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Tips for travelers with disabilities

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I have traveled to many places around the world since I broke my neck and became paralyzed from the chest down. Since my accident, I use a wheelchair to get around, and if there is one thing I can tell you for sure, the word accessibility has different meanings just about everywhere you go. 

Hotel managers have literally told me, “Yes, we’re accessible for wheelchair users. We have rooms on the first floor, and we have an elevator.” Well, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t tell me a thing about whether or not I can even actually get into the room. So, in addition to avoiding issues with accessibility, here are some tips that I hope are helpful when planning your next trip as a person with a disability. Just remember, every person has unique circumstances even if they may have similar disabilities. This is not one-size-fits-all advice.

Do your homework

Do your homework and make sure you call ahead. If there isone thing I am faithful about, it is calling ahead, sometimes months ahead if it’s a long trip or out of the country—so I have enough time leftover to go to Plan B, if necessary. If you’re working with a travel agency, most are required by law to accommodate travelers who have some type of special need. Just keep in mind that they will likely need additional information on your circumstances. If you’re calling a hotel, I would suggest calling at least a week or two ahead and be very specific about what you need: bed height, bathtub or roll-in shower, king or queen bed versus a twin bed, etc. You may even ask for pictures of the accessible room. If the hotel wants your business, they will gladly send you pictures, and some may even take measurements of doorways and bed height for you.

Be specific and clear

Accessibility takes on different meanings from place to place, so be very specific and very clear when describing your disability and specific needs. Not everyone is familiar with the terms used with accessible travel, or the medical terms for certain conditions. Give as many details as you can about what you can and can’t do. The more information your travel agent, hotel manager, or service provider has, the better they will be able to accommodate you. If they promise you certain accommodations, make sure that you get any promise in writing.

Talk to your doctor

If you have a severe disability or just feel you should get your doctor’s advice before traveling, make sure you are very specific about the details of your trip when speaking with your doctor. Remember, your doctor can prescribe ways to cope with long flights, limited medical facilities at your destination, and what to do if you run out of prescription drugs.

Get a doctor’s note

I think it’s always a good idea to take a note from your doctor describing your condition. Include their contact information, in case of an emergency, especially for trips out of the country. The note from your doctor should also include your medications and any potential complications. If you have a special condition requiring specialized attention, make sure to carry your medical alert information in a place that a medical professional or anyone who assists you will find easily (wallet card, necklace, or close to your identification).

Pack extra medication

Always pack extra medication. I always pack my medications in my stowed luggage and a few days’ supply in my carry-on luggage, just in case my stowed lugged is lost or delayed. And don’t forget to keep the prescription for the medications with you in case you are questioned about carrying those medications!

Find a local physician

If you are traveling to a new destination, I also think it’s a good idea to check out physician availability at your destination. Your doctor, health care provider, insurance company or local embassy can provide the names and contact numbers of physicians at your destination. For more information, see Health Care Abroad.

Consider a specialized travel agent

If you want to make your travel planning much easier, consider using a specialized travel agent, such as Travel for All, based in Canada. These specialized agencies are adept at handling travel experiences for people with disabilities, and in fact, most of the agents working for these specialized travel agencies have disabilities themselves. Check the agent search feature at TravelSense to find qualified travel agents.

Fly direct

If possible, I avoid connecting flights at all costs. There are too many reasons why your connection can ruin your trip, e.g., the first flight is delayed, you need to use the restroom, you have to switch airlines for the next leg of your journey and the gate is in another terminal, etc. Remember, if you use a wheelchair, you typically board first, so if your flight is delayed and you have a connecting flight with little time between connections, you may miss your flight!

If it’s absolutely necessary to have a connecting flight, be sure to allow plenty of time between flights. I usually recommend anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours in case you need to use the restroom—which may be busy between flights—or go through customs or security, and to get from one gate to the next.

Arrange airport transportation

If you can, arrange transportation to and from the airport. If you have a wheelchair, make arrangements in advance to have accessible transportation pick you up in your destination city and get your confirmations emailed to you. There is nothing worse than getting to your destination and finding out there is no accessible transportation, or if it is available, the hours of operation are different than what you anticipated.

Be prepared to fix your equipment

Too many times I have found it necessary to make a minor repair on my wheelchair during a trip, so I always bring spare parts and tools. Any type of assistive device, such as wheelchairs, scooters, or walkers can be damaged while traveling, so put together a small bag or kit of spare parts and tools for emergency repairs. For example, I always bring a spare inner tube for my wheelchair in case of a flat tire. When flying, make sure to inspect your assistive device and take pictures of it with your phone when you check it for stowage and as soon as it is returned to you after you land. Inspect for any damage or missing parts and report anything out of line to the gate agent right away.

Know your rights

Make sure that you know your rights before going through airport security and be aware of the TSA’s rules for travelers with disabilities and medical conditions. See also the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disability Resource Center

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