Until two years ago, Jacque and Mitch Thornbrough traveled exclusively by car, despite Mitch’s longing to explore his English roots. It was too scary and difficult to deal with planes, trains and the uncertainties they’d face with Mitch in a wheelchair. Mitch, 57, relies on his arms for mobility and gets in and out of cars, wheels himself around and climbs steps on crutches. Jacque pushes Mitch when he needs extra muscle to get over rough surfaces, and she stores his wheelchair and bags in their van.
Still, overseas travel seemed daunting, and they avoided it. That changed when Jacque’s mom died and they had to fly from Virginia to California.
“As it turns out, it was a lot easier than either of us thought it would be,” said Jacque. “In fact, because of having service people carrying bags or guiding Mitch, it was easier on me than our normal days at home.”
That trip opened up a whole new world of travel. A year ago, they finally went to London for a week to see the sights and for Mitch to research his family tree. It was such a great trip that they planned another this spring for twice as long.
Last month, my wife and I learned firsthand what disabled travelers face as they try to make travel manageable. We’d planned our annual escape from the northern cold with another couple, friends we have traveled with extensively. Typically, we choose a Caribbean island, but this year we headed to Key West and Palm Beach, Fla. It was a lucky decision.
Before we left, our friend Marilyn, a cancer patient, suffered fractures in both her femurs due to the drugs she was taking. The day we left she was able to get around on crutches, but then the pain became excruciating. Luckily, our hotels offered wheelchairs to borrow and provided shower seats to help her. We’re not so sure we would have found these aids so easily in the Caribbean.
For all four of us, the trip presented unanticipated challenges. Disabled travelers have to adapt in multiple ways to make a trip manageable. And companions, too, must make changes to minimize problems and make the most of the planned journey.
I asked Jacque Thornbrough to talk with me about what I’d observed and weigh in with her insights and thoughts to help companions of disabled travelers. She agreed with my assessments here, and offered her ideas and tips, at the bottom of this story.
Learning From Experience
On our Florida trip, as Marilyn’s pain worsened, she was unable to walk around or get in and out of the car easily. We could not go to the beach unless we were able to secure a beach wheelchair. Such difficulties made some excursions not worth the effort. We realized we needed to change our expectations about what the vacation would be — less beach, more pool; no shopping, more relaxing.
We also quickly realized that everything we did took longer — for instance, getting to a restaurant, then making sure there was a clear path to the table, then getting settled.
It was especially critical to arrive at the airport early to have ample time to get to the gate. Airlines generally load disabled passengers first, but on a connecting flight, we missed early boarding so we had to wait and get on last. Other passengers were clearly not happy that we caused a slight delay. Lesson learned: avoid connecting flights if you can, or be sure there’s plenty of time between flights, especially at large airports like Miami or Washington Dulles.
Finding Specialty Travel Agents
John Sage, 36, owns Sage Traveling, and gets around in a wheelchair himself. His work with disabled people has led him to emphasize the importance of planning. You don’t only need an accessible hotel, he says; you also need travel skills.
Sage and his wife have traveled extensively and he talked about the challenges he’s faced —and the solutions. Once, his wheelchair couldn’t fit into a tiny elevator, so staff provided a small chair for him and carried his wheelchair up the stairs. Another time, his travel companions carried him in his chair up many stairs so he could get the same view of the Acropolis as other tourists.
The Thornbroughs worked with Sage Traveling before their England trip. “They gave us confidence in our ability to manage everything,” Mitch said. “They know what we’ll face because they’ve checked out all the details, the hotels, the bathrooms, the routes, everything.”
“It’s worth every penny to not have to worry about those things,” Jacque said.
Eight Tips on Traveling with a Disabled Companion
1. Plan ahead, and plan some more. Whether it’s making sure you have the right hotel room or knowing if the public transportation system is accessible, planning — and having a backup plan — will let you see what you want and give you confidence to handle the unexpected.
2. Set realistic expectations. Anyone visiting a new place has to decide what to do and see; you can never do it all. Disabled travelers may need more time, so be realistic about what you can take in.
3. Consider traveling with a small group. Four is a good number; you can break apart to explore individually or in pairs, plus more hands means more help supporting a disabled companion.
4. It’s OK to take time for yourself. If you want to visit an inaccessible site, do it. Your traveling partner will want you to do things for yourself. And understand that your disabled companion likely also wants time alone.
5. Assistive devices are generally available, but carry spare parts and accessories. Once, the casters on Mitch’s wheelchair broke off. He now travels with extra parts and tools for emergency repair.
6. Get in shape. Being as physically fit as you can be — both the disabled traveler and companion — will make the trip easier.
7. The companion will likely have added responsibilities. You can’t anticipate every barrier or obstacle, so whether it’s finding the ramp, speaking with someone about a barrier,or even just clearing the path as you walk down the street, the companion will often have to take the lead.
8. Learn some key words in foreign languages. Know how to say “wheelchair” or “Is the bathroom in this restaurant accessible?”
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