Hajj in a wheelchair

April 12, 2007

Story By Mohammed Yousuf

I was blessed to go to hajj in 2006 along with my wife and few caring friends and families. As a person with a disability it meant a lot more to undertake this journey of a lifetime and visit the house of Allah. I would like to share some of our experiences in hopes that this will help people with disabilities that are planning to go to hajj. No matter what your special needs are, with a firm belief in Allah and a little bit of patience and planning, Insha`Allah you should be able to do just fine. After making the niyyah, the first thing to do will be to pick a good hajj package that guarantees accommodation close to the Jamarat; this is critical.

Instead of picking a low cost extended-stay package it is better to go for a high-end short package. We went on an express package and thought that it worked out just fine as it allowed us to complete Hajj without getting too fatigued and tired. Dedicated transportation to and from Mina to Arafat, Muzdalifa and Harem e Shareef will be an added advantage and this usually comes with high end packages. Since the buses are “dedicated,” in other words as they are assigned to the group, it makes it easier to store a wheelchair and use it when required.

It would be nice to have hotel accommodations close to Harem e Shareef and Masjid e Nabawi. What is considered a “close distance” to many may in fact be a long distance for people with special needs. Some hotel folks such as the Marriott in Madinah (it is not close to the Haram) would make you believe that their shuttle will drop/pick you around the clock, but we found out that their shuttle service (van) was not accessible and getting in and out was a huge challenge. We tried taking a taxi but that did not work as it was difficult to get a taxi during early hours, say 3:00 AM in the morning. We were later moved to a hotel close to the Haram after we had lost crucial time and a few prayer opportunities.

What surprised me was that the travel agent did not assess my accessibility needs even though I had met him couple of times to discuss hajj and special needs. Frankly, they have so many other issues to look at during hajj that they get overwhelmed. They will do what makes business sense for the greater good of some hundreds of people versus taking care of a few individuals with special needs. However, in case of an emergency or an event, the people with special needs are the ones left behind and become vulnerable. With a little bit of planning on their part, life could be so much better for people with special needs during hajj.

What I’m trying to say is that you have to be pro active and be your own advocate. Just talk to them to find out where you will be staying. It will keep you out of unnecessary hardships and loss of quality prayer times. Going with family and friends that you know can make a huge difference, also. They can actually provide more help than the travel agent or more than any one could imagine, you will appreciate it even more when you’re there. Alhamdulillah, we were blessed to have caring family and friends with us who were there to help whether or not we asked, may Allah give them reward for all their assistance.

If you have any mobility impairment, take a lightweight long-wheel wheelchair with you. Don’t rely on those suggestions that wheelchairs are available at the hotels and in Harem-e-Shareef. During Hajj it is so difficult to find a wheelchair. The only wheelchairs that are readily available are through the paid services where people push wheelchairs for a price. Unless you are forced to and don’t have any other alternative, do not go for this service. It is a huge scam, they charge you anywhere from 350-700 riyals during hajj for pushing the wheelchair for Tawaf and Sayee.

At times, an adult will settle a price and take you to the third level for tawaf, the wheelchairs are then handed over to small children to push the rounds. You will also be asked that if you are caught by Haram police to tell them that the wheelchair belongs to you and that they are just assisting you. You feel pitiful sitting in the wheelchair and letting a small kid work your wheelchair. They will ask you for your cell phone; don’t give your cell phone number if you carry one. They will call you several times to make sure that the Haram police have not caught the wheelchair pusher; it just ruins your tawaf and your prayers. Wheelchair pushers also keep incorrect count of the number of circles around Ka’aba or trips in sayee, so be careful and keep your own count.

As far as I know there are only 2 elevators in the Haram, and they are located almost in the same area. The elevators are not designed for wheelchairs, so once you get into the elevator, attendants will turn it 90 degrees to make room for other wheelchairs. The wheelchair will be turned again in a hurry at the destination, sometimes hurting other people in the elevator. During peak times such as hajj, the wait time to get into the elevator in a wheelchair could be anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour. During Tawaf-e-Vida, there was so much rush and wait that it was better to take the flight of stairs to the third level with a wheelchair. It would be a good idea to take good rugged shoes for you and your care giver to avoid getting hurt during wheelchair rides. It is better to go to the third level to perform tawaf and sayee on a wheelchair. The area to cover is little bigger than the second level. There is a dedicated wheelchair path on the second level, however it gets bogged down due to wheelchair crowding during hajj. If you try to stay outside this ring, the presence of other people and pillars makes it difficult to navigate a wheelchair.

Among the two restroom areas in the Haram, only one is handicap-accessible, this one is in the basement. The only way to get to it is by stairs or escalator, there is no elevator to this area. If possible plan your trips to the restroom in advance and eat accordingly. Drink lots of fluids and stay away from foods that can cause other issues. Restrooms are a cause of concern in Mina as well, the slippery surfaces and small area to work makes it tough for people with special needs. Again, watch your food and be careful when you walk on slippery wet floors, take someone with you when you go. If you are staying in a big tent, ask them to put you close to the entrance of the tent–it makes it easier to get in and out.

Once in Mina, get your address band; if you don’t have one, ask your travel agent. It turns out that the ID badges given to you with your picture and tent information is of no use when you get lost–the address band has all the information in Arabic and when you get lost, people can point you in the right direction. If you pick a high end package, chances are the tents will be very close to Jamarat. However, given the routes and rush, it may be difficult to perform ramee on your own; assign someone to do ramee on your behalf.

It will be a good idea to keep tools with you in carry-on baggage for any repairs or adjustments to your adaptive equipment; you should declare those during security checks, especially if it happens to be a screw driver or other sharp item. At times, they will take it from you and keep it with in-flight attendants. Don’t let them force you to put those away in check-in baggage, as you may need it. And as simple as a screw driver may sound, it will be a life saver when you need it during hajj, as nobody else will have one or be able to find one for you.

Remember to get your tools before you deplane. You can get a prescription from your doctor to get your adaptive equipment fully serviced before taking the trip. Lastly, take a good attitude and a positive outlook, and know that this may be your only chance to perform hajj. Even though things could be hard and testing at times, don’t lose patience and say something that could jeopardize your hajj. After all, this is our chance to please Allah, by enduring the hardships of hajj patiently. It is said that there is indeed a reward in every hardship.