Planning a trip and showing up in an unfamiliar destination, especially in another country, can be stressful enough for any traveler. People with disabilities or other mobility challenges, though, must plan for any number of obstacles and contingencies.
“The United States has really set the gold standard for physical access,” says Cerise Roth-Vinson, chief operating officer for the nonprofit Mobility International USA, which specializes in helping plan professional and academic exchange opportunities. “People have concerns about going to other countries and whether they’ll be able to get around and communicate.”
Roth-Vinson, who is also project manager for the State Department-sponsored National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, says that travelers may worry about accessible accommodations and cultural attitudes toward people with disabilities.
“You have a right to go anywhere in the world, and there’s a concept of challenge by choice, which is how much challenge are you up to,” she says. Some people want something equivalent to their life in the United States, which is influenced by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Others are fine with a more rugged experience.
Ramps and other accessibility features lend a certain amount of independence to individuals with disabilities. In some countries, Roth-Vinson says, there’s more of a reliance on community help — when, for example, a group of people may spontaneously come together to lift a wheelchair user onto a bus. It’s all a matter of what a traveler feels comfortable anticipating.
Roth-Vinson suggests that those looking for reassurance investigate the laws of the countries they’re interested in visiting. Some have ADA-equivalent regulations. Countries that have signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities are also worth considering (find the list at www.un.org/disabilities).
“Don’t let your own preconceived notions get in the way of having an equal experience,” Roth-Vinson says. “Everyone faces the uncertainty. Everybody wonders if they’re going to get sick abroad. Everybody wonders if they’re going to get lost.”
Plus, she says, physically challenged travelers might even have an advantage when it comes to traveling abroad, because they may be used to riding public transportation and to overcoming communication challenges. They’re already accustomed to problem-solving on the go.
Here are some tips from Roth-Vinson and Mobility International USA:
●Consider getting travel insurance. Make sure that it covers preexisting conditions.
●Bring plenty, even extra, of any medications that you take. Make sure that all medicines are allowed in the country you’re visiting.
●Bicycle shops are great places for wheelchair replacement parts.
●Know your rights. This is particularly important for airline travel, at the airport and on the plane. Familiarize yourself with applicable laws and airline regulations. Inform the airline of your situation and make assistance requests in advance.
● Have a backup plan, including for your accommodations. In case your reserved accessible room isn’t available, bring along items such as a portable ramp, a shower chair and a reacher to grab items that may be beyond arm’s length.
●If you use an electric wheelchair, look into whether you’ll need a plug adapter and a voltage converter. Or see whether you can rent a battery charger abroad. Have a contingency plan in the event of power outages or voltage drops.
●Look for disability organizations or resources at your destination that can provide you with area-specific information as well as local contacts.
●Learn foreign vocabulary that can help you describe your situation and needs.
●Understand cultural differences. You may get more, or less, attention in other countries than you would in the United States. Then again, Roth-Vinson says, you may stand out more as an American than as a wheelchair user or a blind person.
Below is a sampling of the many resources and travel outfits that can help you plan a trip:
●The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, 212-447-7284, www.sath.org. A nonprofit membership organization providing a database of companies and resources that assist people with disabilities in all facets of travel, such as scooter rentals, tour operators and suggested reading.
●American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), 800-275-2782, www.asta.org. Search for travel agents by specialty, including disability and accessible travel.
●Accessible Europe, 011-39-011-30-1888, www.accessibleurope.com. A group of travel agents headquartered in Italy who specialize in accessible tourism.
●Accessible Journeys, 800-846-4537, www.disabilitytravel.com. Caters to slow walkers and those in wheelchairs, offering cruises, tours and independent trips. Destinations include Africa, Asia and Europe.
●The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, 800-900-8086, www.ncpad.org. Hosted by the University of Alabama, the center has recreation resources on outdoor and travel activities throughout the country and abroad.
●Flying Wheels Travel, 877-451-5006, www.flyingwheelstravel.com. A full-service travel agency offering escorted tours and customized independent programs around the world for those with disabilities.
●The Guided Tour, 800-783-5841, www.guidedtour.com. Around since 1972, this company organizes trips for physically and developmentally challenged adults. A nurse often accompanies tours.
●Road Scholar, 800-454-5768, www.roadscholar.org. Founded as Elderhostel in 1975, the educational-travel provider offers trips at various levels of activity, including “easy,” which requires minimal walking and limited stairs.