More MS news articles for June 1999

Guide to travel for the disabled

Don’t leave home without 9 must-have resources

By Rudy Maxa

May 30 -  Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, travel for the disabled can still be an enormously frustrating experience. One woman called in advance to ensure that her hotel had a roll-in shower for her husband. She was told “yes” three times. Upon arrival, she learned it did not. Fortunately, various Web sites and books - and talking to people in the know - can help thwart these kinds of

“HI, RUDY,” began an e-mail I received the other day. “I’d like your opinion on the following scenario.”

“I made reservations at a four-star hotel in Palm Springs for a handicap-accessible room with a roll-in shower - an absolutely
important feature.”

So far so good for Jackie, whose husband has Lou Gehrig’s disease (or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatal neurodegenerative disease), and cannot use a bathtub. But that was the last of the good news. Jackie says she called three times before arrival to verify the availability of that roll-in shower. But when she and her husband reached the southern California resort, they were given a room with a bath with safety bars. And after repeated questioning, it turned out the hotel did not have a single roll-in shower.

“Eventually they put us up in the hotel next door, another four- star resort, that promised us a room with a roll-in shower. We moved our luggage, the rented hospital bed, and rolling shower chair to the hotel next door,” Jackie said. “Upon entering the room, again we discovered there was no roll-in shower. Only a bathtub with safety bars. What would you do?”

Well, the first thing I’d do is bill the first hotel for the stay at the second. But that is hardly the solution. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act requires all businesses used by the public to have handicapped access, disabled travelers in the United States (and worse, abroad) still encounter great difficulties. Even if they plan ahead, as Jackie did, hearing-impaired, sight-impaired, and mobility-impaired travelers can be thwarted if they’re dealing with someone not very sophisticated. My guess is whoever Jackie talked to at those Palm Springs hotels figured a bathtub with safety bars was equivalent to a roll-in shower.

As the son of a father who’s been partially paralyzed for nearly four decades, I’ve often wanted to ask hotel, airline, restaurant and public transportation staffers to, say, spend a day in a wheelchair. I’m certain the experience would make them more sensitive to the everyday barriers that make life tough for someone who moves about with difficulty.

Trust the experts

But until the design of public places becomes more user friendly, the best advice for disabled travelers is to trust someone who understands their needs and who has actually visited the places they write or talk about.

Bill and Carol Randall of Colorado fit that bill. She has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair or a scooter to get around. They’ve put together a Web site called Access-Able Travel Source that allows you to search the world for accessible hotels, cruise ships, and so on. Some of the information is provided by the place itself - and Jackie has made clear the perils of trusting that kind of information - but the most useful advice comes from direct, anecdotal reporting by a disabled visitor.

“We aren’t travel agents, just travelers,” the Randalls say, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Society for the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped (212-447-0027) is a lobbying organization for the disabled, but it also makes suggestions on how to deal with places that don’t abide by the Disabilities Act. If a hotel promises more than it can deliver, says the group, it can be fined. Ideally, any hotel that follows the guidelines of the American National Standards Institute should have totally accessible bathrooms with extra-wide doors. There should be special alarm, TV and telephone equipment available for guests with hearing or sight impairments.

Attitudinal barriers

Along with architectural barriers, there are what Rick Crowder calls “attitudinal barriers.” Partially paralyzed in a motorcycle accident 19 years ago, Crowder writes for a variety of magazines on disabled travel, and he’s an advocate of hitting the road and figuring things out as you go along. He says that’s the only way to change attitudinal barriers.

He argues most people have three reactions to the disabled: fear, pity or admiration. The fear stems from “not knowing how to treat us, so they avoid us in case they might hurt our feelings.” The pity comes from “imagining they have a disability and feeling sorry for themselves which makes them feel sorry for the disabled person.” Or they’re “just so proud of us!”

Crowder says all three sentiments are misguided, that he wants to be treated like anyone else.

While last-minute travel works for some people, others benefit from planning ahead and finding someone with first-hand knowledge of a place.

Texan Liz Carpenter, former assistant to Lady Bird Johnson in the White House, is, as she says, “down to one good ankle.” So when she was invited to a week-long house party at Lismore Castle in Ireland, she was dubious. She moved about by electric cart, and she worried about mobility. American Airlines assured her they could ship her cart as cargo and that if needed, a special-size wheelchair on board her flight could wheel her to and from the lavatory.

And that is just the kind of resource my correspondent Jackie did not have when she planned her trip with her husband to Palm Springs.       “Completely exasperated, exhausted, and frustrated, we wound up staying in the room,” she wrote me of the second hotel. “We endured it for two nights.”

Vacation travel, of course, should not be about endurance. Too often for the disabled traveler, it is.

Essential resources

• Mobility International. P.O. Box 10767, Eugene, Oregon, 97440; (541) 343-1284. Refers members to organizations for the disabled in other countries.

• The Disability Bookshop Catalog. Twin Peaks Press, P.O. Box 129, Vancouver, Wash. 98666-0129; (360) 694-2462. Sells books including "Travel for the Disabled," "Wheelchair Vagabond" and various directories of travel agencies for the disabled. Directories available for accessible van rental companies, and cruise, ferry, river and canal barge guides for the physically handicapped.

• "The Disabled Driver's Mobility Guide" can be ordered from your local AAA club. It lists organizations in North America that provide
information and driver training on adaptive equipment and lists
equipment vendors.

• The American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Foundation (One Prince St., Alexandria, Va. 22314) will send you a brochure on travel tips for the hearing impaired if you send a self- addressed, stamped envelope.

• American Bus Association (1100 New York Ave., N.W., Suite 1050, Washington, D.C. 20005-3934; 800-283-2877) offers a free list of U.S. tour bus companies equipped for disabled travelers.

• Among a number of travel agencies that specialize in disabled travel are the following: Accessible Journeys (800-846-4537), Flying Wheels Travel (800-535-6790), The Guided Tour, Inc. (215-782-1370), Search Beyond Adventures (800-800-9979), Wilderness Inquiry (800-728-0719).

Rudy Maxa is host of “The Savvy Traveler,” a one-hour travel show heard coast-to-coast on many public radio stations. He is also a contributing writer to Worth magazine.