The last place you might expect to find a wheelchair traveler is on a safari in East Africa. But to Sue Soldoff, president of Sue's Safaris, a trip to Africa's game parks simply points out how accessible much of the world has become for many physically impaired people looking for vacation adventure.
Once they might have had to stick close to home, perhaps because they needed regular medical treatment or a trip seemed too difficult. Today, however, a growing number of tour packagers -- Soldoff's firm in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., among them -- and other organizations are putting together specially designed tours and cruises for travelers with a variety of disabilities. The tours go almost anywhere in the world.
Programs include a Caribbean cruise for individuals with severe breathing problems; escorted sightseeing excursions in the United States and Europe for the hard of hearing; Colorado River white-water rafting trips and Hawaiian beach escapes for patients needing regular dialysis treatments; and wheelchair journeys to such exotic destinations as the Great Wall of China and Kenya's safari country.
Indeed, a photo and wildlife-viewing safari is "an ideal kind of trip" for wheelchair travelers, says Soldoff, because it tends to be sedentary. Visitors, physically disabled or not, explore African wild animal parks in small vans where "nobody can do much walking around anyway."
Here is a look at some of the available programs this year:
Through the Canadian Rockies with SHHH. Catching the words of a tour guide on a noisy bus can be difficult for any traveler. For the hard of hearing, it often is almost impossible. So SHHH (Self Help for Hard of Hearing People), a Bethesda-based educational organization, offers occasional tours on which it makes sure the guide's words can be heard.
Planned for late August (actual dates still tentative) is a 12-day motorcoach tour through the Canadian Rockies from Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia to Lake Louise and Banff National Park in Alberta, ending in Calgary. The trip is designed for people with at least some residual hearing and for their companions.
SHHH's aim is to assist people who have suffered a hearing loss, from minor to profound, in later life. As a group, they probably have not learned sign language, nor have their friends and relatives, and they prefer to continue communicating without using it.
Some are hesitant to travel on their own, for one reason because they often cannot hear change of gate announcements in airline terminals. One of SHHH's executives, a frequent traveler, missed one such announcement a while back and ended up in Canada instead of his planned destination of Las Vegas.
"We're trying to get people back into travel," says SHHH spokeswoman Carol Lingley. For some, "it's such a difficult, fearful thing."
As on all the organization's tours, the bus on the Rocky Mountain trip will be equipped with an "audio loop system," a device that enhances the sound from the bus' microphone. When passengers switch on their hearing aids or another receiver, all outside noise -- including the roar of the bus' engine -- is eliminated.
Each tour also carries an "oral interpreter." The interpreter's duty is to clearly repeat what any local tour guide, such as a park ranger, is saying. The interpreter's words are directed to people who are reading lips. According to Lingley, it is much easier to read the lips of someone to whom you have become accustomed than to try to understand an ever-changing series of guides.
And, because concentrating on hearing and lip-reading can be a strain, SHHH makes an effort to provide plenty of printed material describing the sights being seen.
The cost of the Canadian tour is $1,300 from Vancouver, which includes lodging, bus and 20 meals. Air fare is extra. Other tours are available.
As a resource for independent travelers, SHHH is developing a computer list -- called PALS -- of theaters, churches, restaurants, hotels and other public facilities that provide some form of assistive device. Travelers can send SHHH a copy of their itinerary indicating each stop. SHHH will send back a list of hotels and other places at each destination that have the devices. For information about tours or PALS: Self Help for Hard of Hearing People Inc., 7800 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Md. 20814, 657-2248.
Hawaii with dialysis. Patients who rely on dialysis because of kidney failure may require a four- to six-hour treatment three times a week. When they travel, they have to know that dialysis is available.
Wonderland Tours of Salt Lake City offers several trips each year, including two to Hawaii in February and April, in which dialysis treatment has been prearranged. In addition, it schedules more adventurous trips, such as a week-long white-water rafting trip through the Grand Canyon in Arizona, carrying portable dialysis machines. Partipants undergo dialysis on a sandbar on the Colorado River.
The firm is headed by John Warner, who became interested in travel for the physically impaired when he was administrator of the Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Utah. In 1975, he says, the institute built a battery-powered, portable dialysis machine. As a trial, he took a group of kidney patients on a houseboat outing on Lake Powell in Arizona that proved successful. So many patients wanted repeat trips that eventually he formed a travel agency to assist them -- as well as regular clients.
On the river trips, the group floats for a day and spends the next day resting and undergoing dialysis. The raft carries seven machines for 10 patients. Five take dialysis in the morning, five in the afternoon, and the other two machines are backups. A doctor and an assistant accompany each trip.
Unfortunately, no rafting trips currently are scheduled. Because of liability insurance concerns, Warner's former medical support has had to withdraw from the tour program, and he currently is hard at work finding a replacement.
Meanwhile, however, the two Hawaii trips, using in-place dialysis treatment facilities on the islands, still have space available. A two-week tour departing Feb. 20 takes in Molokai, Oahu and Kauai. Another two-week tour, departing April 9, spends a week each on Oahu and Maui. Cost for lodging and travel within the islands is about $900 to $1,100 per person depending on quality of accommodations chosen. Some meals are included. Air fare is extra.
In the past, Warner has taken the portable dialysis machines, which he says have not been reproduced commercially, on jeep camping excursions into Utah's Canyonlands National Park; a beach escape in the Virgin Islands and a sightseeing tour of Yellowstone National Park. He hopes soon to use them to take dialysis patients on a salmon-fishing expedition in Alaska and a houseboating vacation in Florida.
Warner says his special dialysis trips are popular with heart patients and older travelers also, because they move at a very relaxed pace and medical aid is present or nearby. For information: Wonderland Tours, 1325 South Main St., Suite B, Salt Lake City, Utah 84115, (800) 453-7410.
The "lung voyage." It's an inelegant but appropriate nickname for a Caribbean cruise for people suffering from severe breathing disorders who must take oxygen nasally 24 hours a day. When they travel, they have to wheel or carry a small oxygen container with them and be sure oxygen is readily available at their destination.
For the second year, University Hospital at the Boston University Medical Center and the Foster Medical Corp., a commercial oxygen supplier, are cosponsoring a week's cruise from Miami aboard Royal Caribbean Lines' "Song of America." Departure was Jan. 24. But Susan Packenham of Reid and Hurley Travel of Milton, Mass., who has made the travel arrangements, anticipates future cruises.
On the "lung voyage," oxygen donated by Foster Medical is provided aboard ship, and a pulmonary physician from University Hospital accompanies the group. Clinicians offer exercise sessions and educational seminars. The cost is no more than the standard cruise price, which ranges widely depending on cabin choice.
According to Packenham, the crew of the cruise ship also makes a special effort to welcome the tour. For example, the officers set aside special hours for participants to visit the bridge. Since many can climb only a few steps at a time before resting, they might delay other passengers during regular visiting hours.
Interested participants must be judged suitable for the trip by the cruise cosponsors and must have their physician's approval. They may obtain the phone numbers of previous passengers if they wish to phone for a recommendation or reassurance. For information: Susan Packenham, Reid and Hurley Travel Inc., 65 Adams St., Box 38, Milton, Mass. 02187, (617) 696-1884.
Wheelchair safaris. An African wildlife-viewing safari is not always smooth riding for wheelchair travelers, says Sue Soldoff of Sue's Safaris. On Kenya's park roads, "You do go over pretty lousy bumps."
But the trip is otherwise quite comfortable, though she sometimes has a hard time convincing prospective clients. "They just don't think it's something they can handle."
Her firm operates nine-passenger vans with deep bucket seats, but one row of seats is removed to carry wheelchairs. Accommodations are in what she describes as first-class hotels or resorts, with spacious rooms that "permit the maneuvering of wheelchairs throughout." Some hotels may have one step up, but an escort travels with the group to assist. The pace is relaxed.
Among the upcoming trips is a 10-day "Wildlife and Coast Safari" departing June 3 from Nairobi with visits to Amboseli Game Reserve at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tsavo West National Park and the city of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean. A 13-day trip, "Adventure Safari," departs June 12 from Nairobi. It skips Mombasa and visits more game parks. Land cost for the first is $1,255 per person; for the longer trip, $1,880. Air fare is extra.
Participants may travel unaccompanied if they are fairly self-sufficient. For information: Sue's Safaris Inc., P.O. Box 2171, Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. 90274, (213) 541-2011 or (800) 541-2011.
These are only a sample of the increasing number of sightseeing and adventure trips being made available to physically impaired travelers. Almost no place open to tourism is off limits. For example, the Wings on Wheels program of Evergreen Travel Service in Lynnwood, Wash., (206-776-1184) takes wheelchair travelers to the Great Wall of China.
To learn about other programs, consult the following:
Local or national organizations related to specific disabilities. Ask your doctor for suggestions.
The hospital where you are undergoing treatment.
A travel agent. Many keep aware of special tours.
Current travel guidebooks. One of the newest on bookstore shelves is "Traveling Like Everybody Else: A Practical Guide for Disabled Travelers," by Jacqueline Freedman and Susan Gersten (Adama Books, $11.95). The book is far from complete but it does list the names and addresses of 20 tour operators as well as other travel resources.
Two related developments:
Hampton Inn Hotels chain has just announced that all of its 150 U.S. properties now have a "visual alert system" (VAS) for the hearing impaired. A strobe light alerts guests when there's a knock on the door, the phone rings or the fire alarm is sounding. For information: (800) HAMPTON (800-426-7866). The hearing impaired may call (800) 451-HTDD (800-451-4833). Other chains that offer the system in some properties, according to SHHH, are Holiday Inn, Marriott, Howard Johnson and Radisson.
A British organization called Holiday Care Service is providing vacation planning assistance for elderly or disabled travelers to Great Britain. Individuals must complete a questionnaire identifying their special requirements, and Holiday Care Service will reply with itinerary suggestions and advice on where to make bookings. The questionnaires are available from the British Tourist Authority, 40 West 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019-4001, (212) 581-4800.