More MS news articles for Dec 2001

Rx for the Road: Travel Needs for People With Disabilities

Nov 2001
Gina Shaw, Medical Writer

Passport? Check. Credit cards? Check. Itinerary? Check. Oxygen tank? Check.

People with disabilities often have a lot more to think about--and a lot more to pack--before they hit the road than the average traveler does.

Is the hotel accessible to a wheelchair? Does the museum provide "touch tours" for the visually impaired? Does the theater have sign-language performances or other accommodations for those with hearing difficulties? Questions about accessibility are usually at the top of the list when people with disabilities plan a trip, but equally important are health-related concerns. Traveling away from your own physician, pharmacy, and other health services requires a lot of advance preparation--particularly for people heading overseas.

"There is such a broad range of disabilities, and for each disability there are specific health needs when traveling," says David Kennedy, director of MossRehab ResourceNet, a service of Moss Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia that provides advice and resources for travelers with disabilities. Some of the most common concerns:

  1. Finding a physician, pharmacist, or emergency room. "Getting healthcare when we travel" leads the list of priorities for disabled travelers, says Carol Randall, founder of the Access-Able Travel Source ( ), one of the most comprehensive sources of information on travel for people with disabilities. Randall, who has multiple sclerosis, says that many questions must be answered about access to care when traveling. "Many people who contact me want to know whether they can find a good doctor where they're visiting and whether their health insurance will cover them while traveling," she says. This is a particularly thorny issue for overseas trips, where US health insurance often does not apply.
  2. Traveling with oxygen. People with conditions like muscular dystrophy often require bottled oxygen to breathe. How can you make sure that there's "air up there" on an airplane, or available at your destination? Several services can provide oxygen access at your destination, says Randall, but oxygen while flying must be provided by the airline. You'll need a doctor's letter stating your oxygen needs. All airlines charge for in-flight oxygen, and arrangements must be made in advance. Call ahead.
  3. Access to refrigeration. Many travelers with chronic illnesses need refrigeration for injectable medications like insulin. Airlines may be able to provide temporary refrigeration if notified of medical need prior to the flight. Likewise, hotels may be able to accommodate requests for small refrigerators given adequate notice. For example, Marta Mahoney, a California resident with rheumatoid arthritis, is planning a trip to Paris this summer and expects to spend some time contacting hotels to make sure she gets a room with a refrigerator
  4. Flight and transportation delays. A 2-hour wait on the runway--a mere annoyance and inconvenience for most travelers--might pose a serious health risk for some travelers with disabilities. Wheelchair travelers and others who have difficulty using tiny airplane restrooms often go without liquids before flying to avoid discomfort. "I dehydrate myself," says Randall. "That can be a real problem if I end up stuck on the runway for hours." Close cooperation of the airline staff with medically necessary requests is essential in such situations.
Healthy Travel Tips for People With Disabilities
  1. Talk to your physician before you go and discuss your health needs. For most people with disabilities, there's no reason you can't travel to Kalamazoo or Katmandu and have a great time, but your doctor may raise specific questions about your particular condition--or your destination--that you need to consider.
  2. Have your physician write out a detailed description of your medical condition on office letterhead to avoid red tape when seeking help from airline personnel or hotel staff. That's what Edith Sutterlin does for her 17-year-old daughter, who has chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and severe allergies. "Sometimes she doesn't need her wheelchair," says Sutterlin. "Then she may find she needs it suddenly, or even has to lie down immediately so as not to faint due to a sudden drop in blood pressure."
  3. Take "equipment inventory" of the things you'll need to take on the trip--battery packs, dialysis equipment, insulin kits. Make sure everything is in good working order. If you have any questions about whether the things you'll need to pack will cause problems on the plane, call your airline well ahead of time and talk specifics.
  4. Bring along extra refills of any medication you need, plus a written prescription from your doctor. Make sure your medication is in your carry-on bag, not your checked luggage. Don't forget extras of nonprescription medication as well.
  5. Discuss health issues ahead of time with your airline, lodgings, and tour operators. Once you've gone over your list of health needs with your physician, contact your travel providers and make sure they can meet your needs. Get their answers in writing. Kennedy also advises people with disabilities who are traveling overseas to contact the embassies of the countries they'll be visiting for advice before departing, and then check in with the US consulate in each country as soon as they arrive.
Important Health Resources for Travelers With Disabilities
  • The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers, (716) 754-4883 in New York or (416) 652-0137 in Toronto. Membership in this association (it's free; call for a packet) includes a listing of IAMAT's network of English-speaking physicians in approximately 500 cities in 125 countries, as well as current immunization and malaria information.
  • Travel Assistance International, (800) 821-2828, offers overseas medical insurance. Their policies cover accident and illness while abroad, including evacuation and repatriation. Long-term disabilities wouldn't be considered "excluded preexisting conditions" for purposes of their coverage, in most cases, says Earl Gronkiewicz, president of TAI. If you have an existing disability, like muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis, and your condition is stable for 60 days prior to traveling, you're covered as far as TAI is concerned.
  • Oxygen resources. Carol Randall recommends two oxygen suppliers for travelers. The Oxygen Traveler (937) 848-7100 provides services in the United States, and TravelMed (800) 878-3627 provides worldwide service.
  • The Access-Able Travel Source ( provides comprehensive links to a wide variety of information sources on health concerns for travelers with disabilities as well as a treasure trove of resources on accessibility. Randall's Web site also provides referrals to travel agents with specific experience catering to travelers with disabilities.

Gina Shaw is a freelance medical writer based in Washington DC.

Reviewer: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Reviewed for medical accuracy by physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), Harvard Medical School. BIDMC does not endorse any products or services advertised on this Web site.

Source: Medscape Health

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