Paris, Cairo, Sydney, Denpasar, Beijing — disabled travelers are traveling the world thanks to knowledgeable resources, state-of-the-art technology, and extra planning and foresight.
"Physical impediments shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying visits to places that you’ve always wanted to see," said Judy Heller, president of Access Aloha Travel. "The key is to plan ahead, do your homework, and work with a travel agency that specializes in or is willing to become thoroughly informed about arranging vacations for the elderly and/or disabled."
Access Aloha Travel focused on travel for the disabled community for 30 years. Today, with Heller semiretired, it handles only cruises, groups and self-drive wheelchair van rentals on Oahu, but she is still recognized as one of Hawaii’s leading authorities on accessible travel. She offers these tips:
» At the outset, inform your travel agent about your specific needs in detail. This could range from a walker and oxygen tank to a bath bench and an "aisle chair" to transport you from the entrance of the plane to your seat.
» Also make sure your airline is fully aware of your needs well in advance of your departure. For example, if you must be close to the bathroom on your flights, explain this to the reservationist when your seats are assigned. In coach class, aisle and bulkhead seats are preferable because they have more legroom.
» Airports and airlines assign employees to help disabled travelers get from curbside through check-in/security and to their boarding gate. Request this assistance even if you believe your disability is not severe or if you are "just" a slow walker. Tipping is not mandatory, but certainly appreciated.
» Hotels do not provide bedside commodes. If you require one, check to see whether yours can be disassembled and packed into a large suitcase. In fact, all such items can travel with you in a separate box or suitcase that’s clearly marked "Medical Equipment." Americans with Disabilities Act regulations allow you to check such baggage on board a plane or a cruise ship without incurring additional fees.
» Be sure you get detailed instructions from your airline on how to properly pack motorized equipment if you’re determined to take yours with you. If possible, it’s much easier to rent the equipment at your destination. On Oahu, Hawaiian Islands Medical (591-8387) has a good selection of rental items, and its equipment can be taken aboard Pride of America, the NCL ship that cruises the Hawaiian Islands.
» The most important things to remember: Start early; conduct thorough research; and work with an agency that you trust, respect and can depend on to make sure all of your needs are taken care of in an efficient and timely manner.
Another good idea is to check libraries and bookstores for publications about accessible travel. That is Candy Harrington’s beat, and she has written three books on the subject: "There is Room at the Inn: Inns and B&Bs for Wheelers and Slow Walkers" (2006), "101 Accessible Vacations: Vacation Ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers" (2007), and "Barrier-Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers" (2009). They’re all available at amazon.com. Harrington, a resident of Northern California, also writes a blog, which you can access via a link on her website, candyharrington.com.
Founded in 1976, the New York-based Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality is a nonprofit organization whose mission is "to raise awareness of the needs of all travelers with disabilities, remove physical and attitudinal barriers to free access, and expand travel opportunities in the United States and abroad."
Members include travel professionals, consumers with disabilities, and other individuals and companies who support the society’s mission. Annual dues are $49 per person; $29 for students and seniors (those age 63 and older).
The 14th annual SATH World Congress, open to members and nonmembers, is Jan. 20 to 24 during a cruise to Cozumel aboard Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas. Register by Sept. 29 to take advantage of early-bird prices. Call 212-447-7284, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.sath.org.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.