By Dr. Michael Lovely
If you are traveling with a disability, planning a trip—especially internationally—can meet with daunting obstacles.
A recent survey by MMGY Global, Portrait of Travelers with Disabilities: Mobility and Accessibility, revealed that of more than 2,700 respondents (those who either have a disability and use a mobility aid, as well as their caretakers), nearly all (96 percent) have faced accommodation problems, flight problems (86 percent) or other transportation problems (79 percent).
Accessibility challenges can happen at nearly every stage of a travel journey, from transportation to lodging to sightseeing. Traveling internationally, where accessibility can vary dramatically by country and even within a country, can present special difficulties.
John Sage, founder of Sage Traveling—a travel company specializing in disability travel in Europe—knows this well. He’s traveled to more than 140 European cities in a wheelchair, assessing the accessibility of each location.
“In general, older cities and older parts of cities have more accessibility challenges,” Sage says. “These are often the most desirable parts of the city for tourists, so accessibility challenges are common.
“Finding an accessible bathroom in Paris’ Left Bank is challenging because many are located downstairs,” he notes. “Edinburgh’s Royal Mile has a significant slope to it. Florence’s cobblestones present challenges for many disabled visitors.”
Travel journalist, adventure athlete and chef Amanda Burrill lives with a traumatic brain injury but has an unstoppable zest for travel. “I allow myself extra time when traveling to or from a place because it can take me longer to read and process signs,” she says.
Burrill is a former Navy captain and has traveled to Tanzania to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, lived in France for wine school and been to Germany, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Denmark, St. Maarten, Bonaire, Hong Kong, and Macau for “journalism, speaking engagements, and races.” She makes adjustments based on her needs to ensure a successful trip.
Experts share their tips
Get organized in advance.
“Everything is going to take so much longer than you think because there is more to consider if you are traveling with a disability,” Burrill says. Getting your paperwork together—such as for a visa—can save you headaches later.
And in Sage’s experience, “the more accessibility research you do, the more accessible your trip will be.”
Use an accessible travel specialist who focuses on disability travel.
If you aren’t confident in the accessibility of a location, Sage suggests, “enlist the help of a knowledgeable accessible travel specialist to ensure a smooth experience.”
Book hotels well ahead of your trip.
Sage notes that hotels usually only have one or two accessible rooms, so booking them several months in advance can help you secure one at a reasonable price.
Build in necessary breaks.
Due to the nature of her injury, loud noises and large groups of people can be particularly exhausting for Burrill. When she travels to a city, she builds in plenty of time to rest and recover at her hotel.
Check out resources.
The U.S. Department of State provides tips for travel which include resources for those traveling with disabilities.
There are specific travel requirements for people with service animals available from Mobility International.
And check the TSA’s website – or call their helpline at 855-787-2227 – to request assistance with the security screening process.
Sage and Burrill agree that the extra work needed when you’re traveling with a disability is well worth it to be able to travel. In Burrill’s case, traveling has served as a healing practice, facilitating neuroplasticity in her brain through new experiences.
“It’s hard to understate how helpful these new experiences have been for me,” she says. “It’s empowering and healing to enjoy life in this way.”
For Sage, his years of traveling in a wheelchair are a testament to those considering traveling with a disability for the first time. “It might take extra work or extra resources, but it is entirely possible,” he said.
Whether you’re a traveler with a disability or not, it’s essential to obtain travel protection that includes field rescue and medical evacuation so you’ll have the confidence to travel boldly worldwide.
Dr. Michael Lovely is physician and a medical operations supervisor at Global Rescue, the leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services. He is certified in Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support, Basic Life Support, and Advanced Trauma Life Support.
This was very helpful information. I use a self-motorized wheelchair and enjoy travel. Anything we can learn to make things easier, the better. — Chris Sonnemann
Reply: Thanks, Chris. It’s great to know you still enjoy traveling!