Traveling with a Disability

by Mary Gallagher, RN, MSN, CCRN

Dec 1, 2017
December 2017

FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES, travel is easier than ever. It just takes time to research and plan your trip. Each country has its own standards of accessibility for persons with disabilities, so the more research you do, the more accessible and pleasant your trip will be. Your vacation or business trip can be filled with accessible hotel accommodations, accessible routes between tourist attractions and wonderful experiences.

Technology plays a crucial role in making travel accessible. Whatever your disability, you can go online to book trips to suit your requirements, look for accessible facilities and ask for travel assistance. For travel advice, access the website of the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality at sath.org or the Moss Rehab travel tips page at mossrehab.com. Look for apps to enhance accessible travel such as those listed at clubmatestravel.com/news/10-helpful-apps-for-travelers-with-disability. Apps can provide speech-to-text for people who are deaf or hearing impaired, help find wheelchair-accessible toilets and help people with visual impairments identify currency.

Consider seeing a travel medicine specialist to help determine which vaccines and medications you may need for your trip and for advice on preventing illnesses spread through insects, water or food. If you have an immune-compromising condition, you may not be able to get certain vaccines, or you may need additional vaccines.

Consult with your travel agent, hotel, airline, train or cruise ship company about accessibility and services available during your trip and at your destination, including those for a service dog. Call the Transportation Security Administration Cares helpline for travelers with disabilities and medical conditions at 855 787 2227, or check its website at tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures to get information about screening policies, procedures and security checkpoints.

Check websites such as Mobility International USA at miusa.org to find oversees disability organizations. The State Department’s Human Rights Report at state.gov/j/drl/rls provides information on the human rights and social service framework protecting citizens with disabilities in other countries.

If you have a service dog, do your homework before you travel. Contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for your destination country to explore possible restrictions and cultural norms about service animals. Find out about quarantine, vaccination and documentation requirements, and make sure your hotel will accommodate your service animal. Talk with your vet about traveling with your service animal.

Find out if there are specific policies for devices such as wheelchairs, portable scooters, batteries, respirators and oxygen. Research the availability of wheelchair and medical equipment providers who can also fix equipment if broken. If arranging for a power wheelchair, look into the voltage, type of electrical plug and reliability of the system for 24/7 coverage.

See your primary care physician before traveling overseas to identify health care needs during your trip. If your health care plan does not provide coverage overseas, consider supplemental health insurance and plan for medical evacuation just in case. Carry medical alert information and a letter from your health care provider describing your medical condition, medications, potential complications and other pertinent medical information. Also carry a list of your specialists with their contact information.

Carry sufficient prescription medications to last your trip plus extra doses in case of a delay. Always carry medications in their original labeled containers along with your doctor’s prescription. Some medications legal in the United States are illegal in other countries. Go to travel.state.gov/destination for the specific area you will be visiting. Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive security messages and to make it easier for the U.S. Embassy or Consulate to help you in an emergency.

Book your hotels far in advance. Some hotels in Europe have only a few accessible guestrooms. Speak with someone at the hotel to discuss your needs and ask specific questions about accessibility. You may encounter challenges in hotels outside the United States. Stay in the most accessible parts of town so it is easier to get around.

Consider upgrading your mode of travel and book it in advance. Access to the lounge in the airport makes your wait relaxing, and the extra space in first class makes the flight more enjoyable. An aisle seat makes it easier to get in and out to go to the restroom or receive extra assistance. You can board either first or last, whichever is more comfortable for you.

Airlines must make accommodations to give people with disabilities access to the same travel opportunities as passengers without disabilities. They must provide access to the aircraft door, an aisle seat and a seat with a removable arm rest. Aircraft with fewer than 30 seats are exempt from these regulations. Airplanes with more than 60 seats are required to have a wheelchair on board. Wide-body airplanes with two or more aisles must have wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Most airlines have information on their websites geared to travelers with disabilities.

Cruise ships have obligations regarding access for travelers with disabilities. Check with your cruise line before booking to make sure any needed item such as medical oxygen or a wheelchair will be available. Some cruise ships cater to travelers with special needs, such as dialysis patients.

In the United States, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act regulates accessibility standards and requirements in public and private spaces. It also prohibits discrimination based on a disability. The ADA resulted in significant progress, but we still have far to go. Focus for the future needs to be placed on universal design — places and objects that work for everyone.

The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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