After a devastating car crash and resulting fire made him a triple amputee, 23-year-old John Morris thought he might never travel again. But six years later, the Florida resident has flown almost a million miles and seen nearly 40 countries in his wheelchair.
“It [traveling with a disability] is always going to be a challenge, but not so much that it can’t be overcome,” Morris said. “The number one word that comes to mind is worthwhile.”
A desire to see his alma mater play in the Rose Bowl prompted his initial trip, from Orlando to Los Angeles, and inspired him to keep exploring. On his blog, wheelchairtravel.org, Morris rates U.S. and international destinations for accessibility and offers tips on how to navigate specific places while living with a disability.
“There’s an incredible demand for accessible travel,” he said.
A Surge in Need
It’s a category that’s on the rise as the travel industry has placed more emphasis in recent years on catering to those with disabilities. Travelers with disabilities make up a large segment of the population – an estimated 61 million people in the United States have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And they’re traveling. Disabled travelers spend an estimated $17 billion annually, according to a study by the Open Doors Organization.
Laws like the Air Carrier Access Act – which makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers with disabilities and requires them to provide accommodations – and the Americans with Disabilities Act help make travel easier for those with disabilities, but, naturally, unexpected difficulties can come up.
“You’d be surprised how many hotels are not ADA-compliant,” Morris said.
Opening Doors to All Travelers
The good news is that there are many travel agents, tour guides and other resources available to help navigate it all.
The travel company Wheel the World offers accessible adventure tours in locations including Easter Island, Chile and Oaxaca, Mexico. Last year, the company developed what is considered the first-ever wheelchair accessible tour of Machu Picchu, in Peru.
The National Park Service has also made efforts to make its natural wonders more accessible. Many parks offer ASL interpreters for their ranger-led programs, and many trails, buildings and gift shops are wheelchair-accessible. The Grand Canyon has a scenic drive accessibility permit that allows travelers with limited mobility access to some areas normally closed to tourists.
And for four decades, Yosemite Deaf Services has provided ASL programming and assisted-listening devices to park visitors with hearing impairments. (The group celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with a special weekend celebration Oct. 11-14 filled with tours, an art show, children’s activities and guided walks.)
The company Sage Traveling, founded by manual wheelchair user John Sage, specializes in research and travel in Europe and the Caribbean for people with limited mobility.
“It can be anything from slow walkers, MS, ALS, full-time wheelchair and scooter users, and elderly travelers,” said marketing manager Sena Williams. “Our services are vetted to be 100 percent step- and curb-free, and all our routes include limited amounts of walking/strolling as well as vehicles with ramps/lifts.”
Whether traveling with a physical or developmental disability, or with a friend or loved one who has one, here are some tips to help make the journey go smoothly.
Before the trip, consider what your realistic needs are, and make a plan based on those. Travel almost always comes with unexpected challenges, but you can avoid some unnecessary frustration by putting in additional work before you leave. If you’re thinking about traveling alone, for instance, is it a better idea to ask a friend to come along in case you need help, or to hire a local guide who knows the area well? In some cases, such as with autistic children, doing a “dress rehearsal” practice run-through of what to expect on the trip can help reduce anxiety, recommends the advocacy group Autism Speaks.
Don’t overdo it. If you know that you or your travel companion are likely to get physically or mentally tired, or overstimulated, schedule time to rest or participate in a more relaxing activity.
A hotel or attraction’s website might say that it is accessible, but what does that really mean? Call places you plan to visit in advance to verify that they are in fact accessible, and if so, if those accommodations meet your specific requirements. If you need a shower seat in the bathroom, braille reading material in a museum, or a ramp into a historic house, for instance, make sure it’s available before you arrive.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from strangers. Morris recalls being in Beijing and having no choice but to ask a stranger to push his wheelchair to his hotel late at night because the battery had died, and he was alone. It wasn’t his best travel moment, but he learned an important lesson. “The vast majority of people we will encounter are very good people who want to help if they see someone in need,” he said. “It’s in people’s nature to lend a hand, so get comfortable with asking for one.”
Autism-Friendly Travel Tips
Families with children on the autism spectrum face specific travel challenges: Crowded spaces, changes in routine, and unexpected noises and movements can be difficult for autistic travelers. We turned to Stacey Crowley, a AAA Travel agent and certified autism travel professional, for some advice.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to airlines and airports. You really would be surprised at how much they want to help you. I have worked with many autistic families and have been able to work with airports and airlines to do dry runs of going through security and getting on a plane and learning how the day of travel will work. They walk the members through different scenarios so they can help prepare their loved one for the unpredictability that travel comes with
Try to find a travel agent with special certifications. AAA Northeast has quite a few ranging from special needs travel to autistic travel. They are trained specially and specifically to know all the ins and out of accessible travel.
Take some extra time to pre-plan as much as possible. Most families that are traveling with a loved one with a disability, whether it be physical or intellectual, find that there travel experience runs smoother the more they pre-plan.
Do you have an accessible travel experience that you would like to share? Tell us about it in the comments.
Reach out to a AAA travel agent to learn more about accessible travel options today.