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5 Helpful Tips for Successfully Traveling with A Disability

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I had polio in 1951 at age three and was hospitalized for six months. I have lived most of my life as a handicapped person trying to be a “normie.” Nonetheless, I love to travel, and I have traveled the world despite my partially paralyzed leg and severe limp. I am excited to get back on the road after being homebound during the pandemic, and I have discovered great ways for physically challenged travelers to hit the road. For those who may have disabilities yet love to explore like me, here are some tips to make the most of your next road trip.

1. Research the place you’d like to go. 

It may be that you have always wanted to visit a setting that has looked lovely in pictures. Further research may tell you that it’s a very hilly area and most of the accommodations are two-story bed and breakfasts. This is fine for someone in tip-top shape, but I have had a weak, partially paralyzed leg since childhood, and I have learned that there are many places with elevators and flatter terrain that are easier—and more fun—for me to visit. I recommend using Trip Advisor (I’ve placed a lot of reviews there myself), Lonely Planet’s free accessible travel guides (no later version available), and Rough Guides.

2. Tap into airline assistance.

If you have walking difficulty and are flying without your own scooter, arrange for the airline to have an attendant meet you with a wheelchair and transfer you to the gate and another to meet you at the other end to take you to baggage claim. If you think you may be embarrassed, that’s better than being exhausted or in pain by the time you get to your destination. Be sure to tip each attendant (generally around $3 to $5 is appropriate). Most airlines will let you arrange for a wheelchair online. If not, call in advance or arrange this when you check your bags or check in in person at the airline counter. Allow extra time—attendants can take 20 minutes to arrive. If you are a slow walker, always allow at least 90 minutes between connecting flights. And reserving a scooter with an equipment rental facility at your vacation spot might turn out to be the best decision you ever make. Use it for longer distances, then stop and walk around a bit when you’d like.

3. Be smart about hotel room locations.

When reserving your hotel, if you have walking difficulty or fatigue problems, ask for a room that is not at the end of a hallway. Tell them you have a disability, even if you do not think of yourself as disabled. It’s okay to think of a hip that needs replacing or a very arthritic ankle as a disability, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires hotels to accommodate those who ask. An ADA room will always be closest, but they are set up for wheelchairs, and the room will be sparse of furniture, have very low clothing poles in the closet, and have a roll-in shower with no tub. If that is not what you want, ask for a room that is not an ADA room but is as close as possible to the elevator. Confirm a day or two before arrival that the hotel has noted this. If you or a traveling companion are in a wheelchair but will want to use the pool, make sure it is accessible—some hotel pools I’ve used are accessible and some are not.

4. Check out a few activities well in advance.

If you need to get concert tickets and don’t want to climb stairs to your seats, arrange to get first-floor seating ahead of time. Most museums now have wheelchairs available for your companion to push. (Easy, as long as there are not steep ramps such as at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences. Use their elevator instead.) If you’re on your own, a manual wheelchair may be too difficult, because it requires a lot of shoulder power. Be ready to let a few activities go rather than over-tiring yourself. Companions of older or less strong travelers should be aware that jamming a day with one wonderful event after another may not turn out to be so wonderful. Leave time for spontaneity and just sitting in a scenic park with a cup of tea.

5. If someone offers to take you on a vacation, even just a day trip, take him or her up on it.

Please don’t think or say, “It will be too much trouble.” It may be a little trouble, but what great experience you’ve had was not worth a little effort? When you are at an exhilarating outdoor concert or watching birds on a beach, it will have been well worth packing up and letting someone assist you.

Happy trails!

About The Author
Francine Falk-Allen

Born in Los Angeles and having lived nearly all of her life in northern California, as a former art major who got a BA in Managerial Accounting and ran her own business for 33 years, Francine has always craved creative outlets. She sang with various groups and wrote songs and poetry, painted watercolors, and has had essays and a song published. She is the author of No Spring Chicken: Stories and Advice from a Wild Handicapper on Aging and Disability, and Not a Poster Child: Living Well with a Disability—A Memoir. Francine also facilitates a polio survivors’ group in Marin County and also a Meetup writing group, Just Write Marin County.  She also appeared in the Nobel Prize/PBS documentary, “The War Against Microbes,” as the only representative of a disease now eradicated by a vaccine. Follow her on Facebook.