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Traveling with Disabilities: A Q&A

Grace Lower | Feb 16, 2021

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This blog post was updated December 13, 2019.

According to reports by the World Health Organization, more than one billion people — or 15% of the world’s population — live and travel with some form of disability.

This number is expected to rise in coming years, due to longer life expectancies and a global increase in chronic illnesses. As this issue has gained attention worldwide, accessibility has become an important topic in boardrooms and courtrooms alike.

Although there is limited data on global travel trends among people with disabilities, the Open Doors Organization estimates that Americans with disabilities collectively spend  $17.3 billion on travel annually.

The tourism and hospitality industries have taken note, with many organizations updating their practices to better accommodate guests with disabilities. While plenty of progress remains to be made, accessible travel is on the rise. 

I’ve wanted to write about accessible travel for a while, but my experience with the topic is somewhat limited. So, I decided to consult the experts. Armed with a set of questions, I explored resources ranging from Reddit communities, to YouTube channels, to blogs, government guidelines, and family friends. The resulting Q&A only scratches the surface, but my hope is that it sheds light on this often overlooked area of travel.  Man traveling with disabilities and travel insurance.

Q: What are the benefits of travel for people with disabilities?

A: Travel has the potential to shatter harmful stereotypes, improve communication, and even boost creativity. Although travelers with disabilities may encounter different kinds of obstacles than their able-bodied peers, the benefits of the adventure often outweigh the challenges. 

For many disabled travelers, a new location can come with exciting and accessible recreational activities. From wheelchair-friendly chariot rides in the English countryside, to surf clinics in Hawaii, to accessible skiing in the Rockies, there are options available for travelers of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities.  

Travel also affords opportunities for greater social engagement. Many individuals with disabilities are involved in online communities, and traveling to meet those peers in person can reduce feelings of isolation and foster valuable friendships. Children and teens with disabilities can also benefit from time away from home.

In an interview with CNN, Jani Nayar, executive coordinator of the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, noted that “it's important for children with disabilities — whether they're blind, deaf, autistic or use a wheelchair — to get out of the house and travel like any other child."

Q: What factors should be considered when choosing an accessible destination?

A: While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers many protections for U.S. citizens, most countries simply do not have the same legal requirements around accessibility. For disabled travelers, reading up on a destination’s disability legislation can offer a clue about what to expect — the U.S. Department of State has an online tool to review accommodations available in different countries.

Once a destination has been selected, many travel forums suggest using Google Maps’ Street View or looking up photos to find accessible routes and activities. 

When it comes to transportation and lodging, it helps to know your options. Each major airline has its own policies for travelers with disabilities, so it is important to contact the airline well in advance with any questions.

Ground transportation options can also vary; renting a car is  convenient, but depending on the location, public transportation can be surprisingly cheap, efficient, and accessible. Female with travel insurance boarding mini-van in wheelchair.

When selecting a hotel, contact the staff with questions about accommodations that can be made for guests with disabilities. In all of these instances, be as specific as possible. Accessibility can have a number of definitions, so it’s best to explicitly articulate needs to avoid unmet expectations. 

Regardless of the destination, remember to consult with a doctor or other medical professional for travel advice, and for instructions on which medicines, supplies, and documents to pack. Beyond that, investing in a quality travel insurance plan will provide an important measure of protection while you’re away from home. 

Q: Are there any popular travel activities that are particularly accommodating for people with disabilities?

A: For travelers seeking a relaxing escape, wheelchair-friendly beaches and accessible cruise lines are popular options. Alternatively, theme parks like Disney World offer detailed accessibility resources to ensure a magical experience for all guests. Many museums have also been bolstering accessibility efforts by offering special exhibits and dedicated visit times for guests in need of sensory accommodations

As part of my research, I connected with Hanna H., a graduate student with disabilities. Hanna offered a variety of resources and tips, and she emphasized the importance of coming prepared, even if an attraction markets itself as “accessible.” 

Hanna has had her share of mixed experiences, even in “state-of-the-art” buildings: “Sometimes the bathrooms don’t have automatic doors, or their sinks, soap, and towel dispensers are at the wrong height. Sometimes the cafeterias won’t have [tray railings] at the right height. So, even in an ‘accessible’ building, there will probably still be a number of physical barriers. I’ve found that I can navigate most things (minus the stairs) if I have someone helping me — so, while inconvenient, the barriers don’t make the visit impossible.” 

To avoid potential snags, gather as much information as possible prior to the visit. For many visitors with disabilities, scheduling a visit during non-peak hours reduces the nuisance of navigating through crowds.

Beyond that, online reviews and forums are an excellent way to read up on first-hand experiences from other travelers with disabilities. Simply googling “[location name] accessibility” is a great way to get started.

Person on wheelchair at airport with family.

Q: What role can travel companions play to facilitate a smooth trip?

 A: As with any kind of travel, patience and positivity are key. Rob and Bridget of the wheelchair-travel blog, The Bimblers, put it this way: “ When you travel with a disability, things go wrong, they just do. Worse still, problems will be amplified because you are away from home and out of your comfort zone. When these things inevitably happen, don't let them ruin your trip. Stay positive and know there are very few things that can't be fixed, even on the road.”
While some travelers with disabilities require direct support, others prefer a greater degree of independence. When I spoke with Hanna, she mentioned that “helicoptering” travel companions can sometimes create additional stress: “If you’re stuck somewhere, having difficulty finding an accessible route, or dealing with a bad flare-up, having someone interrogate you about what they can do to help or fix the situation is actually really stressful.” 

The takeaway? Listen to your travel companions, trust them to ask for assistance when needed, and give them the space to overcome obstacles at their own pace. 

When it comes to accessible travel, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s important to remember that “accessibility” is a subjective term, and what might work for one traveler may not be possible for someone else. Fortunately, there are resources and services available to ensure that any travel experience can be both exciting and accessible. With proper research, thoughtful planning, and support from friends and allies, travelers with disabilities can take on the world.
Grace Lower

About the Author

Grace Lower has a love for all things writing and travel. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.

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