Paralympian Bert Burns Shares Travel Tips for Wheelchair Users
Giving up wasn’t an option for Bert Burns. Thirty-four years ago, Bert was involved in a devastating car wreck and became a C6-7 quadriplegic. Although life as he knew it was altered forever, Bert refused to slow down and today is changing the way quadriplegics and paraplegics across the nation experience everyday life through the non-profit motivational program he co-founded called Life After Spinal Cord Injury [LASCI].
Bert competed for many years as an international wheelchair racer, winning events around the world. Competing worldwide as a wheelchair racer until 2004, Bert was featured in 15 consecutive issues of SPORTS ‘N SPOKES magazine over the course of his sports career. However, his greatest achievement in racing came in 1992 as he accepted a gold medal at the Barcelona Paralympics for the 4×400 relay.
A seasoned world traveler, Bert shares his travel advice below.
Q: Bert, what kind of questions do you get from people who are new to using a wheelchair?
A: “During my motivational speaking events, people ask me about everything from wheelchair sports to using a catheter on a plane,” Bert says. “They’re basic topics, but they’re the kinds of things you don’t even think about until your life is changed forever,” Bert says. [Bert’s speaking events typically take place in rehabilitation hospitals and other locations to assist disabled youth and adults who have recently learned they will be using a wheelchair.]
Q: What kind of travel destinations do you choose for family vacations or getaways with your wife, Joy?
A: “While I maintain my independence and I’m able to do pretty much everything on my own, there are still things I can’t do. So when we go on vacation, walks on the beach and hikes into the mountains are out of the question. But we’ve worked around any can’t-dos with can-dos. Instead, we go on cruises, hang by the pool, scuba dive and snow ski together [via adaptive skiing].”
Q: I have a spinal cord injury, and I’ll be flying next week. What should I know?
A: “I fly a lot, nationally and internationally. The first thing you should always do before getting on the plane? Go pee. Either use a catheter or a leg bag, but go do it. And if you are going to be on a long flight, the night before you leave, do a bowel program. Your biggest fear on an airplane will always be having a bowel accident.”
“When getting on the plane, you will wheel down the ramp, and they’ll transfer you to an aisle chair. They’ll take you back to your seat. Make sure you take your chair cushion with you.
Don’t leave anything valuable in your wheelchair, and if you normally keep a bag under your chair, take it with you.”
Also, there is a new kind of leg bag that can help you tremendously when you are travelling. The new Melio Self-Emptying Leg Bag System© empties your leg bag with a push of a button – and it tells you when it’s time. It eliminates the worry of not having access to a restroom when you need one, and can also alleviate your fears of AD when travelling.”
Q: Why would wheelchair users be worried about the risk of Autonomic Dysreflexia when travelling?
A: “Autonomic Dysreflexia [AD] is a huge risk for leg bag users. It is often caused by urine backing up into the bladder, when you don’t empty your leg bag often enough. That can happen when you’re on the road and not near a bathroom. I know about this issue personally because I wear a leg bag myself. The Melio system was designed with AD in mind.
“Melio’s alert intentionally goes off when the bag is at 2/3 full because at that level of fullness, it is impossible for the wearer to get AD due to urine backing up into the bladder. In addition, the anti-reflux valve that is built into the system will prevent urine backflow into the bladder.”
Q: When you travel places, are your kids embarrassed because dad is in a wheelchair?
A: “No, not at all! My kids want to know why other dads don’t have a wheelchair. It’s like a great toy for them. They love riding in my lap, even now that they are nearly teenagers. It’s really opened up their minds to see all the things their dad can do.”
“One thing though that really helps me avoid embarrassing situations is the Melio leg bag system. That’s another reason why I recommend it while travelling, as you never know when you might need to use a restroom and sometimes that may not be available if you are on a plane or on the road. Also, because quads like me have more limited hand function, it is often difficult for them to empty their leg bags on their own. That’s why the Melio controller comes with a magnetic bracelet that can be used to activate the self-emptying pump, without the wearer having to press any buttons – no hassle, no mess to clean up.”
Q: Any last words of advice for travelers on wheels?
A: “Sure, if you are new to using a wheelchair, always keep this in mind. There are 10,000 things you can do, and in a wheelchair there are 7,000. So are you going to go home and think of the 3,000 things you can’t do? No! Go do the 7000 things that you can do, focus on the positive,” Bert insists.
More than anything, Bert encourages other friends who use wheelchairs to not be afraid to get out and enjoy life!
“All of us are using a wheelchair now, and a lot of times, it’s not fair,” Bert says. “Once you go home from rehab you have two choices to make – If you go home and say, life sucks, it will. Or you can go home and say, ‘These are the cards I was dealt, and I’m going to make the most of them.’ If that’s the choice you make, you’ll be OK. What choice are YOU going to make?”
Download Discovering: Accessible US Travel Guide for Wheelchair Users
These accessible travel suggestions are part of the Get Out & Enjoy Life [GOEL] program that is a joint educational initiative between Wheel:Life, a global community of wheelchair users, and SPORTS ‘N SPOKES magazine, published by the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
More than 70,000 wheelchair users from 108 countries took part in Wheel:Life resources in 2014.
You’ll find that each chapter of this book provides easily-accessible destinations that are fun and engaging for friends who use wheelchairs. Discovering is an easy, encouraging read that will help you explore all kinds of travel destinations and family fun spots, whether you are new to using a wheelchair or a seasoned pro.
Please note that not every state in the US is featured in this travel guide, just the ones that we have included in our GOEL program to date.