Making sure special needs are met

Special to The Times

Susan Wheeler knows how much can go wrong if you take for granted that the travel industry understands the needs of people with disabilities.

When the Toronto-based writer landed in a U.S. airport two years ago, no one was willing to help her get from the jetway to baggage claim, where her electric scooter was waiting.

An airline escort refused to push the borrowed airport wheelchair at a steep incline, Wheeler said. The reason? Apparently the airline computer noted that she needed a wheelchair but not any assistance.

“I was so frustrated that I got out of the chair and started walking,” said Wheeler, 47, who can take only a few steps at a time. The disagreeable escort relented only after watching Wheeler struggle and finally pushed the chair up the ramp.

The lesson? Assume nothing.

“Unless you double-check, and sometimes when you do, things can go wrong,” said Jani Nayar, executive coordinator of the nonprofit Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality. Day-to-day problems are magnified when you travel, she said. “You are going out of your element, so the likelihood of encountering troubles increases.”

She and other experts say problems can be mitigated by planning, asking the right questions and making it known, at every step of the travel process, exactly what accommodations are required. Here are some tips to get you started:

The right place: Choose an appropriate destination. Ask disabled travelers what a place is like. The Internet is a bonanza of information, with chat forums, travel tips and reviews. Accessible Journeys ( for instance, provides information on equipment rentals and hiring of healthcare professionals to accompany you.

Still, know your limitations and be realistic about where you should vacation. A place like Tahiti, Nayar suggests, isn’t ideal for wheelchair users. It’s all sprawling beaches and water sports, with few accessible resorts or attractions.

Cruise lines, on the other hand, have gone to great lengths to make things wheelchair accessible. Some even have a patch of grass on deck for service animals, such as guide dogs. But know that some shore excursions might not be so accommodating. U.S. ports have to abide by the Americans With Disabilities Act, but for foreign ports, it’s best to ask someone who has been there.

Travel writer Rick Steves’ website ( contains a thorough section on resources for disabled travelers, with links to tours, reputable travel organizations, personal travel websites and guidebooks.

The right agent: Did you know that South Africa’s Kruger National Park has wheelchair accessible safari packages? The right travel agent will. Find one who specializes in travel for disabled people. Get references or, better yet, recommendations from friends. A good screening question: Has he or she actually taken the trip with disabled tourists?

Unadvertised discounts: Look for discounts. Amtrak offers a reduced fare for travel attendants. Broadway shows in New York City give deep ticket discounts (more than 50%, usually) for disabled customers and their companions — and this person can be an attendant or a date. Some cities have reduced fares for public transportation.

Cost breaks aren’t always publicized, so ask. Most cities have an independent living center, a nonprofit that provides services for the disabled. “These centers, even more than a visitors bureau, can tell you how to get around, where to find accessible lodging and attractions and what special discounts are available, if any,” said Jan Garrett, executive director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley.

Be specific: When making your own reservations, tell the person making your booking that you have a disability and require special assistance. It is not enough to say, “I use a wheelchair,” because everyone’s situation is different. Some people can walk the short distance to their seat; others can’t. Find out what type of assistance is available for your level of ability and request it in advance.

After her experience with the recalcitrant airline escort, Wheeler got smarter: “That’s when I learned to ask for e-mail confirmation with the wheelchair service highlighted.”

Call direct: Never make your hotel reservation by calling the toll-free number. If your destination is in Hawaii but the person taking the reservation is in Idaho, he or she won’t know important details. In case of emergency, for instance, a hearing-impaired traveler needs a visual alarm system. Someone at the front desk would be more likely to give accurate information.

Ask again: When inquiring about accommodations, refrain from asking simple yes or no questions. Instead of asking, “Do you have a roll-in shower?” ask, “Can you describe your bathroom? Do I step into the shower area? Is there something that prevents the water from flowing out?” If the response is, “Oh, yes, there’s a lip,” there’s no roll-in shower. You can also fax or e-mail a picture to the hotel of the type of bathroom setup you need — shower chair, grab bars etc.

If the front desk doesn’t have answers, ask to speak with housekeeping or engineering. These workers know the rooms intimately and can describe the setup in detail. Engineering or guest services also can tell you if the hotel can acquire a special device for your stay.

Get it in writing: Document the amenities you have requested, prices and the name of the person who took your reservation. If a U.S. hotel does not have the room you booked, Nayar said, by law it is required to put you up in another hotel of the same caliber or higher.

Getting there: When checking your equipment, mobility aids or devices, make sure to ask for a luggage tag. That will help ensure your equipment gets to the same destination you do. Explain to anyone who will be handling your equipment how to do so correctly. If you can, detach sensitive or easily lost components, such as joysticks and seat cushions, and carry them onto the plane with you.