When you ‘re a foodie on wheels

I am an unashamed foodie. This is a common trait I share with fellow Malaysians – our taste buds are honed from the multi-cultural, eclectic environment we were exposed to from birth. We can be eating Malay nasi lemak for breakfast, Indian roti canai  for lunch and Chinese char kuey tieu for dinner. We do not think twice about it, we eat out all the time. And on top of that I spend more than ten years of my life in France and in the USA. So yes, I know about good food.

Being an immigrant in the UK, I search for good ethnic food. England is full of immigrants who brought their cuisine with them, and there are clusters of places such as in the different Chinatowns and in Birmingham’s Balti Triangle. There are Malaysian, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, African, Japanese, Persian, Turkish etc restaurants.

There is so much choice – Open Table sends me email offers all the time, I can look up Trip Advisor for specific restaurants on reviews and in London there is also Time Out. But I still need to do so much research on my own. Why? Because I am a wheelchair user and not many guides advise you on accessibility. I travel and very often I eat out on my own. Some restaurants have ramps but there is no way you can know that until someone goes in and enquire. I often have to telephone individual restaurants ahead to ask about their accessibility. Some of those who take the calls do not understand me and it can be amusing at times.

‘What do you mean, accessible’? Don’t worry we can help you in, we have strong men here to carry you’ or ‘ But our toilet is upstairs and the lift is out of order’, ‘Yes, we are accessible, we have only one step’. My favourite response –  ‘You have an electric wheelchair? Can you come in a normal wheelchair?’

As a disabled woman, some preliminary enquiries are better than landing myself in a compromising position by staff who insist on helping. It can be awkward as well in a small crowded space, customers can be pushing by you and the whole meal can become an unpleasant experience. And if you have to rely on staff to bring out a ramp, you cannot just leave of your own accord. I have yet to find a good Vietnamese restaurant that I can get in. There is one that I have frequented in Islington, but I need to sit outside, not a wise choice when summer is over. The waiter said his boss is busy with sorting out a new menu. Well that might be so, but he has lost my custom and that of my companions.

And of course there are times I eat with friends – some of them may even be other wheelchair users. In London Chinatown, I know only the Wong Kei (the staff no longer deserving of the reputation of being ‘rude’ anymore) which can cater for more than one wheelchair user comfortably. Having level access does not necessarily mean they can cater for more than one wheelchair user. Organising a party can be a nightmare job. Yes, there are other eateries which are accessible but it’s not just the access, the food has to be good and the prices, reasonable.

outside a chinese restaurant, Wong Kei, many passer bys.
Wong Kei Restaurant, Chinatown


Access in New York city

super shuttle

My flight over from Heathrow to John F Kennedy Airport with Virgin Atlantic was smooth until we reached JFK airport. The engineer at Heathrow airport had, for some reason, detached the batteries and the chair would not charge up. None of the engineers at JFK knew how to get into it to reattach the batteries. I had to find the manual online to show them and after an hour they finally figured out how to get into it to attach the chair.


But the super shuttle turned out fine and got me to the Hampton Inn hotel in good time.

photo of 2 double beds
Hampton Inn UN
Hampton Inn bathroom
Hampton Inn bathroom/shower

I was invited to share a room at Hampton Inn UN which is within a spitting distance of the UN. This hotel has an electric door and has total level access. It had an accessible room with 2 beds and wet room. They lowered the bed for my room mate. The service is excellent with breakfast included and hot drinks on offer all day. It included a business centre and free printing. There were free cookies everyday at reception. I really appreciated the generous number of power sockets next to the bed. This is very helpful when there were wheelchairs and mobile devices which needed charging.

I ve also shared another hotel Pod 39 a few blocks away. Access for wheelchair is through a ramp from the cafe. While the staff is very friendly and amicable, it does mean having to wait for their attention and standing outside to catch their attention. However, breakfast is not included, there is no access to hot drinks except at the bar. There was no shower stool when I arrived and upon requests they offered a small round stool. There was no grab bar, the water ran very hot and cold without warning, and nothing to to put soap, towels etc within reach. Upon more requests they found me a shower chair.

Hotel ramp
Hotel ramp
Pod hotel shower
Pod Hotel shower
Double bed at Pod 39
Double bed at Pod 39

Although I did not manage to use the public transport (due to the lack of time) there I was told that buses were all accessible and some of the subways – such as at the Grand Central. (I asked the concierge at the hotel for help).
I did use the accessible taxis which were great. And there is an app to help you order them but it was easy enough to hail them from the intersections.

Accessible taxi
Accessible yellow cab
accessible yellow cab with ramp
accessible yellow cab with ramp