Todd Winther lives in Brisbane. He has written for The Conversation, ABC Online, and the Brisbane Times. He works for Youngcare Australia as its Grants Administrator. To read Todd’s article on planning his visit to the US with Kat, click here.
After a thirteen hour flight to LA, then another six hours in the air, we made it to New York City. We left our hotel in the heart of Manhattan at 7am on a Thursday morning to take a further 90 minute train ride to the small town of Poughkeepsie, New York, not much bigger than the regional town where I spent my late teenage years. Yet that day spent in a hamlet most Australians have never heard of was the second best day of my life, trailing only the wedding where I married Kat, less than three weeks before.
Poughkeepsie, is home to the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, a place of worship for me that celebrates the life and legacy of the 32nd President of the United States, my hero. Like me, Roosevelt had a profound physical disability, having contracted polio at age 37 in 1921. Less than 12 years later, he took the oath of office, and became the leader of the free world.
For six years and half years, visiting the library seemed like a distant dream that would never be achieved, but when Kat and I agreed to travel to the US for our honeymoon, that dream became real. I shed tears seeing Franklin’s actual wheelchair, and visiting the bedroom where the doctor told him of his polio diagnosis. I look at that day in Poughkeepsie, as a microcosm of the whole three and half week trip: a gargantuan amount of effort, with it all being worth it, tenfold.
Aside from minor challenges, the trip itself was easier than I expected. Much of this was due to the American individualism, which us Aussies sometimes mock. The expectation from the public is that anyone with a disability should be self reliant: all accessible entrances have automatic doors, no matter the age of the buildings, and all public transport is easy to enter and exit, with the buses even including restraints. The American attitude to disability and the people who have them is something that Australians should take note of and learn from.
Kat and I visited three cities during the course of our trip. Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington DC each had their own charms for me as a first time overseas traveller. Each were just as I imagined they would be. In LA, while traversing the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I was offered a pamphlet extolling the virtues of Scientology, while avoiding protests at President Trump’s Star. At Disneyland, it seemed more people preferred to hire wheelchairs or scooters than to walk, using advantages that I do not have. Unfortunately, it was very obvious to me that the occupants of these wheelchairs had zero experience navigating through crowds, and avoiding the endless parade of prams and strollers. I have come to the view that anyone who wants to use a wheelchair at Disneyland must pass a driving test first.
New York City was the highpoint of the trip for both of us. Kat and I saw four musicals, each at a different theatre which dealt with accessibility in a unique manner. The challenge was not the theatres themselves, but navigating Times Square on the way back to the hotel each time, as all performances ended at the same time. The mind boggles when imagining how anyone in a wheelchair could see the famous ball drop on New Years Eve. If however, you can wind your way through to Central Park, you will find the tranquillity needed after such a claustrophobic experience.
Washington DC was by far the most wheelchair accessible city I have ever visited. All the footpaths are wide, the curbs are gentle and navigable. As a political obsessive, I wanted to visit the key monuments twice, with the night time viewings both being easier to explore and more spectacular, particularly the Lincoln Memorial.
These pleasant experiences weren’t without their setbacks. We discovered that accessible taxis aren’t ideal, that booking airport transfers is essential, long flights are as arduous and taxing as you’d expect them to be, the importance of investigating the accessibility of airlines is crucial, and that footpaths in New York City are extremely treacherous.
Despite all of this, we want to return to the US as soon as possible, particularly New York City. We have promised ourselves that given enough time and money we will return to see as many musicals as possible. All the challenges of my disability pale in comparison to the feeling of exhilaration we both felt seeing Waitress The Musical on Broadway. We will do literally anything to feel that again.
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