A 360 Experience: Traveling as a Power Wheelchair User in Palo Alto

How long does it take for a wheelchair user to grab a cup of coffee?

For Tilly Griffiths, a power wheelchair user with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), it can take one to two hours to travel 1.6 miles from her dormitory to a coffee shop downtown. When an accessible vehicle is available, the same trip takes about eight minutes.

“One of my favorite things to do is to grab coffee with friends,” Griffiths said.

Neither Griffiths nor her friends own an accessible vehicle, so she relies on public transportation and walking to get to a coffee shop or anywhere else in town.

Unlike metropolises like San Francisco, accessible ride-share is not a reliable option when Griffiths is in Palo Alto. There are simply not enough accessible vehicles and drivers in the area.

Having spent five years living in Palo Alto, Griffiths has learned to navigate these challenges. She completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford and returned for a master’s degree in Journalism after working in Los Angeles for one year.

For Griffiths, grabbing a cup of coffee, an enjoyable and relaxing activity, requires careful planning. She has to follow the Marguerite Shuttle’s schedule.

“I have to think about taking the bus, which can take anywhere from 10 to 20, 30, 40 minutes. I have to factor in whether they’re gonna be running on time, whether I just missed one, and then I gotta wait for the next one.”

Most of the planning revolves around waiting.

Instead of leisurely drinking coffee and chatting with friends, Griffiths has to make sure she catches the last bus.

“It’s a little bit too far to walk, so I definitely don’t want to get stranded if I miss that last bus on a cold night and I’m not able to get home.”

Her power wheelchair weighs around 300 pounds, and if a battery malfunction occurs, it requires individuals with great strength to push her back home.
Near Stanford’s campus is an accessible hiking trail, the Dish. Griffiths sometimes hikes the trail with friends and family. On one occasion, her power wheelchair’s battery malfunctioned, so her friend had to push her for one hour around the circular trail and then another hour back to her dormitory.

In addition to battery life issues, there are no repair services with proper insurance to work on Griffiths’ British-made chair. She had to wait until traveling back home to the United Kingdom to get her chair fixed.

While traveling and maintaining the power wheelchair are hassles, Griffiths also has to consider payment and the types of cups and straws the coffee shop offers.

“I’m not able to lift anything that’s particularly heavy, and I’m also not able to drink without a straw,” Griffiths said.

In her cup holder, Griffiths usually keeps her student ID, credit card and key. When the counter is difficult to reach, she has to trust someone to take her credit card from her cup holder and decide how much to tip.

As for the straw, Griffiths bites the tip to fit it into the small hole on the top of the cup. Living as independently as possible is crucial to her. You can immerse yourself in Griffiths’ ‘coffee run’ in the video.

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  • Ronny Hu

    Ronny was born in Palos Verdes, California, and raised in Taipei and Hong Kong. She holds bachelor's degrees in Journalism and Law, History & Culture from the University of Southern California. At USC, she was a researcher at the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and a founding editor at elevASIAN, where journalists redefine what being "Asian American" means. Before coming to Stanford, Ronny worked as an associate editor and assistant producer at Maria Shriver's Sunday Paper. At Stanford, she focuses on delivering human interest stories in the worlds of technology, finance and sports in innovative ways. In her free time, she enjoys reading personal development and international politics books, food blogging, golfing and learning Greek.

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