Hitchhiking in a wheelchair

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Although there aren't many disabled hitchers, the truth is that they do exist. In fact, hitchhiking is an activity so influenced by social/psychological prejudices that the mere picture of the lone hitcher in a wheelchair, thumbs up and as helpless as possible, will usually allow him to hitchhike at a speed that not even the most innocent-looking teenager could dream off.

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Dargeron sitting in front of his tent

Besides, unlike many other social or cultural conditionants, the instinct to help and trust those with a physical handicap is so inherent to the human being that it can be found in absolutely every country across the globe. No matter if you're hitching out of Amsterdam, in the middle of the Hajj muslin pilgrimage or in the most remote village of China: you will be helped. Always.

With that said, here comes some advice for any handicapped hitchhiker-to-be. Keep in mind that this page focuses almost exclusively on those disabilities that force you to travel on a wheelchair; of course, there are things like people's eagerness to help which are general to any kind of physical disability (or even cognitive disabilities like blindness or deafness), but many others are not, so feel free to expand this page with any additional info you have! ;)

Beginner's guide for hitchhiking in a wheelchair

Before hitching

First and foremost, it is highly recommended to have a minimum level of autonomy and mobility before attempting to hitchhike, especially if you're not traveling with a partner. Assuming that you're traveling in a manual wheelchair and have average arm mobility (the most common setup for those who got into the whole disability business after the usual road crash), it is a really good idea to be comfortable with some basic skills like folding away your wheelchair, transferring from the wheelchair to a car seat (or even truck seat, but we'll cover that later), and using regular WC's instead of handicapped ones. Appearing confident or even energetic will help a lot to mitigate the natural uneasiness that many drivers face when they take a disabled hitchhiker into their car - which is good, unless you're planning to make an extensive visit throughout the country's police stations courtesy of all your good-willing but anxious drivers.

Aside from that, don't forget to bring the basic repair kit for your wheelchair as well as any other specifics you might require... and you're set to go!

Choosing the wheelchair

That's probably the one inquiry that everyone makes sooner or later, especially in European countries where getting funds from the government to purchase a good wheelchair is not really an issue. You can afford many kinds of wheelchair, so the only question is... what's best for hitchhiking?

Well, on contrary off what our common sense would tell us, the best hitchhiker wheelchair's are actually some of the cheapest you can acquire. This has a very reasonable explanation: in the current wheelchair market, the top-notch, expensive wheelchairs are mostly designed for athletes or just regular people living quiet lives in their cities (which are like 99% of the handicapped population anyway), and thus they aim for qualities that are quite the opposite of what the hitchhiker seeks: they're extremely light, fast and precisely-crafted wheelchairs, whereas what you'll need is a sturdy, simple and foldable wheelchair that can be easily repaired anywhere in case it gets broken. So forget about those sophisticated wheelchairs made of aluminium or carbon fibers, and get the smallest iron totally foldable wheelchair that you can fit into (some car boots are really small, and it's a shame when you can't get into the car because of that... although most drivers will be willing to put the wheelchair in an empty seat if that happens, anyway). It shouldn't cost most than 500 euros in most European countries, so you will probably manage to get it for free with little or no effort.

On the road

So you've made up your mind, you have your travel wheelchair and your bag, and you've finally hit the road. Most of the advices for regular hitchhikers fit here as well (good spots, clothes, aspect, attitude, the little tricks like staring at the driver's eyes...) so I won't repeat them, but there are some remarkable differences (advantages, one would say) that you ought to keep in mind.

First of all, don't forget that here your wheelchair is, before anything else, a blessing. It will melt away any trace of fear or suspicion the driver could have hold against you, and you'll see soon enough that your average waiting time rarely surpasses the ten minutes mark. The only problem is that some drivers (especially, and I mean it, especially truck drivers) may be afraid of the alleged delays or troubles they will get into if they take a disabled person in their car, and sometimes they may not stop for that sole reason. That's why, in order to truly unlock your wheelchair's potential, you should always try to find a way to speak personally with the drivers, so that you can reassure them with your self-confidence and your traveling experience when you ask for the ride. Petrol stations are the best place for this, so much that you will seldom need to ask twice for a ride if you manage to get there. Even if you don't speak a single word in the country's language (hell, even if the driver is traveling in the total opposite direction) just repeat the name of the place where you want to go and you'll eventually get there; such is the magic of your pretty little chair.

So just remember: always try to get to a place where you can speak to someone (anyone, anywhere!), and as long as you look even slightly friendly and helpless you will arrive your destination as fast as if you'd taken the first bus of the morning.

Advanced skills and tips

The amount of little skills, tricks and tactics that you'll end up mastering if you really decide to travel and hitchhike regularly (specially if you do it alone) is huge, and it's hard to list them all, but here are some:

  • Learn how to go upstairs and downstairs alone, and learn to do it with your wheelchair. Eventually you'll find yourself in front of a set of stairs with no one in sight to help, and you'll wonder why you didn't invest some little time into it. Besides, it's just plain cool.
  • Learn how to get off from your wheelchair, learn how to get back into it when you fall, learn how to crawl when you're on the floor. There's always someone to help you in a city, but not on the road.
  • Once you've learned to crawl, learn to do it with only your feet touching the floor. Outside Europe there are toilets that you won't dare to use without that skill.
  • Not trying to get all scatological here, but really, learn how to do all your basic needs in the field with no WC at all and without needing to change clothes afterwards. You're gonna be grateful for that one, too.
  • Don't be afraid to break your wheelchair. As long as you're carrying one made of iron, any motorcycle or car garage in the world will be able to fix it somehow, no matter what you did to it. Still, try to wash it with water as soon as possible if it ever falls in the sea, cause the salt is deadly.
  • One of the many advantages of traveling in a wheelchair is that weight isn't really a matter for you. Unlike hitchhikers who travel on foot, you can carry a heavy bag with anything you need and you will still be able to rely on traveling long distances just by yourself to get to that pesky petrol station or hitching spot.
  • Use all the social and psychological advantages that your disability grants you to their full extent with no remorse at all, and don't ever dare to question yourself for it. Hitchhiker Dargeron used to stowaway into ferries by pretending to fall from his wheelchair at the entrance of the ship, to take advantage of the worker's ensuing commotion and attempts to help him in order to enter the ship with no one remembering to demand him the ticket (and it worked). Seriously, you will have to put up with all the handicaps of being in a wheelchair whether you want it or not, so at least take the advantages too!
  • Add more info? :)

Hitchhiking in a wheelchair outside of western countries

Hitchhiking outside of western countries in a wheelchair shouldn't be too hard unless your particular disability presents some specific need that can't be met there for some reason.

Of course, almost all the aforementioned skills become twice as necessary once you leave the so-called first world. The number of truck rides will drastically increase, and truck drivers are not always prone to waiting or wasting effort for you, so you'd better train your truck-climbing a little bit. Learning to jump steps is mandatory, and you should really, really consider learning to come up/descend entire stairs too. Aside from that, there isn't really much difference to be noticed for disabled people, except for the fact that a lone western handicapped hitchhiker in a country like Somalia will probably create such a wave of admiration and solidarity that he'll find it practically impossible to avoid being constantly followed, congratulated and helped in any conceivable way by some dozens of locals wherever he goes.