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Helping The Disabled Get Around

Sherry hadn't taken a vacation since her accident, but was hopeful she could still travel in her wheelchair. Her long time travel agent convinced her to give it a try; and after careful consideration, Sherry opted for a package tour to Florida. She was relieved to hear there was an accessible bathroom on the airplane, but horrified when she actually saw it. She recalls, "My sister usually helps me transfer, and the on-board bathroom just wasn't big enough for both of us. It was tiny and I couldn't use it. I was in pain for the whole flight."

Sherry's travel agent was equally horrified. She explains, "The tour operator told me there was an accessible bathroom on the airplane, so I assumed Sherry would be able to use it. I thought I was doing good, until my client came back in tears."

Unfortunately this isn't an uncommon scenario. Sherry is part of a growing population. According to the US Census Bureau, there are 49.7 million people in America with a disability, including 2.2 million wheelchair-users, 25 million slow walkers and 6.4 million people who use a cane or walker. And with the aging of the baby boomers this number is expected to increase. Chances are you will have a client like Sherry, even if you don't specialize in accessible travel.

How can you serve this growing market? There isn't a pat answer to that question, however your first order of business should be to determine your client's specific needs. And to do that, you need to ask the right questions. Here are a few to get you started.

  • Do you use a wheelchair or scooter? If yes, is it a manual wheelchair or a power wheelchair?
  • Can you walk at all? If yes, how far? (a few steps or a half block?)
  • Do you travel with your own wheelchair or do you just need one for distances, like at airports?
  • Can you transfer without assistance?
  • Do you travel by yourself?
  • Do you need any special type of equipment such a commode chair, a shower bench or a toilet riser?
  • Do you need a roll-in shower?

Every traveler has unique needs. Your job is to determine their access needs, so you can find the appropriate suppliers.

For example, a person who needs a wheelchair for distance can be accommodated on many mainstream tours or shore excursions. That's not always the case for power wheelchair-users. Some tours can only accommodate passengers who use a folding wheelchair and can transfer to a coach seat. Those limitations rule out most power wheelchair-users.

The same holds true for ground transportation. While some manual wheelchair users can transfer to the seat of a shuttle or van, most power wheelchair-users require specialized transportation with a lift or a ramp. And in most cases you have to make advance arrangements for accessible ground transportation.

As for hotels and cruise ships, again you have to find out about your client's needs. Some slow walkers might just need a room near the elevator, while wheelchair-users may require specialized equipment or a room with a roll-in shower.

According to disability travel specialist Connie George, the biggest mistake most agents make is that they assume the same product will work for everybody. Says George, "Just because a particular hotel or cruise or tour worked great for one wheelchair-user, doesn't mean it will work for every wheelchair-user." She adds, "You also have to learn how to question suppliers to determine if their product will work for your client. Don't just settle for a pat `it's accessible' answer. Ask them what they mean by `accessible'."

Be just as diligent about surfing the internet. There are a lot of self proclaimed experts in cyberspace. Make sure you verify all on-line information.

It's also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Air Carriers Access Act, the law that governs access on US airlines. Even if you don't sell air tickets, you should be able to tell your clients what to expect on the air portion of their cruise or tour package.

In fact, even Sherry's incident could have been prevented; that is if her travel agent understood her needs and knew about the access limitations of airline lavatories. A good work-around would have been to book a connecting flight with plenty of extra time for an airport rest stop. In the end, it's really a customer service issue; and the key to success begins with asking the right questions.


Information on the Air Carriers Access Act
New Horizons
Information for the air traveler with a disability from the Department of Transportation (DOT)
Airline Security Information
DOT Fact Sheet regarding heightened security and the civil rights of people with disabilities.
DOT Hotline
Toll-free hotline for information and assistance on disability-related air service problems.
(866) 266-1368
Project Action
An on-line database which lists accessible transportation options throughout the US.
Cruise Critic
Good message board on accessible cruising.
Gimp On The Go
Consumer website about accessible travel. Good message board.
Access Amtrak
Free print guide detailing Amtrak's accessible services.
(877) 268-7252
European Commission Access Guides
Free PDF access guides for 18 European countries.
Barrier-Free Travel:
A Nut's & Bolts Guide For Wheelers And Slow Walkers
A comprehensive book about the logistics of planning accessible travel.
ISBN: 1-4010-1964-1
(888) 795-4274