How To: Wheelchairs and Escalators… A Love Story.

The “ADA” expressly excludes escalators as “accessible means of egress”… I say screw that… it’s a fantastic means of “egress”!

I’ve met many people in wheelchairs who are physically able to ride an escalator, yet never make an attempt. This bothers me, for them…. They became paralyzed and see themselves as disabled, which means they can’t do things. Well much of this “disability” is self-inflicted. I encourage people in wheelchairs to venture out of their comfort zone and attempt things that make them anxious and nervous. They say “Well why would I do that if it makes me nervous and afraid?!”. To which I reply “I bet you $56 you try it 100 times and it won’t make you feel nervous or afraid, it’ll just feel normal… And there’s nothing disabled about something feeling normal”.

I know what you’re thinking… If a person is paralyzed a wheelchair why on earth would they use an escalator, especially if there’s a perfectly good elevator “over there”?!! Well, I have a reasonable and logical answer.. Lets say I want to go to the second floor of a shopping mall and the elevator is 50 meters away. I then notice an escalator 3 meters away, which happens to be going directly where I want to be. In a wheelchair or standing on 2 feet, if an escalator is closer than the elevator, it would logically make sense to utilize it, assuming you’re capable of doing so. Don’t get it twisted, I’m not suggesting you roll up and down every escalator you see just to get a reaction out of the people around you. But if the only thing between you and the place you’d like to be is an escalator, don’t go looking for the elevator!

You may think this is very difficult, but technically it’s actually easy. Most people are simply too intimidated to ever try rolling their wheelchair onto a moving escalator. I definitely suggest making an attempt, but make sure you have an able bodied spotter behind you until you’re comfortable alone. Going up an escalator is not necessarily easier than going down an escalator, but it is less intimidating, so we’ll start there.

Instructions: Up
Roll forward towards the escalator, making sure the wheelchair is centered on the approach. The moment your front wheels hit the moving track is when you want to grip the moving handrails with both hands. I like to lean forward and grab a bit in front of me. Wherever you choose to grab, it’s important to keep your hands planted where they are, holding on for stability and balance. If you need to move your chair a bit forward or backward do it while holding onto the rails. If you let go to re-adjust there’s a risk of tipping backward. Until you’re extremely comfortable, I suggest holding without re-adjusting at first.

So, your front wheels have hit the moving steps. At that moment you lean forward a bit to grip the moving handrails. You should now be moving at the same speed as the escalator, due to the fact that you’re holding onto the moving handrails. Before the steps even start to separate and rise begin looking down at your back wheels… This is the secret. Don’t be worried about your front wheels at this moment, as they will be fine on their own. You need to concentrate on the back wheels. While still holding the rails (without touching your wheels) position the back wheels on one step. It doesn’t matter which step, just look down and choose whichever step is most conveniently below your back wheels. This part needs to be done swiftly, as you are now moving with the escalator. If your back wheels are between 2 steps as they separate and begin the ascension you’ll find yourself bumping down a step, which is sketchy. The secret to a smooth and easy escalator ride is the position of your back wheels at the beginning, as the steps begin to separate from each other. Once the escalator steps are done forming keep your back wheels on the same step, leaning forward. This will cause your back wheels to roll forward into the step above. Your back wheels will stop moving, becoming planted, giving you stability for the rest of the ride up.

Congratulations, the hardest part is over. Your chair should now be stable, back wheels planted on a step, leaning forward, with hands still gripping the rails ahead of you. Pay close attention to where your weight is. You shouldn’t feel like you need to hold on to save your life. Most of your weight should be on the back axle, through the back wheels, down to the step they’re resting on.

I suggest practicing multiple times until you’re completely comfortable. The more you practice, the more confidence you’ll have, the less you’ll worry about busting your ass. You may even get to a point where you feel comfortable holding on with only 1 hand. You should be able to carry on a conversation while getting on an escalator, and not even have to think or stress about it.

Instructions: Down
I suggest learning to go up an escalator before attempting to go down an escalator. Not because going down is physically harder, but because going down an escalator backwards paralyzed in a wheelchair is psychologically more intimidating. After your first attempt, that intimidation will reduce drastically.

Never attempt descending an escalator if you use anti-tip bars. I suggest flipping them up if you want to practice going down an escalator, or better yet pop them off completely and toss them in a cardboard box! Also, make sure someone is behind you as a spotter. By “behind you” I mean they need to get on the escalator a step or two before you. Once comfortable, a spotter won’t be necessary. But for the sake of your mother’s sanity, please use a spotter at first.

If you’re practicing going down an escalator, I’ll assume you’ve successfully gone up one first. Approach the descending escalator rolling forward. When you’re about 1 meter away, turn around 180 degrees. Now, your back should be facing the descending escalator steps. While looking over your shoulder, begin slowly rolling backwards. Grab hold of the escalator handrails once they are next to your arms. Be careful not to reach backwards for the handrails, because you run the risk of tipping backwards. The most dangerous part of riding escalators in a wheelchair is boarding during the descent. You need to be careful not to tip/lean backwards during the boarding process. If anything, while learning I suggest leaning forward to exaggerate a bit.
Once your hands are planted on the rails keep them there. If you need to adjust the chair forward or backward, do it with your hands on the escalator rails. At this point, while leaning forward you just rolled backwards toward the descending escalator, gripped the handrails by your side, and are now moving backwards at the same speed as the escalator. You need to look down at your back wheels in this moment, before the steps begin to separate and drop down… This is the secret to a smooth ride down. You need to look down at the back wheels (choose one, doesn’t matter which) to make sure they are centered in the middle of a single step. If they are too far forward the steps will split directly underneath, causing the back wheels to bump back a bit. If the back wheels are too far backwards they run the risk of falling off the step completely when the step below drops down to separate. So remember, it’s extremely important to place the back wheels in the center of a single step.
As the steps separate you’ll feel the front of the wheelchair rise. While holding onto the handrails you should also feel your back wheels stabilize, causing the wheelchair from rolling around. Until you feel comfortable, I suggest holding on with 2 hands, not letting go until the ride is complete.
There is usually a lip at the bottom of escalators, where the steps go back into the ground. It’s important to be aware of this lip when approaching the end of your descending escalator ride. It’s possible your back wheels can hit this lip, not bump over it, resulting in you tipped backwards out of the wheelchair. To avoid this disaster, make sure you’re leaning forward at bottom of the escalator, so if/when you hit the lip your back wheels roll back over it with ease.

Congratulations! You’re still in a wheelchair, just less disabled. You’ll now notice getting around commercial business areas isn’t as intimidating as it used to be, nor does it need to be as ADA accessible as before. A bit of advise… Be patient with the reactions of 2-footers around you. What will become normal to you is still in fact completely abnormal to most. Some people will be excited for you, some people will be nervous, while others may look at you as if you’re missing a helmet and caretaker. Whatever happens, never a dull moment on any given day☺

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Showing 4 comments
  • graeme

    Thanks for the video and the instructions, I did the escalator rides for the first time after watching your post, this weekend. I got up without a hitch but you are definitely right….. the ride down and preparing for it is seriously intimidating. I managed fine once I got up the balls. Again, Thanks!!!

    • Jacob

      That’s awesome. It’s usually the anticipation that keeps people from trying escalators. Once you get the 1st time out of the way you realize it’s not so bad. As are most things in this life;) Congratulations for making the 1st attempt. Your disability indeed just shrank a bit.. Rock on!

  • Dante

    This is a bad idea. Escalators can be extreamly dangerous and its stupid to try to ride them if your in a wheelchair. Your not only putting yourself at risk, but also other passenegers aswell. falling can lead to entrapments causing you to lose finger,limbs etc…..BAD IDEA

  • Wilma

    Yes Dante, it’s just a bad idea that its taught in rehab hospitals all over how to go up and down an escalator. AB people have more accidents on escalators with poorly tied shoes than we can keep track of.

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