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Tips for Travelers With Disabilities

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Determined as she was to explore the Honduras village of Copan, Deborah Sakach learned that her wheelchair was simply not going to work on the village’s cobblestone streets.

Still, recalls Sakach, who spent part of her time in Honduras working with an organization giving away wheelchairs “to people with my condition – polio,” she also discovered on that trip that “it is better to go than stay home, even if you can’t see and do everything.”

Asking questions ahead of time is key, not only before traveling to overseas destinations with inconsistent compliance rules — Sakach found in London that “handicap-friendly hotels might mean two boards going up some very steep steps” — but also when planning trips within the United States, where hotels and other businesses don’t always provide all the facilities and services mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

When questioning a hotel about the presence of a ramp, for instance, be clear about what you want, says Diana DeRosa, who handled travel arrangements for the late Christopher Reeve while the actor was in a wheelchair. Don’t just ask “do you have a ramp for a wheelchair to get in and out of the building,” DeRosa says, but also find out “how long is the ramp and how steep, because you want to know how sharp of an incline [there is].” Find out if “at the end of that ramp, is it a straight route to where I need to go or do I need to turn any corners, because if your wheelchair is large it may not be able to do that.” If you’re a traveler with a disability or are making arrangements for one, here are a few more things to keep in mind when planning your next trip.

What to know if you’re traveling with your own wheelchair

If you’re flying, your first step ought to be talking to the airline to see “if they have someone who handles special needs people, and then start there,” says DeRosa. “Then it’s all about explaining your situation and needs and finding out [if] they can help you achieve your goals. They will often have someone meet you and help get you into the plane before anyone else so that you are safely in place. But there are other issues like whether or not you need oxygen or do you have special equipment that you need to use during the flight. Everything you need to bring needs to be approved.”

One way to expedite that approval is to label everything, says Susan Fitzmaurice of Disability Savvy. “A wheelchair or scooter should have every part labeled,” she says, and if either is “likely to be dismantled, tape written instructions to the back of it [explaining] how to put it back together.” The instructions are particularly important if you have a connecting flight, in which case you’ll also want to “make sure that your wheelchair is properly ticketed,” says frequent traveler Rosemarie Rossetti, “so that your wheelchair will be waiting for you when you get off the plane to make your transfer.”

Rossetti, who has a spinal cord injury and uses a manual wheelchair, says travelers who use manual wheelchairs with removable wheels should ask the flight crew if the wheels “can be stored in the closet, in the overhead compartment, behind the back seat, or in the cockpit with the pilots. Also take off any armrests, snap on bags or other accessories and store them in the overhead compartment. Take your wheelchair cushion and sit on it in the plane.” If the wheelchair folds, Rossetti says it’s also worth asking a flight attendant if there’s room in the closet to store it without dismantling it.

Prepare for other mobility needs at the airport and in flight

If you’re planning to bring a wheelchair or are requesting one from the airport prior to departure, keep in mind that if mobility issues prevent you from walking from the plane door to the airplane seat, these wheelchairs will not fit down the aisle of the plane. Before you leave home or as soon as you arrive at the airport, tell an airline representative that you need an aisle or straight-back chair, “an ‘L’-shaped chair on two wheels that is used to wheel the passenger to his or her seat, where he or she is then transferred,” according to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, whose Web site also advises travelers with mobility issues to request bulkhead seats as “you won’t have to worry about the person in front of you adjusting their seat backward and hitting your legs. Know that fifty percent of aisle seats have removable armrests to perform a lateral transfer from chair-to-chair.”

Ask your hotel to measure the mattresses

When Dianne Berthold and her husband first started traveling she recalls that Holiday Inns were the only hotels with wheelchair-accessible rooms. Years later, after traveling to all seven continents, Berthold, who’s 68 and has been in a wheelchair for 50 years, acknowledges that wheelchair accessibility in hotels is “so much better now,” but these days she and her husband are having issues with hotel beds “with the thick mattresses and pillow-tops making the bed high. I call ahead and ask the management to go in and measure, as they usually don’t realize the problem.” She adds that when she and her husband travel in their van “we have a platform that he sets up alongside of the bed, if there is room, and he lifts me in my wheelchair on it and then I can scoot onto the bed.”

When it comes to the hotel phone and TV, know your rights

The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that “hotels and motels must provide effective means of communications for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing to ensure that they have an equal opportunity to enjoy the goods, services, accommodations, and amenities offered.” Many travelers with hearing disabilities who can’t use standard phones know that this means that hotels need to make a teletypewriter (TTY) also sometimes referred to as a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf(TDD) available in guest rooms and at the front desk. And while many U.S. hotels know to provide the TTY service, they may be unaware that “one of the biggest gripes from the deaf and hard of hearing community is how many hotels are not including the original remote control with TVs in their rooms, so we cannot access the closed-captions,” says Suzanne Robitaille, founder of She adds that when “I was on my honeymoon earlier this year in Napa, our cottage offered a large flat-screen TV that was essentially a computer monitor – not a TV, and closed captions didn’t even exist. I was given a free night’s stay, which was nice, but it was not ADA compliant.”

Selected online resources for travelers with disabilities

How to file an ADA complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice

Motor vehicles suited to drivers with limited mobility, from Edmunds

The Disabled Travelers Guide to the World

Able to Travel, one of several online travel agencies facilitating trips for people with disabilities

— A grid from the Lincoln City, Oregon Visitor & Convention Bureau showing how lodgings, restaurants, and other points of interest in Lincoln City, Oregon are — or are not – accommodating various needs of travelers with disabilities. An exemplary tool that CVBs nationwide ought to provide on their Web sites.

By Paul Eisenberg

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