Between 14% and 21% of North Americans have some sort of disability. In the bad old days, that would have meant a stay-at-home life. Not so anymore. I sat down and spoke with Candy Harrington, author of “101 Accessible Vacations: Travel Ideas for Wheelers and Slow Walkers”, and a blogger at BarrierFreeTravel.com, to learn more about the issues that confront travelers with disabilities.
Frommer: Is it just my imagination, or do I see more folks in wheelchairs and walkers out sightseeing these days?
Harrington: It’s not your imagination. Travel for people with disabilities is coming out of the closet, so to speak. More and more people in the travel industry are catering to this group of travelers because they realize they represent an untapped market. I was just in Sonoma California where a balloon operator (Up & Away, www.up-away.com) has retrofitted his balloon so that people can wheel aboard them. He even put plexiglass into the sides of the basket so that someone seated could still see out. When I was in Jasper not long ago, I saw that the snow coaches that take folks to the Athabasca Glacier are now retrofitted to accept wheelchairs. The lifts had to be custom-designed because the wheels on that coach were a good five-feet high!
Frommer: So it is happening, but quietly. This development doesn’t seem to be getting much press.
Harrington: I think the Olympics, and the Paralympics, might change that. The planners behind Sochi and Rio seem to be really making an effort to make sure that their guests in wheelchairs, and with other disabilities, have the right types of facilities. Brazil undertook a huge study on accessible tourism. I think their efforts will help raise awareness with other governments.
Frommer: Until that awareness is raised globally what would be your most important piece of advice you’d give to someone who wants to travel but my have mobility issues?
Harrington: Plan ahead! There’s been a concerted effort in the travel industry to make things more accessible, but accessible facilities are still in short supply, especially during high season. So if you want to visit, well, anywhere in July, call now to make sure an accessible room will be available. There’s only a few per hotel usually.
Frommer: Would going to a travel agent who specializes in travel for people with disabilities help?
Harrington: Unfortunately, a lot of travel agents who say they have this specialty just took a one-day seminar in it. So you really have to make sure that the person you’re working with knows what they’re doing. Frankly, I find the internet can be even more helpful because you can get firsthand advice from someone who’s actually visited, say, the Eiffel Tower in a wheelchair. So go to message boards, go on Twitter. Nothing beats first-hand advice.
Frommer: Are there certain types of travel that are best for people with disabilities?
Harrington: Cruises are a good way to go, as they’ve become more accessible in recent years. But I’m talking about the bigger lines here—Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruise Lines, Celebrity, Norwegian. That being said, I’ve heard a lot of complaints from my readers about how hard it is to get accessible rooms on Carnival. Also, some of the smaller boats won’t be accessible and river cruises can be a real problem, since the boats are narrow, and they let passengers off, often, into areas with cobblestone streets.
Another issue with cruising: few of the shore excursions planned by the cruiselines, big or small, are accessible. The small companies who have the facilities to run accessible excursions usually don’t have the type of insurance the cruiselines would require from a company they’d partner with. So those who need these types of facilities should plan well-ahead, with a travel agent, to make sure their shore excursions are appropriate to their needs.