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7 Tips for Travelers With Disabilities

You can do more than you may think – but planning is essential

Jackie Witt always feels a little anxious before she travels. The 31-year-old can barely climb steps, finds walking long distances difficult, and can’t lift more than five pounds.

Witt, who has visited France and Ireland, has central core disease, which causes muscle weakness. “Because of my disability, I want to know everything I’m going to be faced with while traveling, which obviously isn’t possible,” she said.

One of her most difficult travel days was waiting for a ferry in Ireland during low tide. The only way to reach the boat was a perilous descent across moss-laden stone steps without a railing. A fellow passenger and Witt’s mother stood on either side of her as she navigated the slippery path. On the last step, a crew member picked Witt up and deposited her onto the deck.

“Even if we don’t necessarily see places the same way someone without a disability does, it’s so worth getting out there,” she said.

Three out of every 10 Americans with a disability traveled outside the continental United States within the last five years, according to a 2015 national survey by the Open Doors Organization (ODO). Experts predict the demand for accessible travel will only increase as the boomer generation ages.

The world is a big place and many destinations are making huge strides to become barrier-free.

While there are bound to be some snags you can’t anticipate if you’re disabled, it is possible to minimize them with careful planning.

Here are seven tips for making the most of your next adventure:

1. Choose the Right Destination

“People might be surprised to learn you can take an accessible trip to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon rainforest,” said Timothy Holtz, the group travel coordinator for Flying Wheels Travel, an agency specializing in accessible trips. On his recent travels, Holtz saw the addition of ramps at temples in Japan, a wheelchair stair climber lift at the Acropolis in Athens and an elevator at the Roman Forum.

The world is a big place and many destinations are making huge strides to become barrier-free. Just last year, Germany launched a nationwide accessibility standard and certification program.  The country is heavily promoting nearly 185 accessible things to do and places to visit in its online brochure, “Enjoy with Ease.”

Cities that are hundreds of years old will naturally be more difficult to navigate. But don’t make the mistake of assuming a destination is inaccessible. Instead, consult with a travel agent, especially when considering a multi-country trip or cruise.

2. Do Your Research

Individuals who opt to orchestrate their own trips will need to ask specific questions. For example, inquire about the width of hotel elevator doors; some are not wide enough for a wheelchair. When booking a cruise, review the cruise line’s policies regarding accessibility; some require passengers with disabilities to travel with a companion.

Begin researching destinations by visiting official tourism offices online. Be aware the terminology varies from one place to another. When conducting Internet searches, try a variety of terms, such as “handicapped,” “barrier-free,” “disabled,” “reduced mobility” and “special needs.”

3. Hire a Pro

Planning a trip abroad is a time-consuming task. Specialized travel agencies can book flights, cruises, accommodations, tours, shore excursions and transportation. Some will even arrange for a travel companion, rental of medical equipment and the purchase of travel insurance.

Before hiring an accessible travel agent, ask about his or her experience.

John Sage, the founder of two accessible travel companies — one focused on Europe (Sage Traveling) and one on the Caribbean (Accessible Caribbean Vacations) — spends days scouting destinations. Sage, who was injured in a snow skiing accident and uses a wheelchair, has visited 42 countries on four continents. Common obstacles he finds in foreign countries include a lack of ramps at curbs, steps at the entrance to buildings and narrow bathroom doors.

His thorough first-hand exploration informs clients on details like how many feet it is from their hotel to the nearest bus stop, routes that avoid cobblestones, and how to access the elevator at the Eiffel Tower.

4. Prepare for Air Travel

One of the biggest hurdles for people with mobility disabilities is flying. Maneuvering large airports, carrying medical equipment and navigating security can be exhausting. Passengers needing extra assistance should inform the airline when booking a reservation and upon arrival at the airport.

Most airlines board wheelchair users first, but these passengers will exit the plane last. Allow plenty of extra time to catch connecting flights —90 minutes is usually sufficient. Wheelchairs and scooters are frequently damaged by baggage handlers; to prevent this, carry any detachable parts, such as a seat cushion, onto the plane.

5. Book Hotels Wisely

Make room reservations early at hotels located in the city center and near major sights.

“You are competing with the rest of the people who have disabilities from around the world for a handful of rooms. The longer you wait, the worse the location and you’ll have to take a bus or taxi to see the attractions,” said Sage, whose Sage Traveling business typically reserves European hotels nine months in advance.

6. Plan How You’ll Get Around

Transporting mobility devices usually requires getting around in an accessible vehicle. In London, where the black cabs come with small ramps built into the floorboards, it’s fairly easy to hail an accessible taxi. Other destinations may have only a small number of accessible taxis and frequently must be booked 24 hours or even days in advance.

Typically, subways are not a good choice for wheelchair users, since elevators are nonexistent or inoperable. Many cities do have accessible city buses with ramps, though.

7. Be Flexible

Traveling has given Witt a new feeling of independence. Along the way, she’s learned it’s OK to ask others — even strangers — for assistance.

“Having a disability makes you resourceful and you learn to adapt to your physical environment,” she said. Now, she knows traveling requires pacing herself. Sometimes, she opts to stay on the tour bus and view the sights from afar.

“I’m stressed before I go, but I feel really good when I get back — I’ve seen the world,” she said.


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