It’s impossible to predict every situation that might arise when traveling, but for wheelchair users, it’s especially important to be ahead of the game. We recently spoke with Alysia Kezerian, a wheelchair user who continues to adventure abroad, even after a recent spinal cord injury paralyzed her from the waist down. As Kezerian learned on her first trip abroad in her wheelchair, you can’t predict the obstacles you might face traveling with a disability—but you can be prepared for them. Kezerian and the experienced staff at Craig Hospital who assisted in her recovery gave us their most useful travel advice for wheelchair users. Here’s what we learned:
1. “Wheelchair accessible” accommodation doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere
Surprisingly, accessibility laws aren’t a universal standard. “What’s listed as wheelchair accessible might not necessarily adhere to the same standards everywhere—especially internationally,” says Sarah Harrison, an occupational therapist at Craig Hospital’s Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Center. “A wheelchair-accessible bathroom won’t always have a roll-in shower, a grab bar, and a removable showerhead, so it’s important to ask about things like that. Whether you’re staying at a hotel or an Airbnb, ask ahead about door width and height, and clarify details about stairways and restrooms.”
Wheelchairs come in many shapes and sizes, so you want to be sure that the passageways and facilities of the places you’re staying will accommodate yours. “If you’re planning to stay in an Airbnb,” Kezerian notes, “have your host send you pictures of the space before you travel. Ask him or her to measure doorways, send pictures of the bathroom, and really give you details. These might be things they’ve never paid attention to until you ask.”
There are plenty of helpful websites that make accessible holiday accommodations easy to book. Handiscover, an Airbnb-like website, filters listings based on a traveler’s mobility, and i-escape is a curated selection of hideaways with over 300 properties with disabled access across Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, and more (just search “Disabled Access” under the website’s “Must-Have” section).
2. You’ll get used to planning in advance—even if it’s only for travel arrangements
Be sure to call your airline with at least 48 hours’ notice to submit and approve any special assistance travel requests. Most airlines offer preboarding, as well as deplaning and airport assistance, for wheelchair users, and the more time you have to arrange a plan, the better. “It’s possible to arrange for an airline attendant to assist you from the second you’re dropped off at the airport until you’re through security and on the airplane,” Harrison says. Arranging this ahead of time will ensure that your airport and in-flight experience goes as smoothly as possible.
3. There’s no such thing as being overprepared
Harrison, Kezerian’s occupational therapist, can’t stress this point enough: “I recommend carrying more than what you need on the plane with you. If you take medication, it’s imperative to have an extra supply of your prescriptions that can last extra days in case your luggage is lost.” In regard to luggage, there are many travel products that can make traveling in a wheelchair more comfortable. “Bring a portable sling,” Harrison says. “It will make transfers from your wheelchair to the plane seat much easier.” Harrison also recommends that her patients travel with Nuprodx shower and toilet chairs—which are collapsible and travel-friendly—and lightweight, hands-free luggage like Phoenix Instinct.
4. Envision your travel goals, and don’t limit yourself
“As a rule, I try not to suggest places to my patients who are looking to travel,” says Thomas Carr, director of Therapeutic Recreation and Adaptive Sports at Craig Hospital. “Instead, we think together about what their travel goal or dream might be.” Rather than push his patients toward specific destinations that are known for accessibility, Carr encourages them to think big. For adventure enthusiasts, there are adaptive sports programs in world-class destinations like Colorado, California, and Utah. “If our patients want to go to an island or ‘tropical’ location,” Carr notes, “cruises are a great option—they cater to a wide audience and tend to be very accessible.” When it comes to making travel dreams a reality, Flying Wheels Travel is a bountiful resource. The experienced travel agency for people with physical disabilities customizes individual travel itineraries, arranges accessible transportation and accommodations, and helps plan the excursions you want.
5. You might get perks—enjoy them
Many airlines, museums, and landmarks offer discounts for travelers with disabilities, so always check! “I visited so many museums in Europe which were free for me and a guest with a flash of my disability card,” Kezerian says. “Also, my whole group was able to ride first class on the trains for the price of coach.” Traveling with a wheelchair presents its obstacles, but with proper preparation, it’s more than just doable—it can be the trip of your dreams.