Traveling with a Disability

Guest Blogger, Chris Wistrom, Independent Living Specialist

I just returned from an Alaskan vacation; I had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t my first trip there.  Alaska is the 49th state of the USA, purchased from Russia in 1867.   Ten years ago my sister and I boarded ship and were swept away with the scenery and history of this vast frontier.  We cruised what is called “the Inner Passage” – visiting the port cities of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria in British Columbia.  During that trip, I do not recall seeing even one traveler with a visible disability.  I found things have changed on this trip!

This time we took the same route through the Inner Passage.   I noted that there were many people aboard ship using wheelchairs.  I am gratified to see that the trip is not limited to those without mobility disabilities.  I also found they were equipped for assisting people with disabilities into the pool or whirlpool.  That’s great!  Basking in the whirlpool in gloriously warm water while on deck watching for whales is one of my favorite memories.  The icy wind blows through your hair, but the hot water is an absolute delight!  Everyone should have that opportunity!  

I noted that the ship made quite an effort to ensure the safety and comfort of the passengers with disabilities.  Ramps had been installed in the halls and the pathways had been restructured so passengers could get to their staterooms without having to navigate sharp bends in the hall or stairs.  Many of the passages had been made wider so people could easily travel both directions without running into one another.  Perhaps the best thing of all is that the dining areas now accommodate people with disabilities.  If you’ve ever eaten on shipboard, you’ll understand why they say the average person gains 4 pounds per day on a cruise!

Cruising to Alaska was a wonderful adventure, and having the ship make minor accommodations so that people with disabilities can enjoy the trip too made it more of a delightful experience.  After all, those accommodations made it easier for me to get around too…and, after all, I was 10 years older this time too!

Reserving an accessible hotel room should be easier now!

We’re putting a bow on another summer -- the season synonymous with sunshine and vacation.

It’s uplifting to break with routine, see fresh sights, and relax.

But the logistics of traveling can be daunting for people with physical disabilities, even when they stop for the night. Many have to be concerned whether their hotel will be accessible enough.

Sometimes guestrooms are listed as being “accessible” when they are not fully accessible for people with particular disabilities.

Most hotel chains have a central booking agency staffed with representatives who are delighted to reserve you an “accessible room,” but might be hard-pressed to explain what makes it accessible.

Usually accessible means wider doorways, a high toilet with grab bars to help a person using a wheelchair transfer, and a shower you can roll into with a waterproof chair on wheels.

Information on accessibility features at call centers is increasing thanks to Americans with Disabilities Title III requirements, which went into effect March 15, 2012.

But travelers who require specific amenities are still advised to phone the hotel directly and quiz the front desk clerk, not just all an 800 number.

“We do sometimes carry a slide-in seat for a tub in the event that 's what we get,” Tom Bird said. “Most hotels do not have specific hardware to meet our needs, so we travel heavily equipped.”

Since accessible rooms usually have one bed without guardrails, the Birds slide Dany’s bed against one wall and line the opposite side with chairs to prevent a roll-off.

They have not done a family trip since ADA requirements that require central booking agencies to provide more information on accessibility features went into effect.

In the past, it has been difficult to find the type of accommodations they as attendants need – a room that adjoins one that is handicap accessible. 

Dany goes to bed at 8:30 p.m. In an adjoining room, Tom and Rita can watch primetime TV without disturbing Dany.

Some hotels put accessible rooms on the upper floors, but the Birds prefer to stay on the ground floor, if possible. In the event of a fire, elevators shut down, making it very difficult for anyone in a wheelchair to exit, Tom said.

The new ADA regulations require all establishments that provide transient lodging to use the same process for booking all guestrooms. If the establishment uses a centralized or online booking system, that system must display a detailed description of the accessible facilities.

The new regulations also require hotels to hold accessible guest rooms for people with disabilities until all other guest rooms of that type have been reserved. The custom of assigning rooms upon check-in and subject to availability is no longer lawful if it would mean disabled guest’s reservation of accessible room would not be honored.

Previously, guaranteed reservations by people with disabilities were sometimes given to earlier-arriving people without disabilities. Often no other accessible room remained and the person with the disability was stranded.

The accessible travel market is a $13.6 billion market and one of the fastest growing tourism niches today, according to the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

“… With estimates of one Baby Boomer turning 65 every eight seconds, it’s a market that will continue to see significant expansion, “ said Tony Gonchar, Chief Executive Officer of ASTA, in a 2011 press release.