Magazine of the United Spinal Association
Thursday, March 13th, 2008
Research is key to traveling with a disability. By Rob Ingraham Despite the explosive growth in travel options, traveling with a disability can still be a complicated and frustrating experience. Stephanie Acosta, corporate travel manager for United Spinal Association’s ABLE to Travel unit, specializes in booking business and leisure trips for people with disabilities and recently provided a short course in the fundamentals of traveling with a wheelchair or other assistive devices. The Right Questions While it may seem obvious, the fact that other countries are not subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act is sometimes easy to forget. Acosta explained that in most foreign countries there are few, if any, binding legal mandates for accommodating people with disabilities and many of the accessibility improvements we take for granted in the U.S. are nonexistent in other countries. Careful research is the only way to find out what overseas facilities are accessible and, as one of Acosta’s primary skills, it’s why consulting a disability professional when planning a trip can usually save you time and money. Acosta said her biggest challenge, both internationally and domestically, is usually ground transportation––finding a reasonably priced, accessible van, not only for getting to and from the airport but for sightseeing and shopping at one’s destination. Regular contact with the rental agency, hotel fleet, or private supplier is crucial, she said. “Never take their word for it,” she said. Always call a day or two before arrival and make certain that a special accessible vehicle will be available. The person who accepted the original reservation may not pass the request along to others or may forget to notify the person who will be on duty when you arrive. Vehicle reliability can also be a problem. “For some reason, accessible vehicles frequently wind up in the repair shop,” she said, and one must keep reminding those responsible of exactly what you need, and when. (For more information about renting accessible vans, see “The Ins and Outs of Accessible Van Rentals.”) The same principle applies when booking hotels. It’s important to find the right person and make certain that they not only have an accessible room reserved but that they understand what an “accessible” room actually means. Acosta said that most hotel employees are not trained in accessibility and may honestly believe rooms are accessible when they are not. “The key is asking the right questions,” she said. “I can tell right away if a hotel employee knows what he or she is talking about and if they are experienced when it comes to accessibility. If not, then you’ve got to locate someone who is.” Again, it’s risky to simply take an employee’s word for it; you must always follow up and make sure that they understand exactly what’s required. “Sometimes you have to ask for specific room and door measurements to be sure a bathroom is accessible,” Acosta said. “It’s a lot of work.” Cruising Acosta noted that one of the best vacation options for wheelchair users, and one that is rapidly becoming the venue of choice for many with disabilities, is a cruise. Most of what you’ll need is right there on the ship–– accommodations, restaurants, a swimming pool, lounges, movies and shows, stores, game rooms, etc. There’s no need to be constantly transferring into vans or taxis or trains, no hassles with airports, most ships have ramps instead of stairs to embark and disembark, and most modern cruise ships have a “Special Needs” department with staffers trained in the requirements of people with disabilities. Unfortunately, most ships have only between six and eight accessible cabins and they sell out fast, so booking well ahead of time, six months or more, is a must. For air travel, Acosta suggests booking a non-stop flight, whenever possible. Changing planes is a complex and time- consuming process for wheelchair users and, combined with the numerous unpredictable delays typical of modern air travel–– weather, congestion, mechanical problems, overbooking, etc.––people with disabilities routinely contend with many more variables than the general passenger. If your plans require changing planes, however, remember that passengers with disabilities are the fi rst to board but the last to disembark. She recommends scheduling at least an hour and a half to two hours or more between flights. And if it appears that the first leg of your trip will be delayed in arriving, be sure to speak to a flight attendant at least a half hour before landing and request that the airline have someone meet you at the gate to help ensure that you reach your connecting gate on time. If your wheelchair is stowed in cargo, it’s a good idea to have a card attached to the chair explaining how it should be taken apart and reassembled, and parts that are easily removed––such as foot rests, seat cushions, or joysticks––should be taken off and carried in a separate, collapsible duffle bag. The airline will not count these pieces toward the allotted number of carryon items. Fragile parts that cannot be taken off should be protected in bubble wrap. Air Carrier Access Remember, too, that the airlines are required to accept groups, but the federal Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) says that you must give the carrier 48 hours advance notice if you are traveling with a group of 10 or more. The group leader should also inform the airline of the type and number of mobility devices that will be used and if the group is competing in a sports event requiring additional equipment such as handcycles, sled hockey gear, or specially-equipped wheelchairs. Depending on the amount of extra equipment, the airline may elect to divide the gear and send it on separate flights. Be sure to inquire about group boarding procedures, too. Specifically, find out if the plane will be boarded via a traditional “jetway’––the telescoping corridor connecting the waiting area at the gate to the door of the plane––or if the group will be boarded via a lift from the tarmac outside the plane. Obviously, most prefer a jetway, but ACAA rules permit a lift. Make sure your group is prepared for using a lift, i.e., weather might not be favorable. The ACAA also stipulates that a carrier cannot refuse transportation of a qualified, ticketed passenger because of a disability. Further, passengers with disabilities cannot be required to sign waivers of liability for damage or loss of their wheelchairs or other assistive devices and compensation for lost or damaged wheelchairs or other assistive devices is based on the original purchase price of the device In terms of overall accessibility, Acosta said that Disney World in Florida and Las Vegas are among the best cities in U.S. She also noted that the island of Aruba is reliably accessible and Puerto Rico, being a commonwealth subject to United States law, is as well. In conclusion, thorough research, diligently following up on all reservations, and locating knowledgeable staffers at each facility you plan to visit, are the main elements of a successful trip for people with disabilities. For more travel tips, please visit www.abletotravel.org or call toll free 888-211-3635. Rob Ingraham is senior editor.