Even before the pandemic, Sylvia Longmire had a substantial social media following. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, the Air Force veteran details her experiences traveling the world as a wheelchair user for her website, Spin the Globe, and the platform is a popular one. But this spring, she launched on TikTok, offering 30 to 60-second snippets of her life to a mainly millennial audience – and her new demographic can’t seem to get enough.
“I just started making these little videos…about how I live as a wheelchair user: how I drive my accessible van, how my house is set up, how I board a plane, how I go on a train, how I go on a cruise ship,” Longmire tells Lonely Planet. “It went bonkers.” One of her first videos became a viral sensation, and she’s notched millions of views – and more than 100,000 followers – in the months since.
While some of her followers are wheelchair users, Longmire says most are younger people curious about her lifestyle. “I’m 45 years old, and I’m in a wheelchair, and the major TikTok audience tends to be millennials and Gen Z and even younger than that,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Are these kids really going to care about somebody in a wheelchair?’ Well, it turns out that they do.”
“The questions that they ask are simple, basic questions,” she continues. “They’re not judgmental, and they don’t feel bad for me or anything. They’re just really, really curious because you don’t see wheelchair users out and about as often as you should, based on how many of us there are. And there’s really no acceptable forum for somebody – a teenager – to go up to a wheelchair user and say, like, ‘Dude, I’m really, really curious. How do you take a shower? What does your house look like, or how do you get in a car?’ So the videos kind of fill this gap in knowledge.”
A lifelong globetrotter, Longmire received her MS diagnosis while on active military duty, and after her medical retirement, travel took a backseat while she adjusted to her new reality. But a divorce in 2015 got her back on the road, and she jumped in at the deep end with a 16-hour nonstop flight from Orlando to Dubai. “Go big or go home,” she laughs. “After that, I said, ‘Well, if I could do that, I could go to a lot of places.”
A cruise to Alaska came next – her first as a wheelchair user – followed by solo trips to Iceland and Alaska. She recalls, “I said to myself, ‘If I’m doing all of this traveling and this is going to be my new gig, why don’t I write about my experiences so I can share it with other people who maybe need to find more information about accessible travel?”
And so Spin the Globe was born. Longmire has now visited 57 countries, 49 as a wheelchair user, and in addition to travel writing – for her own site as well as outlets like Lonely Planet – she runs an accessible travel agency, helping her clients navigate the often-tricky experience of exploring a new destination. “They want to know that they can, in the most general sense, enjoy activities and participate as much as possible like everyone else,” Longmire says.
Using digital tools like Adobe’s Sign and Document Cloud to keep on top of things while she’s on the move, she nails down the details at the beginning of each new working relationship: do they need a high or a low bed? In the bathroom, a tub or a roll-in shower? On a cruise ship, do the staterooms have doorways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair? Does the shower have grab bars, and are the doors too heavy to open? Can they reach the drinks at the bar or at the restaurant? “Every single wheelchair user or person with a mobility issue is like a fingerprint,” Longmire says. “Just because I have certain needs for accessibility doesn’t mean that their needs are the same.”
Hotels are particularly tricky, she notes, even in the United States where the Americans with Disabilities Act offers some protection – and while she’s noticed a bit more awareness over the years, the industry’s actual improvements have been negligible. “At least 50% of the time, there’s a gross violation of the ADA,” she says.
Case in point: a recent trip to Austin, Texas. “I stayed at a brand-spanking new Candlewood Suites – I mean, you could still smell the sawdust,” she says. “And I couldn’t take a shower, because the fold-down bench was completely opposite to the wall where the shower controls and the handheld showerhead were located. So if you can’t stand up or take a few steps, there’s no way you could sit down on the bench and turn on the water. Simple things like that indicate that somebody is maybe reading the ADA requirements, but they’re not reading them closely. Even 30 years after the ADA, hotels are not spending a couple of extra pennies to bring in somebody who actually uses a wheelchair to run them through because it’s not legally required.”
Cruises, on the other hand, have been a great option for her clientele. “One of the biggest concerns for disabled cruisers is the availability of accessible shore excursions, and the cruise lines have been getting better at offering their own,” Longmire says. “It used to be that we had absolutely no choice but to go third-party to book a shore excursion with whatever company happened to be operating in that country, and they tend to be extremely expensive, because the costs for an accessible van in foreign countries, along with the guide, can be just astronomical. It tends to be cheaper if you book it through the cruise line because the group tends to be bigger, so you can distribute the cost among more people.” She name-checks Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America, and Disney as doing a good job of increasing their offerings “to give us more options instead of just rolling off the ship and getting a drink in the little village on the dock.”
With airlines, she says, there’s also been some progress, “thanks in no small part to the amazing senator Tammy Duckworth, who created legislation that airlines now have to track how many wheelchairs they damage or lose every month. And that was postponed over and over and over again by lobby groups that didn’t want the airlines to spend more money in order to implement this program, even though they’ve been tracking this for suitcases forever.”
“On average, every single day, US airlines are either breaking or losing 25 wheelchairs a day,” she continues. “It’s like stepping off the plane and having somebody taking a two-by-four to your kneecaps. You know, ‘Sorry, your vacation’s over, you’ve got to turn around and go home.’”
But even given the potential for mishaps, Longmire would rather see the world than avoid traveling altogether. “When I travel, I learn something from every experience,” she says. “So even if the accessibility is poor, I wouldn’t necessarily steer somebody away [from a destination] because the benefits from going there – the experiences of going there – are worth the extra effort.”
Instead, there’s one message she tries to hammer home. “The number one obstacle to accessible travel is not finances, it’s not logistics, it’s not physical disability – it’s fear,” she says. “Fear of the unknown, fear of getting hurt, fear of your equipment getting damaged, fear of things that you’re told are accessible and getting there and finding out they’re not – because all of these things do happen. It’s not an irrational fear.”
“I’ll be the first to tell you: I am scared out of my mind before every trip. I can’t sleep before I get [on a plane]. I’m afraid to fly,” she continues. “I do it because I know that the reward is waiting for me at the other end.”
For more on Longmire’s accessible travel advice, read on. [Note: The quotes below have been lightly edited and condensed.]
On overcoming travel fears:
“It’s important to start with baby steps. If you’ve never been in an accessible taxi and you have one where you live, take one and see how it works when they strap your wheelchair into the back. Just go for a ride to a store or to a restaurant or to a movie, or just for a ride around the neighborhood. If you have a train or a tram or a metro system or a bus system in your area, just take the bus and see what that’s like. For years, I was terrified of taking the bus, because I was always afraid that even if I got on, I would get stuck because I’d have no way of letting the driver know that this is my stop. But the more I do it, the more comfortable I get with it, and now I love taking the public bus because it’s cheap, and it’s accessible, and it’s one of the easiest ways to get around a lot of cities – not just in the United States but in the world.
The next step is to spend the night in a hotel room. If it’s in your own city, that’s fine; maybe take a drive and get an hour or two away to a city in your state that you’ve never been to. Hang out there and spend one night in a hotel, and if things are absolutely horrible, then you’re only an hour away and you can turn around and go home and sleep in your own bed.
Build up your confidence from there so you know what to expect. Then you move to the plane flight – a short one, 45 minutes. And if something gets messed up, at least you can hop on a plane and go back and be home.”
On improving the odds that a wheelchair survives a flight:
“Some airlines are better about this than others. Domestically, I love flying with Delta – Delta has these pink hang-tags with the wheelchair symbol on them, and they have a scan code, so they basically scan your chair like they scan luggage. On their app, you can track where not only your luggage is but where your wheelchair is. Now, mind you, there’s always room for human failure, so if somebody fails to scan the chair, then you still don’t know where it is. That happened to me when I flew to Shanghai, where I was on the plane for an hour not knowing where my wheelchair was in the middle of the night. All was fine, they found my chair, but looking for airlines that use a tracking system is one way to keep it from getting lost, or at least knowing where it is.”
On booking a hotel room:
“One of the main obstacles – especially with foreign travel, but even in domestic travel – that wheelchair users should remember is that able-bodied people don’t necessarily speak the same language. When you contact a hotel and you say that you’re a wheelchair user and you need an accessible room, especially in a foreign country, their definition of accessible might not be the same as your definition. I’ve heard so many times from other travelers where they arrive at a hotel and [staffers] say, ‘Oh yeah it’s accessible – there’s only one step.’ Or there’s an elevator at the top of three steps, so they’ll say there’s an elevator, but if you can’t reach the elevator…
So in addition to making the phone call, use email, because at least that tends to reduce the translation problem a little bit. And ask for pictures. A lot of hotels tend to be pretty good about sending pictures – some of them are busy and don’t have the time to go to the room and take a photo, but I’ve had a lot of luck with that. If you’re not 100% sure, if they don’t want to send you photos, if they don’t want to take the measurements, or if you just don’t feel comfortable that their version of accessibility is yours and they can’t meet your needs, find somewhere else to stay. You have to practice and make sure that the communication is there.”
On the pleasures of cruising:
“A lot of cruises go to places where wheelchair users would not be able to fly in and spend a vacation, but they can at least get a taste of it going on a cruise. For instance, I was just on a cruise in November that stopped in three ports of call in Croatia. Split was incredible. Would I fly to Split and be able to spend a week ther? Like, the accessibility was not bad, but it wasn’t good enough that I would spend the money to go there – it’s still too rough. But on a cruise, you could totally spend the whole day there and at least get a taste of it.”
On how cities can better welcome visitors with disabilities:
“Add a separate page to your website just for accessibility, and list restaurants, museums, shops – if they have an accessible toilet, if they have elevators. This is a very, very basic thing; it’s not that hard to do. If you promote that, you’ll bring the wheelchair users in, because we have to work so hard to figure that stuff out. If I go to a city and I have to call or look up every single museum, or every single monument, or every single park, that’s really time consuming, but if you give me one website where all of that information is located in one spot, that helps to make the decision.
Destinations need to realize how much money we bring to the travel and tourism market, and just show off. Don’t keep it a secret, the accessibility that you have in your city or in your town. Find out what it is, and then put it on display to make it easy for us to find, and we’ll show up.”