remove and put in power wheelchair batteries and the kind of battery used, whether and how it can be folded or disassembled, the location of the quick disconnect terminals, and how to set and release the brakes.
  6. Make sure the airline adds a gate delivery tag to the wheelchair so that it will be ready at the gate upon landing.
  7. A British battery charger, which uses electricity at 220 volts/50 hz, works in many countries. A plug converter may still be necessary to plug the charger into the wall.
  8. Rent a battery charger in the host country, if you use a standard power wheelchair, especially if the charger you normally use is heavy and bulky.
  9. Cover the battery with a plastic bag or poncho in rainy or moist environments.
  10. Purchase a portable generator that uses fuel to charge wheelchair batteries in inaccessible areas and parts of developing countries where power outages are common or electricity isn’t available or prone to voltage drops, so batteries may take longer to charge or not charge fully.

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