Challenges of Shopping with a Wheelchair

Can we talk about the trials and tribulations of shopping on wheels? Or with any mobility equipment, for that matter. I was in a store the other day and after the fifth time I got my wheelchair hopelessly entangled with a rack of clothing, I realized I can’t be the only one who’s just a little tired of inaccessibility interfering with even the most basic of activities.

Let’s pretend we’re about to go shopping and take this journey through the process together. Assuming we’re going to a big-box retail establishment, it’s usually safe to say the store is at least accessible, so I can get inside easily enough. But if I’m rolling along a thoroughfare with lots of little boutiques, there’s a relatively good chance I won’t even be able to enter the shop because there’s likely a step or two.

So now we’ve eliminated some options, but let’s say I’ve made my way into a store. The next challenge is actually navigating. I totally get that stores need to pack in whatever merchandise they think they can sell to turn a profit, but sometimes it’s just impossible to get around. Narrow aisles, wide display tables, items strewn about. I just want to buy a shirt, not train for an obstacle course! That said, it’s pretty humorous when I discover that I’m dragging a few stray pairs of underwear or an entire pile of pants behind me.

Sometimes narrow stores aren’t so funny, though. I was once about to enter a boutique pottery shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when the owner saw me and my mother (who also uses a wheelchair) and told us we couldn’t come in because he was worried we’d break his wares. Now I know I was just joking about my wheelchair catching whatever is in its path, but I am actually a careful wheelchair user and discrimination like that is never okay.

Luckily, my family and I found another shop nearby where we could buy local goods, but a lot of what they were selling was up on high shelves. Granted, it’s easy enough to ask for help. And I’m lucky to have an iLevel® power wheelchair, so I can always raise myself up in situations where it’s tough to reach things. But I’ve been to so many stores, especially chain stores, where they put items up so high that you need a special reaching tool to get things down. How is that accessible to anyone?!

So, once I finally manage to get around a store and reach what I want, I might decide to try things on. Of course, that’s dependent on whether the store 1) actually has an accessible dressing room, and 2) isn’t using the accessible dressing room as a storage closet. I can’t even count how many times I’ve requested to use the accessible dressing room and then been asked to wait while they practically pull out the contents of a tiny apartment so I can use it.

The final step in the shopping journey is paying. At most stores, the checkout counters are so high that I feel like I need to shout and wave frantically to be seen. Again, iLevel® helps with this, but lower counters would definitely make the whole exchange easier.

I worry some people might find this assessment of shopping inaccessibility rather trivial, and I get it. I also acknowledge shopping is a privilege. But getting around a store, whether it’s a thrift shop on the corner or a luxury department store, is something everyone should be able to do.

About Emily Ladau: Emily is a blogger and serves as the editor in chief of Rooted in Rights. She co-hosts a podcast and has been recognized as an emerging leader in the disability community. Emily lives in Long Island and enjoys traveling and trying new restaurants. Click here to learn more about Emily.