Ideas for planning an accessible vacation

Published8/18/2008 12:18 AM

While some folks get ready for school, retirees get ready for vacation. Fall is the perfect travel season - even for folks who use wheelchairs or have trouble getting around.

Travel writer Candy B. Harrington wants "wheelers and slow walkers" to know that they can go just about any where they want with a little research and help.


Harrington, a travel writer for 30 years and the editor of Emerging Horizons, a magazine specializing in disability-friendly travel, wrote "101 Accessible Vacations: Travel Ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers" (Demos Medical Publishing, $24.95), after she discovered that there were few lists of accessible vacations based on personal interests and preferences. Disney World, certainly a fine handicap-accessible travel destination, isn't everyone's top pick, explained Harrington.

Harrington's "101 Accessible Vacations" is divided into 12 different types of excursions, ranging from adventurous outdoor adventures to road trips, cruises in the U.S. and historical sites, to pure rest and relaxation sprees. Looking for some big city fun? The book's chapter "Bright Lights, Big City," leads off with Chicago as a walkable and accessible city, with help from tour guides like Terry Sullivan, founder of Walk Chicago Tours, a company that is committed to providing wheelchair accessible tours.

Harrington's book leads outdoor adventurers to a wheelchair-accessible Colorado boardwalk in the midst of stands of aspens and conifers; guides them to safari adventures, through the Everglades or on Adirondack explorations, to year-round fun in Whistler, British Columbia and even a wheelchair-accessible tree house at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Va.

It's just good business for the travel industry to provide such accessible destinations. A 2002 study conducted by the Open Doors Organization, a Chicago-based non-profit group tracking the disability consumer market for the travel industry, showed adults with disabilities were spending approximately $13.6 billion on travel annually. Another study, in 2005, reported the average number of leisure trips and hotel stays was up 50 percent from 2002.

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Open Doors estimates that about one third of adults with disabilities fly at least once every two years.

"Take a look around next time you're in an airport and see how many wheelchair-users you see; I guarantee you it's a huge increase from 10 years ago," Harrington said. "On my last flight alone, there were two people with manual wheelchairs and one with a scooter; and a whole gaggle of slow walkers. So people are getting out and traveling."

Who doesn't needs a break from everyday stresses? Getting out and discovering the world is energizing, even for folks who must use most of their energies navigating through their daily lives.

"Travel can be very empowering, especially for someone who has never done it before, and in fact maybe didn't even think it was possible," Harrington said. "Disability can be very isolating and once folks break through that barrier of isolation and get out there, they can take that sense of accomplishment and empowerment home and use it in their daily life. To be honest, when folks encounter a problem on a trip and solve it and move on, they feel like they can deal with just about anything life throws at them."

And that, of course, leads us to air travel. A little homework and lots of patience helps everyone navigate through these now "unfriendly skies. You'll need to pack more than just your shampoo and vacation clothes in that suitcase.


"We all have to realize that air travel is not hassle-free for anybody; so you need to pack a healthy dose of patience, along with those three-ounce liquids in your ziplock bag. It also pays to take along your sense of humor," Harrington said.

You won't be alone as you navigate the turbulent skies of air travel. Not only is our population aging, but medical technology is making is possible for people of all ages to survive severe illnesses and injuries. By 2030, Open Doors estimates, nearly 24 percent of the U.S. population will be disabled, and 15 percent severely disabled - an increase of 53 million more disabled people than in 1997.

An Open Doors study in 2005 showed that of adults with disabilities traveling by air, 84 percent air said they encountered problems with airline personnel and 82 percent said they encountered other obstacles at airports.

Folks with disabilities do have some protection. The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to provide free, prompt wheelchair assistance between curbside and cabin seat. Go to for a copy of the Air Carrier Access Act, to educate yourself on your rights.

Anyone traveling with mobility challenges should be aware that all US airlines are required to have a Complaints Resolution Officer (CRO) on duty during airport operating hours. "If you have a problem regarding access you can ask for the CRO. The CRO is specially trained in access issues and conflict resolution, so if you can't get your problem solved by front line employees, go up the ladder until you get to the CRO," advised Harrington.

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