Thank You for Holding the Door: Reflections on Traveling with Disabilities

Chances are, you have at one point held the door for someone. Maybe it was my Dad. I just wanted to say thank you.

He and Rollerbag Mom and I just finished their biannual grand migration. Dad doesn’t drive, so the responsibility falls upon Mom. I had hoped to help her with the long journey from Arizona to Minnesota, which I have done once before.

An example of a recent walk Dad had to make to get to the restroom.
It is tantamount to a marathon for the rest of us. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Sometimes I think I’m a help to them.

But most of the time, I am a silent observer of how difficult the world is to navigate for people of different abilities. Because although I feel free to roll my bag wherever I might dream of traveling, my father does not have that same freedom.

You see, years ago, Dad had what’s called a TIA; a mini stroke. It’s the body’s way of warning you that something has gone awry. A handful of years later, we ran out of warnings, and while on a relaxing fishing trip with his best friend, my Dad suffered a permanently disabling stroke.

Since that time, life has been different, and I think it’s safe to say, harder. Dad takes longer to get around, and to his credit, he mostly refuses to ride in a wheelchair.

He walks instead.

To do so, he uses a walker with his right hand, though he is–or was–a lefty. He takes small steps to accommodate his weak side. He moves slowly. Each baby step takes about six seconds. And, his speech is quieter and less clear. He might say thank you when you hold the door for him, and it might not sound like much, but know that it comes at immense effort. Some stroke patients entirely lose their ability to speak and swallow. Some speak in garbled, nonsensical words. Dad’s voice never left him, it just lost its boom.

I have traveled with Mom and Dad to many parts of the country after “the day everything changed.” Though I try to help, there is almost nothing I can do to make travel easier for him. That’s because even though many places have handicapped-accessible rooms, bathrooms, ramps and the like, it’s a little known truth that handicapped accessible means wheelchair accessible. It doesn’t necessarily mean that if you have difficulty walking it will be accessible to you. Often, it is not.

Take a look next time you enter a convenience store or restaurant and need to use the bathroom. How far is that bathroom from the door?  How far is your hotel room from the main entrance? How long would it take you to walk it if you only had full strength in one leg and the use of one arm? What if people were rushing past you impatiently, maybe bumping up against you? Or cutting in front of you, as if you don’t exist?

Wherever I travel with Dad, I’m grateful to the hostesses in restaurants who are willing to slow down and walk with us–by making it her pleasure to take her time. (We had a memorable experience at Texas Roadhouse in Tucson, Arizona that I think of often with great gratitude. In spite of a crowded restaurant on a busy night, the hostess matched my father–step for step–as we walked to our table in the very back of the restaurant. It was an incredible act of kindness, and I will never forget the dignity with which they treated my father.) I’m grateful for those people who hold the door and don’t roll their eyes or sigh when they realize how slowly we are moving forward, six seconds every small step. I’m grateful for those who smile. Who talk to Dad to take his order, rather than acting as if he isn’t talking or can’t talk. I’m grateful for hotels that don’t charge extra for handicapped-accessible rooms because they require more space, and I’m grateful for handicapped rooms that are near an entrance.

But most of all, I’m grateful to have a father who, in spite of the odds, refuses to take the easier route and refuses to give up; a father who everyday gets on his feet and inch by inch, moves himself along on his journey through this world.

You may never see him, but you might see others like him: a community of travelers for whom traversing even the smallest of distances is the trip of a lifetime. Those for whom the doors to the world do not easily open. As they make their way, thank you for recognizing the importance of those hard-won steps. Thank you for knowing you can help in at least one small way, by treating them as people, with all the respect and patience they deserve, and by taking a minute to slow down and help them in their journey.

Thank you for holding the door.

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Charish Badzinski is an explorer, foodie and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations. 

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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