Have Disability, Will Travel
In my last column, I handed out some tips for the tushie-challenged, a weighty problem to be sure, but not so difficult as traveling with some other physical disabilities.
Just ask Angela Corrieri, president of Mobile Digital Systems, Inc. Angela is a wheelchair-confined executive, though I hesitate to use the word “confined” in relation to such a bundle of energy. Certainly, Angela’s disability hasn’t hindered her from running a successful security firm manufacturing in-car surveillance systems for law enforcement. With offices on both coasts, Angela has enough gold in her frequent-flier cache to rival that won by Michael Phelps at the Olympics. She’s an expert on traveling with a disability.
“Planning is the key,” Angela says. “Before you head out, make some contacts. A qualified travel agent can be a big help. Another great resource is the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH), a national organization for travelers with disabilities.”
Automobile or van. If you are planning a road trip, you will want to map your route with good rest stops in mind. Most interstate highways have rest stops with accessible facilities every 40 miles or so.
Airplane. Know that when you are on an airplane, you are pretty much expected to stay in your seat, with your seat belt fastened. You might get some help getting to the bathroom, but you can’t count on it, so you have to be self-reliant. Some planes have wheelchairs on board that you can use, but the bathrooms are tiny, and the wheelchair won’t fit inside. Angela’s advice: Go before you board.
If you plan to bring a service animal or an assistive device on board, check with the airline first; there may be charges or restrictions. If you will need other assistance on the plane, notify airline personnel when you make the reservation, when you check in, and again when you arrive at the gate. (“Sometimes you really do need to tell them three times,” Angela says. “Folks just aren’t that intuitive about other people’s abilities.”) Also, if you require oxygen, be sure to order it in advance; most carriers will allow only approved cylinders, and there will be a charge. Finally, know that you will most likely board first and deplane last, so plan your connections accordingly.
Train. Trains in the United States are generally accessible for travelers of all abilities. But before you celebrate finding a “handicapped-accessible” symbol on a transit map, you’d be wise to investigate just how the accessibility is accomplished.
Bus. Long-haul bus companies like Greyhound are generally solicitous of disabled travelers, and wheelchair-lift buses are sometimes available; just call ahead for information. Most municipalities run public buses that are wheelchair-accessible, but check the routes and schedules in advance-also the fares, which may vary with your level of mobility.
Taxi. In New York and other large cities, you can generally get an accessible cab immediately during non-rush hours. In other cities, it may take 5-10 minutes, while in the suburbs you’ll have to wait 20-40 minutes for the cab to arrive.
Cruise ship. Cruises can be great for disabled travelers. They require little mobility, are loads of fun, and the food is excellent. Wheelchair-accessible staterooms are slightly larger than standard cabins. Crewmembers will put down ramps so you can get your wheelchair or scooter over thresholds in public areas, but you may still have trouble with bathrooms because of their small size. Talk to the excursion desk about the accessibility of the various ports of call.
It is fairly easy to get an accessible room in the United States, since most hotels are legally required to have accessible accommodations — and to charge the standard rate for them. The official policy of all hotel companies is to reserve accessible rooms for people who need them, but they will let able-bodied travelers use them under certain circumstances, so you should book your room as far in advance as possible.
Other things to consider:
New York City. Some older hotels do not have accessible rooms at the same rate as other rooms — it’s just a reality, and it will be slow to change.
Tub or walk-in shower. If you prefer one or the other, tell the agent when you book the room.
Height of bed. Some beds are the old standard height, but some new ones are 6-12 inches higher, and they may be hard to get into. Ask in advance.
Extra set of hands. Ask a hotel employee come with you when you check into your room. That way you’ll have help moving furniture, and getting towels and pillows down from hard-to-reach places.
There are special considerations when choosing hotels abroad, like accessible entry to the hotel, the width of doors and hallways, availability of elevators, and access to restaurants or the cafÃ©. Angela says this is where a travel agent and SATH can really help you.
Finally, if you are headed to the beach, inquire about beach wheelchairs; a lot of ocean communities will provide them at no cost. These chairs have large balloon tires for easier movement over sand, but because the tires have no rims, you will definitely need a push.
The United States has generally made sightseeing accessible for people with all kinds of disabilities by providing such things as cassettes and headphones, interpreters, and ramps. When traveling overseas, check with the site or the local tourist association for information about special assistance.
Travel planning can be complicated when a disability is involved, but patience and tenacity go far. And most travel suppliers are more than willing to make the necessary accommodations for you. Know what you need, plan in advance, and get help from a travel agent when you need it.
And if you are ever on that US Airways flight from Baltimore to Washington and notice a petite, feisty woman in a wheelchair, give a nod and say hello to Angela. And then get out of the way!