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Brittany Sommerfield - My Solo Wheelchair Journey

Brittany Journey collageHello, my name is Brittany Sommerfield. I am 23 and I volunteer as an ambassador for FARA. My main career is as a Travel Agent (Pro) with an Ontario company, ‘Travel Agents in Action’. Last fall, I took part in the 10th annual FARA symposium. What made this adventure a little different is it’s a solo journey- cross border- to an unfamiliar city- in a wheelchair! Departing October 13th and returning October 18th, journeying from Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada) to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA) with a one-day extension to Toronto, Ontario (Canada). Even with 3 years in the travel industry, plus close to 40 trans-border vacations, I have taken, it wasn’t easy. An amazing, wonderful, life-changing adventure I am so happy I took, as well as, immensely proud of myself for doing! Here is my travel journal where you can follow the triumphs and challenges of my trip.

Day 1 - Friday, October 13th
Today I said goodbye to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada to begin my 6-day voyage. Up at 5 am and I got to the Winnipeg International Airport just after 6 am. My dad quickly said his goodbyes and I was off on my own. I’m a frequent traveler so I can say navigating the airport isn't so bad for me and it helps that the Winnipeg airport is tiny. But it never hurts to ask, if you're not 100% certain, just ask a staff member to help guide you. It’s no shame, airports are very complex. I said I was okay alone and I am. I can manage but my stubborn little ways get me into trouble. So when people offer to help, I would say no without thinking, but after a minute I would usually be convinced to say yes. And thank goodness, there are so many good people still in this world to offer such assistance. I don't think I would have gotten through airport security on my own without these good Samaritans. I need to note to myself, just say yes when the staff offers to help…

My flight went by normally. I had a window seat which works well for me. People always suppose the aisle seat is most accessible, and perhaps it is for some… But when the fellow beside you needs to go the washroom things get complicated. Airplanes are not very spacious and are very crowded, and I would like to avoid falling into a stranger’s lap. Plus, the window is awesome! 2 ½ hours disappeared! 

Brittany CollageI went through customs without any issues. Going to the washroom after leaving customs was not so simple. My mountain of gear on my wheelchair had to be all unloaded so I could transfer properly. Also, able-bodied people do not understand handicap washrooms are not for them. I understand washrooms are busy and if there are no other available stalls, in the case of an emergency, go right ahead. But keep in mind; these luxurious, large stalls have the main purpose. We handicapped folks are not able to go to just any stall and we experience ‘emergencies’ too! I usually had to wait and when the able-bodied women exited, they definitely received some much-deserved death glares. It made me rethink adult diapers.

Finally, after a very expensive lunch, I power wheeled to my gate. Another smooth flight went by, and though the lady that helped me afterward was kind, you could tell she wasn't having the best day. You need to understand you can’t control this and you can't take it for granted when the staff is in a good mood. People are not going to be the best sometimes and you need to remember to just carry on.

My final travel journey of the day was to make a 40-minute transfer from the Philadelphia International Airport to my hotel. As the hotel offered no shuttle I had 3 main choices; bus, taxi, or Uber. Brave me chose the one I had never experienced- Uber. Uber, as of right now (October 2017), isn’t a ‘thing’ in Winnipeg. I don’t like last minute planning in any aspect… nor agree it ever turns out properly when you use a wheelchair. But that’s how Uber works and all in all, it was fine. There were no problems with the wheelchair, but I have a lot of mobility, so I am fortunate. I was hot and sweaty and exhausted by the time I got to the hotel. I freshened up and then had dinner with a fellow ambassador (RJ). I then headed back to my room to get ready for bed. All in all, it was a good day. My final thoughts are that traveling alone is lonely but fun and exciting! With a disability, it definitely is not an easy thing to do. You have to be very flexible and patient. Tip; work ahead to plan your trip to avoid a rushed situation.

Day 2 – Saturday, October 14th
Today was another crazy, busy and exciting day! Starting at 6 am, I crawled off my massive bed that was not very accessible. Then I crawled into my non-wheel-in (nor seated) shower which was also definitely not very accessible, just to be ready for 8 am.

Other than the many handrails in my washroom, I cant say my ADA approved room was totally accessible. The bed was high and the space between my bed and the TV stand was very narrow. It was almost like a mini mountain to climb every night but I was able to make it, fortunately. I should admit I was extremely ungrateful! I probably looked like a beached whale trying to flop on to the mattress. Luckily, my wheelchair just fit that space in between the bed. I can definitely say the room wasn't very accessible but I was able to make it work! I would also say, whenever necessary, don’t hesitate to go to the front desk and explain the non-accessible situation.

The AP training that took place went over well. We did have a buffet lunch and breakfast where people always offered to help me…but because I am stubborn, I like to reply no. I did things all on my own and I am proud to say I was able to do everything without dropping a single plate! I am sure my fellow Ataxians understand the rarity of this!

Afterward, we all went downstairs to watch a screening on the local cable TV of the movie, THE ATAXIAN. It was an absolutely phenomenal movie and so inspiring. Kyle and Sean were amazing and I recommend the movie to everyone! When the movie was over, we all formed into discussion groups. This can be very overwhelming when you are alone and know almost nobody. I have to say it is much easier when you just squeeze into a small group with a big smile! However, I ended up just going to my room for awhile and moving to the lobby afterward when there were fewer people and it was easier for me. I still have to say when you are traveling alone, you have to leave your comfort zone! I was very fortunate to be invited for a simple dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. I got to talk with more people and was still able to head to bed not too late.

Brittany Journey 4Day 3 – Sunday, October 15th
Today we had Ride Ataxia and the FARA Symposium registration… another early and busy day! I was up around 7 am to be downstairs and ready for my shuttle at 8:50 am. I should say even though this trip is going so well and I have not fallen once, I probably won’t do a solo trip again. It's exciting and invigorating but it is also nerve-wracking and insanely difficult. It is hard doing even the little things we take for granted. I find I need to break out of my shell and introduce myself more and ask for help when needed. I have been so fortunate that people here are so accommodating but I can't take this for a given as I probably might not be so lucky in the future. I can't say thank you enough to all the amazing people I met, as I probably couldn't do so much without them. People say I am strong and so brave! They also say I am awesome for traveling handicapped and alone. But I have a secret… I was never alone. I probably wouldn't survive without others.

Between the ride and registration, I had time for a nap. Even though I hate sleeping when I am on a trip, I need my sleep. I personally need about 9 hours a night with ataxia. I know fatigue will eventually hit me and I cannot afford to fall in some zombie-like state and injure myself!

Just an hour nap can be amazingly helpful for someone like me. I went to the lobby to go and get some menus at the front desk to order some food. Running into a crowd of familiar faces, I realized something was happening. I had known that registration was going on but I signed up online so I assumed it was just meant for some last-minute folks. I did not know that there was a whole banquet with food and drinks prepared. I wish I had known as I would have dressed up a bit. A bunch of photos was taken and I looked like a slob. It was a very fun night again and a late night. By the time I was back in my hotel room, I was losing my voice. I quickly talked to my parents and got ready for bed.

Day 4 – Monday, October 16th

Today it was the FARA symposium- the main event if you will… I experienced my first fall in the morning as I had slept in and was trying to get ready slightly faster than usual. Luckily, I did not hit my head... just my leg! In the end, I was only one hour late to the symposium. Many meet and greets were had and just as many awful goodbyes were said. I am thankful this is an annual event and there are no forever goodbyes.

After the event, I went back to my room. I talked with my family, changed, packed, as well as checked-in for my flight the following day, all before heading out with some of my great new friends (Jordan and Jared) to meet up with some other great, new friends (Scarlett and Muffie) at California’s Pizza Kitchen.

We had a bunch of laughs after getting around the huge King of Prussia Mall with three wheelchairs and only two able-bodied people! Amazingly, going up and down the ramps, all worked out with no injuries inflicted! Some crazy looks were received but we didn’t care. With Ataxia, you can suffer embarrassment! So all there is to do is laugh, a good sense of humor is a must for a happy lifestyle!

Brittany Journey collage 2Day 5 – Tuesday, October 17th
Today was mostly just a day of relaxing and traveling. It is a good thing I gave myself lots of time. I went to the airport about 4 hours early as I wasn't sure exactly how long it would take to get from the hotel to the airport. It ended up just being about an hour when all was said and done.

After yesterday’s fall, I didn't care too much to jump back in the non-accessible shower! So needless to say, I felt a little gross all day. The airport was okay. I didn't have too much help but I guess I didn't really ask for assistance. Other than going through security, I didn't really have anyone with me. However, I ran into a fellow FARA ambassador! A familiar face just makes you feel so much more at ease. When I reached my gate, I got a quick lunch, shopped for souvenirs (airports are expensive but I never had the free time to shop before). I didn't have too much waiting time considering I was so early.

My flight was good but there was an error on my ticket and the airline did not inform the staff that I would be needing an in-aisle wheelchair in Toronto. This resulted in some patient waiting on my part! Luckily, I did not have a connecting flight to make. I also had to wait a little bit for the staff to be able to help me through Customs. My shuttle amazingly came very quickly. I had called the day before to confirm that the shuttle was wheelchair friendly and although I was told it was…there was no lift!

Stairs are not easy for me! There were only a few steps …so somehow I made it… but what if I couldn’t? It annoyed me thinking that. Either a lot more waiting would have taken place or some unfair cash would have been spent. My flight got in just after 5:30 pm and it was 7 pm by the time I reached my Toronto airport hotel. This is something that took an hour and a half…it should have taken no more than 45 minutes… if you factor in 15 minutes for customs. I am a patient woman, and I understand travel delays… It still upset me. I was drained and hungry and just felt thoroughly gross.

I had some little snacks I received on the flight as an ‘I'm sorry for the wait’ gift …which ended up being my dinner when I saw no nearby…let me clarify …wheeling nearby restaurant. So I did the one thing I hadn’t done once since leaving home. I just sat on my bed, ate snacks and watched some good old relaxing television.

Day 6 (last) – Wednesday, October 18th

Today was the final day of my journey. I woke up and took a nice, long shower in my ultra-accessible shower! Afterward, I went to the lobby and had a nice continental breakfast. The staff was super helpful and I didn't have to go into the kitchen once.

Afterward, I went back to my room, packed up and played on my phone until checkout. I had to go to the front desk to get someone to come and help me with my luggage at the hotel room door was insanely heavy and I could not manage it on my own. Once I had checked out of my room I hung out in the lobby for about an hour until my coworker Andrea came and found me. At this point, Andrea, Jeanette, and Louise (some other fellow co-workers from Travel Agents in Action) took me out to lunch in Mississauga, Ontario. We talked about travel and I told them all about my adventures in Philadelphia. They paid for my meal which was absolutely amazing! Thank you so much, Andrea. ( co-owner of Travel Agents in Action )

They took me back to the airport at 4 pm for my 6 pm flight home. I got through everything super fast and easily. I had actually requested assistance this time… I feel I'm finally becoming less stubborn and learning to just ask for help. Unfortunately, this is now at the end of my journey. Better late than never!

The aircrew was super helpful and so accommodating to me. The flight went by in a breeze and before I knew it, it was 8:30 pm and I was back in Winnipeg. My mom came and picked me up and I was home within 30 minutes!

Final thoughts are that traveling alone is definitely not easy, patience is key and you sometimes just need to laugh it off. A good mindset and some experience in travel are very helpful. And just no matter how much you plan, there are going to be some things you just can't control. In truth, I actually found it was the little things that were the hardest. I can't say I would travel by myself again but it was absolutely phenomenal and a huge learning curve for me. The experience was like no other!

All and all, I have to give my travel company a big shout out! I am doing something I have always wanted to do, which is to focus on special needs travel and hopefully, someday become an accessible travel specialist. I am very fortunate to have some co-workers who are doing the exact same thing and that my company is super helpful. If you ever have a question or need to contact me… keep in mind, email is preferred. The world is a dangerous place. So stay safe and happy! Always!

- Brittany Sommerfield

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