By Bill Fryer

A few years back, I had the opportunity to visit Alcatraz Island in a wheelchair and would like to share the experience with you. I live in the east so the first part of the trip involved a plane ride. Let’s spend a minute and go over what to expect if it’s your first plane ride since your injury.

When making your reservation make them aware that you are a wheelchair user. Try to get a seat as close to the front of the aircraft as possible. (No, I am not talking about first class.) Keep in mind that they will usually not put you in a seat that is right next to an emergency door or hatch. Most of the airlines I have flown in a chair will not put you in the first row either. Actually I think that works out just fine because the armrests on the aisle seats in bulkhead do not lift up. The back of the seat in front of you gives you good leverage for the transfer out of your seat. Also keep in mind that a window seat is a good idea. People in a chair are first on and last off the aircraft. A window seat will ensure that other passengers will not have to climb over you to get to their seats. (Editor’s note: Airline’s do allow disabled passengers in bulkhead seats if they are not in an exit row. Also, while a window seat may make things easier for your able-bodied seat mates, scooting over that far can be difficult or impossible for many disabled fliers).

At the gate make sure the person at the counter knows your situation. They will need to get a “straight back” chair in order for you to board the plane. If you haven’t flown since your injury, and use a wheelchair, again expect to be first on and last off of the aircraft. You are taken to the bottom of the jetway where you transfer into what is basically a hand truck with a seat on it. It is called a “straight back”. After you transfer, make sure your chair is tagged and taken to the cargo hold of that plane. If the legs detach make sure they are also tagged! (Ask nicely and double check that it was done.) The seat on the straight back is very thin. It has to be to get you down the aisle. Relax, it is very sturdy and has cross straps to hold you in. They will wheel you back to your seat and you will need to transfer into it. It has been my experience that the flight crew will be glad to do just about anything you need and do it with a smile. Don’t be afraid to ask! It is your job to make them aware of any special needs. A good example of asking would be that if you’re not comfortable making the transfer to the seat ask for a few pillows just in case you land a little hard during the transfer.

I have not been on a flight since the heightened security at the airports. If you use a chair you already have the patience needed to accept the delays.

If you had a good experience, remember thank the flight crew and anyone else that helped. A smile and a thank you go a long way and will make them more receptive for the next “gimp on the go” .

Ok you have landed in San Francisco and now what? Without getting into detail the airport there is like any other in a major city. You will have no trouble getting around the airport.

My daughter booked us in the Hilton downtown. The Mission District to be exact. I really cannot recommend this hotel if you’re headed to San Francisco. The hotel was ADA compliant but I think they could have done a better job making it wheelchair friendly. This is not a complaint just my observation. It’s been my experience this is usually because the people making the renovations are not in chairs. Let me give you an example. The handicapped room was two full hallways from the elevator. Normally that’s not a problem but being a better hotel the carpet was exceptionally plush, which is tough on the arms when your plowing a wheelchair through it. The room being a good distance from the elevator or the door that has the ramp is a very common shortfall in handicapped accessible hotel rooms. (Are you listening Innkeepers?)

Ok, let’s recap the day, two hours packing, one hour getting to the airport, a four hour plane ride. About an hour to get the rental car and get checked into the hotel. Another hour to get unpacked. Time for a beer. To be honest the hotel bar was a little stuffy for my taste. There was a very friendly bar tender at a little corner bar a few blocks from the hotel. I forget the bartender’s name but will always remember her smile. As luck would have it, I traveled three thousand miles to have a beer and a shoot the breeze with a guy who moved to San Francisco from my hometown of Philadelphia. It’s true what they say, It’s a small world.

We did change Hotels the next day. The Hilton wasn’t really close to the attractions we wanted to see. The Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf which I can recommend worked out great. This hotel was simply at a better location for our purposes. One thing I have to mention I could not get on the toilet due to the fact that it was positioned deep in an enclosure. This is not to say it won’t work for you. I was just not comfortable making the transfer. I did use the restroom in the lobby without a problem. The room here did have a great roll in shower and they did tell us that they were changing the toilet location in the near future.

Next morning we headed down to Fisherman’s Wharf to get the ferry out to Alcatraz. Public parking is very chair friendly. The parking garage has an elevator and a walkway over the highway to the wharf. The Wharf has lots of attractions and you can spend the best part of the day just exploring it. The main pier at the wharf is wheelchair accessible. You may have to look for the elevator or ramp but trust me it’s there. There are a few elevation changes but you should have no trouble getting around. One of the best attractions at the wharf is the sea lions that have taken over the outboard docks.

The ferry ramps are very steep both going down to the dock from the pier and again up on to the ferry. The guys that work the ferry are great. They will get you on and off the boat without problems. Again, it’s your job to make sure they know your needs and where to grab the chair. Not much to say about the ferry. It is really not a ferry it is a tour boat. It’s about a 100-foot steel vessel. They aren’t real plush but real good at what they do. They are called the Blue and Gold Fleet. More information about the ferry schedules and ticket prices can be found at The ride took about ten minutes and we docked at Alcatraz.

Once on the island you are at a bottom of the island. The best description I can give you is it’s like an outdoor lobby. There are people coming and going from the city to the island. This area has a handicapped bathroom. To the best of my knowledge it is the only public rest room on the island, If you need to use it now is the time. When my daughter booked this trip she spoke to the people who run the island, The National Park Service. They have a web site devoted to Alcatraz at At that time, she was told they would have a tram to get me up to the actual jailhouse. Turns out the tram wasn’t going to go into service for another two weeks. Now I am no Olympic athlete but I get around pretty well in a wheelchair. Lucky for me I had Steven (my son in law) with me. I would have never been able to get to the jailhouse area without assistance. There are a couple switchback roadways that get you there and they are steep. I could not come down them backwards comfortably. You can get an idea by the picture below. To add insult to injury the concrete has bad cracks and is basically not wheelchair friendly at all. The Ariel photo on the home page of the web site above really shows the elevation difference. Here is the official statement about the tram on the Nation Park Service web page “The distance from the dock to the cellhouse at the top of the island is about 1/4 mile, the elevation change is 130 feet (equivalent to a thirteen story climb). Visitors unable to make the climb up Alcatraz’s steep road may take advantage of SEAT – Sustainable Easy Access Transport, an electric shuttle which runs once an hour from the dock to the cellhouse, and once an hour from the cellhouse to the dock”.

I would double check that the SEAT is up and running before you make the trip. (SEAT, what do you think they spent to come up with that name)

Once you get to the top of the island, I have to say it is worth the effort. The view is great and the jailhouse is an interesting place to see. The tour is nice and after seeing the jailhouse and island in person you will appreciate all the movies that use the rock for a backdrop.

Two important things for wheelchair users. Go back down to the ferry dock area the way you came up. There is a pathway on the far side of the jailhouse which does not go to the dock. We found this out the hard way and had to go back up the hill to get back down. Second, the area outside front of the jailhouse is not the best and safest environment for a wheelchair. There are a lot of safety issues here and all around the island for wheelchair users. I guess what I am trying to say if you have young ones or someone that does not get around well, wheelchair or not, keep a close eye on them in this area. Now don’t go writing your congressman. It’s been a few years since I was there and I am sure they are making things better all the time. Be glad you can make the trip and enjoy doing it.

I was going to put a few pictures of the jailhouse and the view here, but if I posted all the pictures you might not take the trip in person. Instead, I thought a little humor was in order. If you have a disability it helps to have a sense of humor.

I didn’t leave my heart there but I had a great time in San Francisco. We managed to see a lot of sites other than Alcatraz but that’s another story. I found it to be a very wheelchair friendly town. I would like to get back there one of these days. If you make the trip to Alcatraz and find things better these days, please take a minute to email me at or about it. I would really like to know how the tram aka SEAT is working out.

Please remember, If you had a good experience on a trip, a smile and a thank you go a long way and will make the person on the receiving end more receptive for the next “gimp on the go.”