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How to Travel the World as a Special Needs Family

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Family with one member in a wheelchair

in seven mostly easy steps…

How do you plan a trip? Some people love to book a ticket and just show up. If your family is anything like mine, you know that can’t work for a grocery run, no less a vacation. Honestly, the process can feel overwhelming. And yet, I do it – over and over again: because it’s so worth it! I’ve learned a lot in the process to make it easier, especially if you’re just getting started, so I thought I’d share. If you break the planning down into manageable chunks, traveling with special needs is doable and so enjoyable.

1. Identify what’s holding you back

This may sound silly, but it’s not. I used to be leery of going out of the house at all. The whole idea of it felt overwhelming: the kids, the equipment, not knowing what we would or wouldn’t be able to actually do, not knowing how the kids would respond, etc., etc.. Instead of feeling a pile of fear, give each fear a name so you can call it as it is! Most of my fears were actually pretty tiny. The first one that needed to be handled was how to get around. My son can’t walk. When this was new, it was daunting and I wasn’t sure how to maneuver through the world.

2. Think about how to overcome those obstacles

Ok, so we have concerns with accessibility because of mobility. Now what? What is it that you want to do, and how can you make it happen? We wanted to hike. So, we’d need a way to get someone who couldn’t stand on his own through a trail. My first thought was some really rugged wheels. So I started to research.

3. Ask how to overcome those obstacles

News flash: you’re likely not the first person to face this problem. In fact, chances are high that someone has not only faced it, but conquered it. Humble yourself and ask. I felt goofy asking how to hike with a child with disabilities, but the world of wheelchair users was totally foreign to me. I legitimately didn’t know if hiking would be possible (of all the silly things!). Turns out, it was an easy fix. We started with an all-terrain wagon and some rail trails. As the kids got older and we took on more serious trails (I say this while the youngest is three, so not too serious), we upgraded to a serious carrier. Now there is no trail we can’t conquer, and almost nowhere we can’t go (back to those really serious trails).

Not sure who to ask? Start with google. Then try a facebook group – turns out there’s one of those for just about everything. I’m in a special needs parenting group, as well as one specific to my son’s diagnosis. Just look! Other great resources are therapists, doctors, and social workers – these people know things!

Did you know TSA can give you a free escort through security and right up to your gate? You can also call ahead with any questions or concerns on anything you’ll need to get through (TSA at 855-787-2227). Check out more flight tips here.

4. Identify where you want to go

This is the easy part. Pull out your bucket list. Very rarely will you discover that a place you’ve dreamed of is off-limits. Start with the destination. What you do once you’re there will be dealt with next.

Did you know you can get a disability pass for free admission into all U.S. National Parks? There are also loads of museums, galleries, and other attractions that will give you $0-$3 admission.

5. Think about what the obstacles are here

After I do the typical research of “best of _______ with kids” and other searches through Instagram or Pinterest or google, and I have my list of what we want to see, I identify where the issues lie. Will there be steps? Will there be sand? Will it be crowded? Will there be bathrooms? Will it be loud?

Identify your obstacles for each stop of your trip. You can’t just show up at a world renown museum and assume that they’ll be inclusive. I’m sure you know how poorly that could end.

Wings for Autism, and select airlines offer mock flights to help you prepare for a smooth airport experience. Check out more flight tips here.

6. Ask what services are available

The obstacles will be different for each of us. It may be sensory issues – so you’ll want to see if each destination or attraction has a sensory getaway, or headsets, or small crowd evening hours, or whatever it is that you know works best for your family. For us, it’s wheelchair accessibility. For both of these, you can start by searching the website of each destination or attraction. Many places will include these things in the “Plan Your Visit” tab. An alarming number of places will not.

This next part is annoying, but it’s not hard. Call. If the website doesn’t detail all you want to know, call and ask. Ask to speak to someone who knows about accessibility or inclusion (never say “inclusive” – vacation people think you want them to throw in freebies like a resort). Find out if they have what you need to overcome your obstacles. Ask specific questions. For examples, “Do you have an elevator to this exhibit?” not, “Is it wheelchair accessible?” People don’t know what “wheelchair accessible” means, and it scares them. I’ve had this conversation:

Me: What parts of your shop and cafe are handicap accessible?
Clerk: We're handicap accessible.
Me: Great!  Is there an elevator to the upstairs?
Clerk: No.  We don't have an elevator.  I guess that part wouldn't be accessible.  Just the downstairs.
Me: Ok. But we can do the first floor?  And there are no steps or anything to get into the cafe from the shop?
Clerk:  No steps from the shop. Oh. Wait.  But there are steps to get into the building.  And there's only one entrance.  Is that a problem?  I guess so.  Hmmm...  I guess we're not handicap accessible.  I'm really sorry.

Once you arrive, always check in with the visitor center. They always know more than whomever answered the phone. This is especially true if it’s a whole city, town, or national park that you’re getting information on. The person at that desk knows more than whatever you were able to find online and over the phone.

Just remember: ask for whatever it is you need. Even if you think it’s something they don’t offer or can’t accommodate: ask. It can’t hurt, and you’ll never know if you don’t try. If you’re looking for exceptionally accessible places to go, check out these places that are more accessible than ever before!

7. Be flexible

You’ve done your research. You’ve put the time in to create a way where there seemed no way. Most of your bucket-list items will be absolutely brilliant and SO worth it.

Some of them… not so much. You may arrive at Antelope Canyon only to learn that they’re too crowded that day to allow wheelchairs in the canyon. Or you may show up to a four story children’s museum to find the elevator broke that morning. Things happen. Keep in mind that you are traveling with your family because you value the time together and the things they gain from the experiences. Trust me, they’ll gain just as much from your response as they will from the museum. Take a deep breath and ENJOY all the amazing things you can do as a family (which will be most things, but not all). If you’re looking for more special needs resources to make your trip a breeze, check these out!

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