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Tips for Travelers with Disabilities

by Lux Joseph 12. July 2013

Traveling with a disability may seem impossible. It may make you feel discouraged and at a loss due to the challenges you foresee getting around when going on a trip. This may have been the case several years, but times have changed and traveling with a disability has become easier. The world is now more accessible than ever before. Twenty percent (62 million) of the U.S. population has some form of disability, and the number of these individuals is increasing daily. These people need to, want to, and can travel. If you’re part of that twenty percent, a world of travel awaits you. Cruises, airlines, restaurants, hotels, and even tour groups have implemented a variety of resources and tools to ensure that you travel comfortably and without hesitation. There are still areas around the world that are not set up completely, but accessibility for travelers with special needs has become a focus for the travel industry. Here are some tips when traveling with a disability:

 Traveling by Air

Going to visit your grandson in Florida, but hesitant about getting through the airport and boarding the plane? At Commercial Medical Escorts, our role is to assist those travelers with medical conditions and disabilities home via commercial airlines. Although each of our patients is traveling with a nurse, the airlines and airports have a variety of resources to assist those travelers traveling alone. TSA has a dedicated contact number for those travelers needing special assistance. They recommend that you call 72 hours prior to departure. This program is called: TSA Cares Helpline.  You can e-mail them at or call toll free at 1-855-787-2227. This program is dedicated to providing individuals with disabilities an additional resource to ask questions regarding what to expect at security, screen policies, and can specifically address your individual concerns.

Once you know what to expect from TSA, working with the airlines to ensure you have the necessary accommodations in critical to smooth travels. If you are traveling and need the assistance of a wheelchair, understand that there are a variety of different wheelchairs available. The first step is to contact the airline or your travel agent and they will append it to the reservation.  The different types of wheelchair assistance include:

 WCHR - Wheel Chair to Ramp - passenger can ascend/descend steps and make own way to/from cabin seat, but requires wheelchair for distance to/from aircraft

WCHS - Wheel Chair to top of Steps - passenger is able to walk but unable to ascend or descend stairs

WCHC - Wheel Chair in Cabin - passenger is paraplegic/quadriplegic, requires an on-board wheelchair and must be carried to/from cabin seat

Once you arrive at the airport wheelchairs are available at the doors. A Skycap will take you through security all the way to the gate. When the aircraft is ready for boarding, the same person will come and take her down the jet way to the aircraft's door.  Since the airline knows there is need for a wheelchair, one will be waiting with a Skycap at the destination airport, right at the aircraft's door. This person will take you as far as baggage claim, and even assist in getting baggage from the carousel. 

If you are a passenger that uses oxygen at home to get around don’t think that you are unable to fly. FAA has approved several portable oxygen concentrators and they are the only medical oxygen devices approved for inflight travel. Depending on the airline there are different rules and regulations to inform the airline you will be using one. Be sure to contact the airline at least 72 hours prior to departure. Some of the common FAA approved portable oxygen concentrators include:

·         AirSep FreeStyle

·         AirSep LifeStyle

·         AirSep Focus

·         AirSep Freestyle 5

·         Delphi RS-00400 / Oxus RS-00400

·         DeVilbiss Healthcare iGo

·         Inogen One

·         Inogen One G2

·         lnogen One G3

·         lnova Labs LifeChoice Activox

·         International Biophysics LifeChoice / lnova Labs LifeChoice

·         Invacare XPO2

·         Invacare Solo 2

·         Oxylife Independence Oxygen Concentrator

·         Precision Medical EasyPulse

·         Respironics EverGo

·         Respironics SimplyGo

·         Sequal Eclipse

·         SeQual SAROS

Remember you are not alone at the airport and onboard the airplane. These resources are available to you so next time you are preparing to fly simply ask your travel agent or contact the airline to ensure you have all the necessary requirements.

 Traveling by Sea

Cruise vacations can be an excellent choice for travelers with disabilities as long as you have all the necessary special assistance services available. One of the biggest resources to those travelers going on cruises is the Special Needs Group, the leading global provider of special needs equipment for the travel industry, have unique, specialized knowledge about how to help individuals with disabilities enjoy a wonderful, hassle-free and memorable trip.. The Special Needs Group has been recommended by the major cruise lines for several years. They support over 55 cities and ports, and over 20 countries around the world.

Here are a few tips from Special Needs Group to ensure that when your next travel opportunity arises, you are ready to go.

Outline your travel needs

 Take time to evaluate the logistics of your trip in relation to your ability to keep pace. What modes of transportation will you be using? Airplane, motor coach, train, ship, transit vans for ground transfers? Make a list, referring to relevant brochures, your trip organizer or travel agent to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Now, make a list of your specific requirements. Be honest: what types of special needs equipment do you depend on at home? What do you use or need (or wish you had!) when shopping, sightseeing locally, dining out or going to the movies, attending concerts, the theater, street fairs or sporting events at home? 

Can you hear and see clearly without special auditory equipment or visual aides?  How far can you walk without a rest break? Are stairs difficult? Can you get in and out of the tub or shower at home without handgrips or other assistance?

Travel, whether solo or in a group, is no time for roughing it or trying to “tough it out.” If a wheelchair, scooter or portable oxygen will make your trip easier, place that item on your list. Many people who do not use wheelchairs or walkers at home feel more comfortable using these mobility aides for tour and excursions. In fact, most of Special Needs Group’s wheelchair and scooter rentals are to individuals who only use such aides when traveling.  

 Plan Ahead

 If you already own a scooter or portable oxygen, it’s important to know the policy and procedures for bringing that equipment onboard all the transport vehicles included in your itinerary, from planes to taxis to ferry boats. Does that transport have a way to stow your scooter or wheelchair? Is oxygen allowed on board? Some airlines prohibit certain types of batteries, such as wet cell batteries, or oxygen cylinders. Airlines operate under strict rules, so there may be packing procedures to follow if they do allow the equipment. Keep in mind, most airlines need at least 48 hours’ notice to make special arrangements, and be prepared to fill out forms. 

Overall, cruise ships are more lenient in allowing oxygen, but some disallow certain types of oxygen. All require that the oxygen be delivered to the ship, and that you have enough for the entire voyage. Oxygen may never be brought aboard in your luggage. Requirements vary, so check your cruise line for proper instructions.  Again, documentation and paperwork are required. 

Whether you are headed for a cruise ship, hotel or all-inclusive resort, double check for wheelchair access at that venue, plus any venues you will be visiting on the trip.  Confirm that accessible hotel rooms, resort accommodations or ship staterooms are available for your travel dates. The earlier you book, the better your chances of securing fully accessible accommodations. And early booking increases your chances of securing a ground floor hotel room or cruise stateroom near the elevator, if these issues are important.

Check on the access to public rooms, restaurants, bars, toilets, the swimming pool, hot tub, beach area and other amenities. Are there TDD phone devices? How will you get in and out of the shower or bathtub? Are there flashing lights to accommodate hearing? Braille room numbers? Knowing in advance the scope of your needs gives you time to arrange advance rentals of any necessary equipment, scheduled to arrive when you do. Everything from scooters, lifts, ramps, TDD kits and special mattresses, including special needs cribs, is available for rental.

Will road travel or car excursions be part of the trip? Many car rental companies have vehicles that are modified for drivers or passengers with mobility limitations. Check ahead to make sure a suitable vehicle will be available for your travel dates. If you will be hiring a car or van, make sure the company is aware of your special needs.

When traveling with a limitation or disability, full travel insurance for medical coverage abroad and trip cancellation insurance are even more important and strongly advised.

Ask the Right Questions

When making the final bookings, be sure you ask the right questions, even if the accommodations or cruise stateroom are categorized as “accessible.”

For example, are doorways wide enough for the largest wheelchairs? Do the doors open outwards or into the room? 

Are all the public areas of the hotel, resort or ship accessible? Do you need to make special arrangements in the dining room to accommodate the wheelchair or scooter?

Will the bathroom facilities truly fit your needs? Is the bathroom large enough for the wheelchair or scooter? Is there a roll-in shower? Grab-bars?

Are there facilities for companion/assistance animals?

Are there shopping and entertainment facilities close by if you are staying at a hotel or resort? 

On shore excursions or tours, does the van have a lift and method for transporting wheelchairs and scooters? 

Simply stated, don’t take anything for granted. It’s easy to arrange for almost every situation, and the world is wonderfully accessible, once you know what’s needed, what’s available and how to find the necessary equipment.

The world around us is continuing to grow and develop. Having a disability should never hinder or stop you from traveling. The resources and support are available to you worldwide. It is critical that you use the tips outlined above to ensure your travel goes smoothly and free from aggravation.

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