Traveling with Disabilities and Medical Conditions

Successful travel depends on knowing one's abilities and needs for modification, the disability rights laws that apply to the settings to be visited, and who to contact if any problems arise during travel.

People with disabilities are more likely to have a stressful time traveling and planning travel, whether they are traveling for business or pleasure. Part of the stress is caused by uncertainty. Will they be able to take their medications with them? What about their service animal? What if they need an accessible hotel room? Will tour guides make reasonable modifications they need? Are there any services or activities in which they will be unable to participate?

The planning needed to address one or more of these questions also causes stress.  People with disabilities, especially those with significant disabilities, usually need to do much more planning for travel than other folks. Because no two people with disabilities are exactly alike, the precise concerns vary from person to person and depend on the type of disability, the severity of disability, the person’s familiarity with potential barriers and how to navigate them, and whether the person needs reasonable modifications and/or auxiliary aids or services.

Theoretically, traveling within the United States is supposed to be routine and uneventful for people with disabilities due to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA), the Fair Housing Act (FHA), and similar state and local laws. Unfortunately, practice often differs from theory because in some instances businesses do not understand or have chosen not to follow disability rights laws. In other situations, businesses have made a commitment to follow these laws, but have not adequately trained their staff. To further complicate matters, different laws mean that there are different rules for different settings. For example, although an airplane may be required to allow a person with a psychiatric disability to bring his emotional support cat along with him in the cabin, a hotel that does not allow pets is generally not required to let that same individual keep his cat with him in his room.

A basic rule of thumb for travel within the United States is that travel providers, hotels, restaurants, recreational providers, and other businesses cannot discriminate against a person with a disability solely due to his or her disability. So, for example, a hotel cannot refuse to serve people in wheelchairs. Similarly, a recreation provider cannot refuse to allow people who are blind to participate in a recreational activity based on assumptions that doing so will be dangerous to those individuals. At the same time, if a recreational provider is able to show that allowing participation by people who are blind will constitute a fundamental alteration in the activity or be an undue burden, then the provider does not have to allow such participation. For example, recreational providers may not have to allow people who are blind to participate in activities that require each participant to drive a vehicle, unless they can identify reasonable modifications that will allow participation.

Persons with disabilities who want access or auxiliary aids may have to give advance notice of their needs. For example, even though a live performance venue will generally have to provide a sign language interpreter for attendees who are deaf, an individual who is deaf is required to ask for an interpreter ahead of time. The amount of notice required may vary from venue to venue.

There are travel organizations that assist people with disabilities with all aspects of disabled travel, from planning to returning home. Here are a few:

Access Tours, accessible tours of the American West for people with mobility disabilities  http://www.accesstours.org/

Flying Wheels Travel, travel agency for people with physical disabilities and chronic illnesses  http://flyingwheelstravel.com/

Accessible Journeys, travel planner and tour operator for wheelchair users and their companions  http://www.accessiblejourneys.com/

Mind’s Eye Travel, tours for people who are blind or have vision disabilities  http://www.mindseyetravel.com/

Trips Inc. Special Adventures, vacation packages for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities  http://www.tripsinc.com/

Passages Deaf Travel, agency specializing in deaf group travel  http://www.passagesdeaftravel.com/

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