Traveling with Disabilties

Traveling with Disabilties

Recently I’ve been greatly restricted in mobility following surgery. This will pass but it got me thinking about traveling with temporary or permanent restrictions. It isn’t easy under the best of circumstances; and as we all know, sometimes traveling can be less than the best of circumstances. 

While this may not be the legal or medical definition, for our purposes, “disabilities” refer to any temporary or permanent physical, behavioral, emotional, or psychological situation that restricts ones actions. Whether it’s a broken leg; being permanently wheelchair bound; being dependent on daily injections; or having to travel with an aide, travel with a disability needs attention to additional details.

How do people manage? Are some cultures more supportive of disabled people than others? Which countries are more open than others when it comes to disabled visitors?

The good news is that people with disabilities do have options and some support; starting with their selection of travel agencies). A very quick search brought up several lists of travel agencies that either focus exclusively on travel arrangements for the disabled or those that can provide experienced service to this community. Autism on the Seas; Trips, Inc.; Accessible Escapes; New Directions; Flying Wheels Travel; and Hammer Travel are just some of the companies that focus on meeting the needs of the international traveling public that either have a disability or who are traveling with people who do  (*this is not an endorsement of these or any companies. The author has not received any goods or services in exchange for mentioning these companies). These agencies know which hotels can best accommodate their clients’ needs, how to navigate the logistical challenges some destinations raise, and the staffs can even recommend which countries are best and worst for people with a specific disability.

Once the travel is booked, then what?

It’s my experience that most, if not all, airports are doing a pretty good job of accommodating people with disabilities traveling through their facilities. Airlines do, too. At least they try to. Of course there are always those incidents that make the news (as they should) of a particular passage having been badly served or even mistreated by this airline or that. But overall, airlines and airports, particularly international airports, really do try to serve all their clients. If you share your concerns and any limitations with their staff, most will try to address your concerns and will work with you to overcome the obstacles. 

What happens once you’ve arrived at your destination? Here things can get tricky. 

Most countries actually have at least some laws in place protecting the rights of people with disabilities. But while there may be laws, in reality some places do a better job than others enforcing those laws. In some countries one simply cannot obtain a business license if certain on-site provisions are not in place. And buildings built before these laws came into being have had to be retro fitted to allow entry by people with physical restrictions. In many countries that has not happened.  Buildings remain inaccessible to wheelchairs and there may be are no braille signage. Traveling with a service animal is permitted and unrestricted in many countries, yet other countries still allow hotels, museums, and restaurants to restrict entry of service animals, even seeing-eye dogs that have been in use for decades. 

Some of the most challenging and even frightening situations are those which involve people who must travel with syringes and medications (for instance, diabetics).  The restriction on traveling with sharp objects in the cabin can include needles, yet Type I diabetics cannot be without their insulin. And traveling in countries where being arrested for the use of illegal drugs (often with syringes) can result in a death penalty is daunting at the very least. 

Finally, laws are laws but public attitudes cannot be legislated. The way a local population reacts to someone with a disability, especially one that is obvious to the eye, can make or break a trip. It can ruin a vacation and it can make doing business impossible. Most developed countries have made efforts to educate their populace about disabilities. There was a time when a person with a disability would have stayed behind closed doors; today one sees disabled people taking part in society as fully functioning citizens. But that’s not true everywhere. There are still cultures that shun the disabled. People of some cultures will avoid a disabled person at all cost, usually out of fear and always out of ignorance.

So what can one do? How does one successfully travel with a disability?

1. Find out what the laws and norms are at your destination. You might need to travel with backup equipment or medications since they may not exist where you are going. Bring doctors’ prescriptions and carry them with you at all times. Traveling with an animal? Find out what the laws and regulations at your destination are and follow them to the letter. 
2. Reach out to organizations at home and at your destination that support people in your situation. Ask what you can expect and what steps can be taken to make the trip less stressful and more successful. 
3. Find an experienced travel agent who can best help you and your particular situation. Reward their efforts by promoting their business.
4. Find out which airlines are most accommodating and can assist you the most. Stay at hotels that welcome people with disabilities and actually have the facilities to meet your needs. Reward their efforts, too, by becoming a loyal customer and promoting their businesses.
5. Consider avoiding certain countries. There are plenty of other places to visit and do business.
Of course there’s always the option to use your situation as a learning moment in their lives.

Happy travels. Cheers!


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