Insights From Disabled Travelers

Traveling can be thrilling and anxiety-inducing at the same time. From securing your lodging to checking everything off your packing list, conquering a trip can sometimes seem like a triumph. Traveling as a disabled person or with a disabled loved one also requires some additional planning— remembering every necessity, navigating the best routes in each location, and even anticipating challenges from staff at various venues. 

Knowing the nuances of traveling with disabilities,Google Maps has implemented the “Accessible Places” feature to help travelers educate themselves before they explore new places. This feature allows users to find and contribute accessibility in 15 million locations and is available in Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

Travelers who are journeying long distances should plan for the impact of time differences, impact on meal schedules, proximity to restrooms, and the general unexpected. Working with a specialized travel agent can help anticipate the best tourist sites and assist with accessible lodging accommodations. However, some simple tips can help alleviate stress along the way. Wearing medical alert jewelry may be a simple sense of security for someone who is traveling. Another step may be to note where the local hospitals, urgent care and pharmacy options are.  

We asked members of the Diversability Leadership Collective (DLC) about their travel tips and tricks, and they shared their best hacks for air travel, traveling by train, road trips, and packing for any trip.

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Packing and Preparation

Dubai sky scrapers and Burj KhalifaWhen preparing for a trip, travelers know to pack their essential toiletries, undergarments, and weather appropriate clothes. For a disabled traveler, the checklist goes beyond the typical sunscreen and phone chargers. Travelers can pack a travel size care kit that includes extra medications, a heating pad or ice pack, a reusable (and even collapsable) water bottle, snacks, a medical note for any special equipment, medications or devices, and more. In some cases, like with dialysis, medical supply companies and insurance will work with travelers to deliver medicine to the travelers’ final destination. For Nico Meyering, a recent appointee to the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities, using TSA PreCheck® saves time and frustration when checking his ventilator. “I encourage folx who carry medical devices onto planes to have documentation of their medical condition and need for such devices.”

Note that when traveling with medications, travelers do not have to disclose medical conditions or disability status to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) but should comply with the regulations for quantities and packaging of pharmaceuticals. TSA also has ongoing updates about the travel restrictions and permissions for traveling with medical cannabis – having proper documentation is key. 

In addition to traveling with medication and medical supplies, travelers should plan for their service dogs and support animals. Because service dogs are recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), there is more freedom and accessibility for traveling with service dogs rather than support animals. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, “animal species other than dogs, emotional support animals, comfort animals, companionship animals, and service animals in training are not service animals.” Transportation departments can ask for an animal’s documentation to prove they are a service animal but not proof that you are disabled. Support animals may be treated as pets and asked to be placed in a crate or travel separately from their human companion. Be sure to check ahead of time to confirm accomodations for your service animal throughout your travel. 

As some travelers make accommodations for their furry friend, others plan for comfort. For others this may mean wearing comfortable clothes or shoes, like Dr. Comfort shoes (specialized for people with diabetes).

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Air and Train Travel

plane wing over looking fieldsFor Nicole Luongo, the creator of Go Green for CP (Cerebral Palsy), planning ahead means calling the venue and booking accomodations. “My tip is don’t hesitate to use a wheelchair (and set that up ahead of time so you’ll have it) if/when you need one!” Reserving wheelchair assistance or cart transport when traveling can be extremely helpful. Not only does this help travelers move through large arenas more quickly but can also be a safe alternative to navigating large crowds. For those with disabilities who don’t need wheelchair assistance who prefer not to use these services at an airport, Catarina Rivera, a DEI consultant living with Usher Syndrome, recommends traveling with a rolling suitcase to maximize stability. “I’m hard of hearing and have very limited vision. [My must have travel accessory is a] rolling suitcase since one hand of mine will always be occupied with the white cane. I need to stay safe as I navigate unfamiliar environments.” 

Though we touched on the option to reserve a wheelchair or cart at the airport (or train station), some disabled travelers may need to travel with their own mobility devices. TSA has specific screening requirements for wheelchair users and other mobility aids– be sure to review these prior to traveling. “TSA officers may swab your hands, mobility aids, equipment, and other external medical devices to test for explosives using explosives trace detection technology.” During flights, mobility aids can be gate checked or stored with the flight crew for safety–though this can be anxiety-provoking for many disabled travelers. For rail travel, Amtrak explains that “accessible spaces for a wheeled mobility device and/or transfer accessible seats are limited” so travelers should reserve their space ahead of time.

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When asked to share her best travel advice, Rivera shared the different accommodations she requires for rail and air travel. 

“For train travel, I look at the route ahead of time and learn which station is right before mine. If possible, I also ask for the train employee to notify me when my stop is the next one. I follow my journey on the map. This is all because it’s hard to find the station signs and sometimes there is no digital display and I can’t understand the announcements. For air travel, if it’s an overnight flight where they will dim the lights, I prep the flight attendant to know that I might not hear them if I have my hearing aids out and I may not see them. I’ve asked them before where the nearest bathroom is and I previously have received assistance with walking to the bathroom at night when traveling alone. At the airport, I always use my white cane and that helps me have more space and bypass some of the longer lines.” 

Air and train travel come with an array of other considerations for disabled people. For those who deal with sensory sensitivities, being in large venues and navigating the stress of travel can enhance anxiety. Travelers may consider visiting airports’ quiet rooms or wearing ear plugs to block out some of the noise. Take regular breaks, practice mindful breathing, and arrive early to reduce some traveling anxiety. Some airports have sensor-friendly experiences to be more accessible and accommodating. 

“Bristol Airport recently opened its new sensory room to the public. Richard Thomasson, Head of Customer Operations at Bristol Airport, said, “An airport can be a busy and stressful environment, therefore having a safe and interactive place for children and adults, will help to reduce anxiety before boarding their flights and is an invaluable asset in reducing stress.” Our Sensory Room Design Team included a color column, infinity tunnel, a wheel projector, and flexible seating to create a fully immersive calm environment.”

Once travelers are aboard their flight or train, passengers may need on board accommodations like extra leg room for comfort, aisle seats for easy access to restrooms or regular stretch breaks, or seat belt extenders.

Road Trips & Lodging

wheat fieldRoad trips are a great way to travel domestically and can provide a lot of comfort for people with disabilities. Wheelchair user and host of Spastic Chatter Podcast, Whitney Bailey, shared that she enjoys short road trips to continue to find adventures in her area. After hearing countless horror stories about other power wheelchairs getting damaged by airlines, Whitney has chosen to keep her device safe with her at all times and has never flown on an airplane. Road travel allows for flexibility for restroom or stretch breaks, sightseeing, and quality time with loved ones. When traveling on the road, it is still imperative to plan ahead by mapping out service areas, packing necessities, and wearing comfortable clothing. A benefit of road travel is the ability to have many of your favorite comforts nearby like a comfort pillow, snacks, blanket, and music. For those who may find car seat belts uncomfortable, specialized pillow attachments are available in addition to seat belt extenders. Additional comforts that can be added to your road trip pack are wireless heating pads and quick ice packs. 

When stopping at service areas, sights, and adventure venues, consider researching accessibility before you visit. Planning for accessible lodging is key. Though hotels and motels allow for easy registration for ADA accommodations, many travelers also use other lodging like Airbnb, VRBO, B&Bs, and campgrounds. One example is AirBnb which offers specialized filters and suggestions during registration to make accessible traveling easier on their clients. When visiting these types of places, be sure to read the reviews and message with the hosts to confirm that the space has the accommodations your family requires.

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Some considerations for accessible lodging include:

  • Width of entryways 
  • Ramps and slope-ways on the premises 
  • Pools and play areas with lifts and zero-depth entry ways
  • Accessible showers with bars (not only bathtubs)
  • Accessible beaches (beach wheelchairs, roll-in rinse off stalls, access mats on the sand)
  • Rooms near to elevators
  • Spacious bathrooms to accommodate mobility aids
  • Single level or chair lift/elevator in the building
  • Braille and Large Print signs
  • Parking near entrance
  • Discounted prices for disabled guests

Ready to Hit the Road?

beach wheelchairs with ballon tiresWe recognize that these recommendations lean heavily into physical disability needs. The goal is to hold lodging and transportation agencies accountable to be mindful of disabled travelers and their needs. Many travel companies are working with disability organizations to enhance their accessibility practices and guidelines to make their guests more comfortable. After you travel (by air, train, car, or even boat), be sure to leave reviews and feedback for the companies and hosts to help them better understand the needs of your community. These comments are not meant to shame hotels or airlines but to improve their procedures and the experiences of other disabled travelers. The goal is to make traveling more attainable to the entire disabled community. 

Arielle Dance

Arielle Dance, is a Content Writer at Diversability who identifies as a black queer woman with disabilities. A PhD in Mind-Body Medicine, Arielle is published across multiple online platforms and has a children’s book, Dearest One, that focuses on mindfulness and grief.

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