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Kristin Secor is a wheelchair user with muscular dystrophy and a travel blogger at World on Wheels, where she shares her experiences and tips to help make sure anyone with wanderlust can have the trip of a lifetime.
“There was a time when the travel industry didn't believe that people with disabilities were even interested in seeing the world,” Secor tells Yahoo Life.
What's more, "the world is not accessible," says Alvaro Silberstein, who realized this soon after he was paralyzed at 18 following a car accident. But Silberstein didn't lose his thirst for adventure, and with encouragement from his friends, the native Chilean took a two-week road trip to Argentina the year after his accident.
“It was difficult,” Silberstein says, but the trip showed him that he could live a full life that included travel. Later, Silberstein made history as the first wheelchair user to explore Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia and by trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in a specially designed wheelchair. He's now the founder of a disability-focused travel agency, Wheel the World, which provides detailed information about the accessibility of transportation, accommodations and activities all over the world and arranges group trips for travelers with disabilities and their companions.
Silberstein’s high-profile experiences have helped raise awareness that individuals with disabilities want to travel just as much as their able-bodied peers and that they can travel almost anywhere if they have the right type of accommodations.
“While things certainly aren't perfect, they are slowly improving," says Secor. "There are more companies and areas that are interested in making travel more inclusive." She and others share what it's like to travel with a physical disability, what changes are needed and what has made their adventures more accessible and fulfilling.
Factoring in unique considerations
Emily Smith was a travel agent when she “was put into a wheelchair by a reckless driver.” After Smith started using a wheelchair, she became a travel planner and founded The Female Abroad. She now helps other people with disabilities with trip planning.
Many of her clients have physical needs, such as requiring assistance to board an airplane or book an accessible hotel room. A big part of her job is figuring out whether the attractions at her clients’ destinations are accessible. She considers whether there are ramps available or if there are many bumpy cobblestone streets that wheelchairs might not be able to navigate. Smith also helps clients think through their “intellectual needs,” including having access to quiet spaces to decompress or avoiding attractions with sudden movements.
There are also practical considerations that Smith helps address, including whether specific medications are legal in the country her clients want to visit, if public transportation or taxis are accessible at their destination and whether local medical care is sufficient for their needs, especially in case of an emergency. Smith also encourages her clients to “be realistic and not push” themselves. “If you know that you could handle flying but nothing else in that day, then just fly and pat yourself on the back for doing so,” she advises.
The lack of a consistent definition of “accessibility” can also be an issue for travelers. Judy Tudor, a travel adviser with Fora who uses a wheelchair, says she has "learned to get specific" when booking a room. "It’s one thing to say, ‘Do you have an accessible room?’ vs. ‘Do you have an accessible room with a roll-in shower?’" she explains. "Knowing those specific questions to ask based on someone’s specific needs is really important.”
The 'disability tax'
As a wheelchair user who has traveled to 49 countries and counting, public speaker and former travel agent Kelly Narowski has learned that a lack of accessibility can take a psychological toll. In her experience, people with disabilities “need to be willing to accept some assistance” to see certain places, something she admits was initially hard for her to accept because she “doesn’t want to be seen as needing help.” That could mean needing to book a private tour or paying extra for accessible transportation.
"Accessible travel is not cheap," notes Secor. "The things we have to do to be able to have our needs met at a destination can add up quickly." She estimates that she pays twice or even three times the amount "an able-bodied person would pay" for the same trip.
Alan T. Brown, who works at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and has been paralyzed for 35 years, tells Yahoo Life that on a recent trip, the accessible taxi he'd reserved to pick him up from the airport didn't show up; he was stranded at the airport for four hours before he found a replacement. When it came time to return to the airport, he was forced to book a private accessible van at “four times the cost” to ensure he did not miss his flight home.
According to Secor, "If more companies provided options of accessible transportation and tours, there would be more competitive pricing and choice for consumers.” Narowski, meanwhile, notes that she recently returned from a group trip designed for people with disabilities and found that that traveling as a group “made everything accessible for a lot less money.”
The risks that come with air travel
A big obstacle for many disabled travelers is dealing with air travel. One issue is that airplanes typically have small, inaccessible bathrooms. According to Narowski, some people disabilities dehydrate and starve themselves before flying to cope with the issue; she had surgery to insert a tube that allows her to empty her bladder without the need to partially undress. Silberstein takes medication before long flights that allows him to go longer stretches without using the bathroom. Some of Tudor’s clients intentionally plan flights with several layovers so that they can use airport bathrooms on longer trips.
Another consideration is that airlines may lose or mishandle wheelchairs and mobility scooters, which leaves their owners stranded and unable to continue their trips. “If one out of 20 passengers' legs stopped working when they got off the plane and they couldn’t get around at all, that would be unacceptable,” Narowski, whose own wheelchair has been damaged during air travel, tells Yahoo Life. But travelers who rely on wheelchairs and scooters are left to "worry all the time" about their equipment during their flights.
Why cruising holds appeal for some
Due to a lack of accessibility in some places, selecting a destination requires careful consideration for disabled travelers. Jennifer Lloyd, a wheelchair user who runs the travel blog Sick Girl Travels, says “cruises are by far the most accessible type of vacation. If you’re recently disabled or don’t have much experience traveling, I always recommend a cruise because it’s fairly low-stress when it comes to planning and making sure you have everything you need for an accessible vacation.”
Brown agrees, noting that he finds cruising to be more consistent when it comes to complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act. “One company that I enjoy traveling with is Royal Caribbean," he says. "This company has been extremely diligent in its ADA travel. They do go above and beyond to try to accommodate people with disabilities."
Choosing accessible destinations
Miriam Eljas co-founded accessibleGO after seeing the challenges her mother, who has multiple sclerosis, faced while traveling. Her travel agency focuses on travel within the U.S. because the ADA makes more places accessible, she explains. As a general guideline, Eljas says that “the older the city, often the less accessible it is due to the nature of the infrastructure, city planning and more." As such, "newer cities like Las Vegas will have much better accessibility than an older European city."
For travel abroad, Tudor recommends looking for destinations that have previously hosted the Paralympics because those locations have "made shifts to make sure their destinations are more accessible.” As disabled travelers gain more confidence, they can go further afield. Tudor, for example, has successfully gone scuba diving and has traveled to destinations not known for accessibility, such as India.
"There have been major gains in travel accessibility worldwide, and if you have your heart set on a specific activity or experience, there’s almost always a company out there willing to provide it," says Lloyd. However, she stresses the importance of doing research in advance. “It’s not worth flying all that way to be stuck in your hotel room,” she says.