Tips for Traveling Across the Ability Spectrum

Laura Lopuch

“We all exist somewhere on the ability spectrum,” says Brett Heising of brettapproved.com. “I’m just like you except I can’t walk. I still have dreams and aspirations. I just get around a little differently.”

Let’s face it, we’re all born imperfect and everyone has a struggle in their life. Your’s could be anything in your life: a disability, an amputation, a hip surgery, or something emotional or psychological that isn’t visible from the outside.

Yet many travelers are saying in spite of their limitations, “Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes! Bring on the world!”

In 2015, Open Doors Organization found that in the past two years more than 26 million adults with disabilities traveled for pleasure, or business, taking 73 million trips. That’s up from $13,6 billion in 2002.

Those 73 million trips taken by adults with disabilities totaled $17.3 billion annually. Since many of these travelers don’t travel alone, that economic impact is truly more like $34.6 billion. No matter where you fall on the ability spectrum, traveling with limitations is real.

Why Travel?

It’s an itch you must scratch. A motion you must indulge.

Without travel, you wouldn’t be fully you. Without travel, slivers of your mental sanity would evaporate. And you’d slowly feel more like a stranger and less like you.

That’s the same wherever you fall on the ability spectrum. For some of us, travel is more difficult than others.

Maybe it’s the overwhelming noise of crowded TSA lines that makes you lose control. Or navigating a strange city, watching for curbs, cracks in the sidewalk, or hills en route to your destination.

Whatever your unique challenge is, you embrace it and move past it. Dwelling in the awkwardness of the situation only gives it power.

At the end of the day, there’s a big, beautiful world out there, waiting for you to explore it.

Before Your Trip

Before any trip, preparation is key.

Wherever you fall on the ability spectrum, preparation is vastly important. Knowing what lies ahead smooths the bumps in the road. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Call ahead and confirm your hotel and flight reservations. Make sure your room is wheelchair accessible if that’s what you need.

Thinking about what could go wrong is good preparation for any trip. When you’re playing a different ballgame with rules unknown to the rest of the world, this thought-process is vital. It will help you keep your cool and work through those frightening situations when all hell breaks loose.

Traveling In A Chair

Booking an accessible room can make or break your trip. Brett Heising CEO of brettapproved.com, a travel website to help travelers with limited mobility plan ahead, recommends you book directly with the hotel and airline. Make note of who you talked to, the date and time of the conversation, and what was discussed.

For example, on May 21 at 4:03 pm, you spoke to Mary at Hilton Garden Inn who confirmed you had an accessible room on the first floor just around the corner from the lobby.

Then, if you show up to the hotel and find they don’t even have an accessible room — like what happened to Brett on a business trip — you have the detailed notes to help you resolve the situation.

Or, if you’re in a chair, bring some friends on your trip to hitch a ride on. That’s what Kevan Chandler did. This summer he traveled across Europe with friends who carried him on their backs when their destinations didn’t accommodate his chair. He saw the Parisian catacombs, lot of English countryside, and a week in Ireland with a visit to Skellig Michael.

“There were challenges every day, whether we were in the city or out in the country or staying home. Some of them we saw coming. Some caught us by surprise, but we just crossed each bridge as we came to them.”

If you’re considering a trip like this with friends, Kevan’s advice is to, “Seriously consider yourself and your team. You have to decide, first, what you want to do, and then go about deciding how you want to do it.”

“Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. And if you try something and it’s not right, don’t be afraid to say no and try something else. I don’t ask, “What can I do?’ but ‘How can I do?’ Of course, as I’ve gotten older, the finer details have been shaped, as with anyone’s perspective as they mature. The value of life has more weight. The question of ‘How’ becomes more intricate, and in many ways, the stakes get higher on adventuring,” says Kevan.

Cory Lee Woodard has muscular dystrophy and travels the world in his chair. On his blog, Curb Free with Cory Lee, he blogs about his experiences and shares what is wheelchair accessible and what isn’t at popular destinations.

“Paris is one of my favorite trips of all time. But the Metro, which works perfectly for most tourists, can be terrible for anyone in a wheelchair,” says Cory.

Give Others the Ability to Help You

Help others try to understand life from your perspective. Explain to airport baggage handlers how your chair works. If it folds up, show them how to operate it. Or, maybe it doesn’t fold up, like Brett’s chair.

“The biggest piece of advice I can give, in terms of traveling in general, is to let people know who you are. Be very polite. Let people know you’re traveling with a chair and how to handle your chair. If you just take a minute and tell people, “This is who I am, this is where I’m going, and this is how I get around.” In my experience things go more smoothly than if you’re silent”

Brett says, “People inherently want to help other people. If you give them the ability to help you. What I’ve noticed as I’ve matured, is that when I say to someone, ‘No thanks, I’ve got it,’ if you pay attention, their body language says I’ve basically rejected them. Now, if someone asks me if I need help, I say, “Absolutely.”  And when they’re done, I say, ‘Thank you for participating in my experience.'”

When they ask what he’s talking about, he explains that on some very small level, they’ve taken time out of their day to understand life from his perspective. This has lead to some spectacular conversations and deep connections.

Packing List

Traveling With Autism

Travel is a fantastic way to learn about different cultures, sample new foods, and hear new sounds. All of which can be triggers for autism.

But if you go into your trip expecting challenges, it takes that edge off. It won’t be all smooth sailing. But you knew that, right?

That’s what travel does: it softens our rough spots and helps us understand more about the world we live in.

Know what your triggers are before a trip and plan ways to mitigate them should they arise.

Shawna and her son (who has autism) fly 7-9 times a year due to their family arrangement. “Flying, with all of its loud announcements and crowded waiting areas and unusual smells, is quite frankly torture for him,” she says.

Pick your airlines wisely, as Shawna found out when she flew Jet Blue. Unlike other airlines where she had to educate the airline employees about high functioning autism and sensory issues, Jet Blue included a “silent boarding” note in their reservation and respected her son’s autism.

Book your flight directly with the airlines and call ahead to confirm your ticket, if you can. Also, mention your disability if you need any assistance boarding the flight or getting to your gate.

Packing List

For a more detailed packing list, check out Autistic Globetrotting.

Traveling With Alzheimer’s & Dementia

If you can, avoid traveling alone with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Both diseases affect the memory section of the brain. Changing routines and being out of familiar environments — like when traveling — can be very stressful and confusing.

Gayle Smith, a registered nurse who provides full time care for her father who suffers with dementia, as a result of a brain injury, contributed this section:

Depending on the needed level of care and your travel destination, your planning skills can make or break your entire trip.

Flights & Transportation

Arrange for wheelchair service for departing and arriving flights this is easily done through every airline and is a lifesaver. Keep $20 in singles in your pocket to tip your chariot driver.

Never, ever, for any reason check your dementia patient’s luggage. If it’s lost in transit, their health is at stake. Pack a bag that will easily tuck under the wheelchair or can be held in their lap.

Keep them hydrated on long flights and plan to toilet them every hour and as needed. Bring snacks, even if they’re not hungry, it could reduce stress and distract or redirect your loved one. Not all airports have “family” restrooms, I’ve led my father in to many women’s restrooms while traveling.

Hotels


When checking in to your hotel notify the staff that your loved one has dementia.
If they see him, or her, wandering, they can act immediately.

Don’t be afraid to “rearrange” the hotel furniture. We’ve stacked the table and all chairs in front of doors to keep my father inside and safe. He’s also escaped, despite our efforts, and it resulted in a 911 call, helicopters and a large portion of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department deployed on foot to comb a resort in Orlando.

Sightseeing

Keep in mind, that a dementia patient may become disoriented, uncooperative and more confused in a different environment. If you plan to take sightseeing trips, you may want to check on the availability of respite care. Within the US, we’ve used Care.com, outside the US a concierge service may be able to acquire the necessary care for your loved one.

If you do bring your loved one on the sightseeing trips, bring an extra set of clothes, adult diapers, and days worth of medication. Keep in mind, that as much as you think the patient will enjoy the outing, it may prove to be too stressful and you may need to change your plans, or have a respite care option.

Packing

Have a photocopy of a photo ID, all pertinent health information, list of medications, and travel insurance documents, if you’ve purchased it. Also, have a photocopy of the caregiver’s power of attorney, in the event of an emergency.

Dementia patients should always have a medic alert bracelet, with contact information, since wandering is likely.

With careful planning and preparation, you can minimize stress and risks of confusion on your journey.

Traveling as an Amputee

LuAnn Kleemeyer has traveled all over Europe, the Dominican Republic, on cruises that went to Bahamas, Mexico, and Alaska.

Her #1 advice? Have patience.

“Your best laid plans will have a better rate of success if you decide which battles you choose to deal with and which ones you chose to let roll down your back. And purchase travel insurance! We as amputees never know what our bodies may throw at us and we need to be covered if our trip may not occur or be cut short,” LuAnn says.

Before your trip, call the airlines you’re traveling on. If you need any type of help, let them know. Or, if you’re traveling with your own wheelchair, let them know that.

Request a seat at the bulkhead (or front of a plane’s section). This seat has more space to get in and out. Typically, they’re reserved for passengers with disabilities. The next best seat is an aisle seat close to the front of the plane.

On Day of Travel

On the day of your travel, wear loose clothing so you can show your limb if needed. When going through security, you don’t need to take off your prosthetic device or your shoes.

Keep in mind the airport employees are just doing their jobs. “Kill them with kindness” is LuAnn’s motto.

“Traveling with crutches, or other medical devices, will not count as a carry on. I have travel crutches that I carry with me and don’t let out of my sight. They are on the plane with me,” she says.

“I love to travel,” she says, “And plan on continuing as long as I can. Just take your time, enjoy the thought that you are heading out on a holiday, laugh and have fun!”

Packing List

Resources

Some of us love hashing out details for planning a trip (guilty as charged).

For others, that’s the worst part of a trip. If that’s you, a travel agency specializing in trips for different levels of mobility could be your ace up your sleeve.

Flying Wheels Travel

Travel agency for travelers with disabilities, chronic illnesses or difficulty walking (like if you had a hip replacement or surgery). Established in 1970 by Judd (a quadriplegic), Flying Wheels is now owned by his widow, Barbara.

Accessible Journeys

Vacation packages designed for travelers in a chair. With 31+ years experience, they specialize in accessible vacations so you won’t get bad surprises on the road.

Trips Inc

All-inclusive vacation packages for travelers with intellectual and development disabilities. With 24+ years experience in special needs travel, founder Jim Peterson believes in giving all people the access to travel.

New Directions Travel

With 30+ years of experience, they have tours for travelers with mild to moderate developmental disabilities. Available in local, national or international options — like Hawaii, San Francisco, and a Baja cruise.

Hammer Travel

Vacation experiences for travelers with development disabilities. Trip leaders are trained in personal and behavioral supports, medication administration, and more.

brettapproved.com

Make your next trip a success by confidently traveling with the accessible info you need — based on real reviews by people like you. Stop stressing about what might go wrong, and have fun on your next trip.

Surfers Healing

Professional surfers travel the country to volunteer as tandem wave-riders at camps for autistic children. Being in the water transforms upset into smiles.

Airport + Special Needs Guide

A guide to traversing the wild world of airports.

TL;DR

Stay calm, be patient, and give everyone the benefit of doubt — all golden rules when traveling.

Don’t be afraid to speak up if something is wrong (like your hotel room or airplane seat).

Be polite and give others the chance to help you.

“Life is defined by experiences. So I’m going to take the body that I was given and I’m going to do what I’m going to do. Staying home would be less stressful. But at the end of the day, there’s a great big world out there. There is no re-set button. This is it. Let’s have as much fun while we can,” says Brett.

Go scratch that travel itch and see the world.