May 4, 2010, 11:00 pm Q&A with Matt Getze, Wheelchair Adventurer

By MATT GROSS Matt Getze At a food market in Chiang Mai.
On paper, Matt Getze looks like any other budget traveler. In the past six years or so, he’s gone to Madrid and Prague, to Bangkok and Shanghai. He’s stayed in $10 hostels, eaten street food and haggled over trinkets in Thailand, ridden buses in Malaysia, gone scuba diving in the Philippines and marveled at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Pretty standard stuff, except that this 36-year-old travels not just in planes, trains and buses, but also in a wheelchair. Stricken with polio as a child born in South Korea, he mostly lost the use of his legs, but never let that disability hinder his sense of adventure. Growing up in Southern California, he was a swimmer and a skateboarder, and as an adult he’s translated that independent spirit into a life of travel.
In 2007, he created, a budget guide for disabled travelers with the motto: “Oil. Tighten. Pack. Roll.” Last week I called him up at his home in Los Angeles — “so accessible it’s almost boring,” he said — where he’s studying for a master’s degree in educational technology at California State University, Northridge, and planning his next big adventure.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge for disabled people who want to travel on a budget?
A. First, there’s getting over the hump of thinking that it’s going to be a huge hassle, that you can’t do it. When I decided to go to Thailand and Cambodia, that was my first trip alone. I mean, I was worried. “Am I going to be mugged? Am I going to be able to get around?” But I think it’s more of a fear of people just leaving their door, and whatever reason or excuses they make — it’s going to be a hassle or too much money — but it’s a fear of putting yourself out there. Anyone who’s entertaining the fact of traveling has got to have some money. But I never have the money until I have the money!

Q. When you fly, do you check your wheelchair along with your bags?
A. If I check it in, it gets processed and just gets banged around. I’ve had a couple of times when it just didn’t show up. So I make sure that I’m able to take it to the door of the plane, and then I’ll fold up my wheelchair and throw a bungee cord around it so it doesn’t expand. And then they take it down to the cargo hold.

Q. Do the airlines charge wheelchair users extra for any services?
A. Hell no, they better not! There’s no hard-and-fast rule. I’m assuming if the Americans With Disabilities Act doesn’t prohibit that — and the A.D.A. has very vague language —then yes, the airlines probably can charge. But if they do, they’ll probably get lawsuits.

Q. Do you have a special wheelchair for traveling?
A. The travel chair is my old chair. That thing is almost falling apart, so I’ll get a new chair soon and use my current chair as the travel chair. I use a Quickie 2HP. I don’t have a wheelie guard, I don’t have brakes on it or anything like that, for weight purposes. It’s the lightest folding wheelchair that I can think of. But I’m going to a TiLite wheelchair. Those start around 12 pounds versus mine altogether is about 25 pounds. You can take the back wheels apart, and it’s an L shape, and probably can actually fit on a plane in the overhead compartment. It’s probably $4,500 .Hopefully my insurance O.K.’s it!