Thoughtful planning can make travel more accessible for people with any kind of disability. Whether it’s traveling with medication; navigating a place with different (or unknown) mobility, visual, and audio access; managing anxiety or depression in a new place; finding spur-of-the-moment health care; problem solving when we’re away from our usual friends; or reserving places to stay and adventures that can meet our access needs, here are a few ideas we might consider to plan a trip that is more relaxing and fun.
1. Plan for each leg of the journey
Every type of transit, new location, and new activity has different challenges and access options. It’s important to plan for access from the time we start packing and think about what we’ll need on each part of the trip. Here are some questions to think about:
What spare equipment or extra items can you pack ahead of time?
This could include items like spare batteries and chargers, earplugs and eye shades, snacks, headphones, fidget items, etc.
What do you need to do the night before travels?
This might mean confirming rides, assistance, or other arrangements. It could be planning extra time to decompress.
What about the morning of—what must you leave out for last-minute tasks?
For instance, medication that needs to be taken each morning.
What documents and access arrangements do you need for each part of your trip?
For instance, if you’re taking the bus to the train station, you might need different items handy for the bus trip and the train trip. And if you request assistance at a bus station, train station or airport, it can be helpful to have a (paper or electronic) copy of your ticket handy. Staff will likely ask for it.
For each day of your trip, what places and activities are you going to? And what access do you need to get there and enjoy?
One option: Keep a day-by-day list of your activities and any access or accommodations you requested, along with which staff confirmed the access. This can be especially useful if one staff person knows where equipment or keys are or if someone agreed to modify a policy to make something accessible.
Geez! What about spontaneity and carpe diem and all that jazz? Do I have to plan everything?
Of course not! Disabled people can “wing it,” just like everyone else. Flexibility becomes the name of the game here. The world is often built, physically and policy-wise, like people with disabilities don’t exist. Many places require advanced notice (sometimes 2-5 days of notice!) to provide accommodations. Be ready to try another restaurant, experience a different excursion, keep looking for a hotel, or check out a different mode of transit. Some places will be surprisingly accessible, and some will be disgracefully exclusionary. As long as going with the flow works for you, go for it!
Access: There’s an app for that
These tech tools could be perfect for folks who love spur-of-the-moment travel. Other popular apps that are useful for travelers include Access Now's crowd-sourced reviews of physical access, Aira's phone-based visual description service, and Headspace and Pacifica's meditations and mood tracker.
2. Give yourself a ridiculous amount of extra time
Less rushing means less stress and more enjoying the journey. And that “journey” time might become useful to avoid missing a connection. It is common to have to wait for staff to be available to assist, for people to get equipment, for people to remember how to use equipment, for people to check on a policy change, and on and on. Defy the interminable waiting with a good book or favorite podcast.
3. Keep an eye out for the Access Symbol
The International Symbol of Accessibility points towards accessible entrances, accessible rooms, elevators, accessibility equipment and even individualized customer services.
4. Ask for what you need
Even though the access symbol is literally a wheelchair stick figure, we know that true disability access means everyone in, including those of us with intellectual, mental health, cognitive, sensory, and other forms of visible and invisible disabilities. If your access request goes beyond wheelchairs or ramps, remember that you can ask for accommodations and assistance. Customer service desks are there to support all travelers.
Traveling in Solidarity, or How to Avoid Starring in Embarrassing Anecdotes
DO feel free to ask someone if they need assistance AND be prepared to continue on your way if they say no. If they say yes, ask how you can assist.
Ever felt super comfortable when a random stranger grabs your things, shouts directions at you, or tries to force you to accept their “help” when you’ve repeatedly said no? Yeah, me neither.
DO sit in the general seating section first. These are the seats facing forward on buses, the seats without the access symbol in airports and train stations. If the general seating is full, then fill up the priority seating on buses and in airports.
This avoids Human Tetris and the very awkward rounds of, “I’ll get up! No, I’ll get up!” when people with visible disabilities board. [Six people then get up for one person, each trying to be the “most helpful.”]
Conversely, people with invisible disabilities are often met with suspicious looks and sighs of irritation if they request a seat. That’s unfair, isn’t it? Much of this can be avoided if nondisabled people sit in the general seating first.
DO share (in an inside voice) if there’s an open seat next to you if you notice someone who is blind (or anyone, really) looking for one.
DO remember that airlines, buses, and trains are public transportation. With other humans. Bring earplugs, sleep shades, headphones, and other tools if you need some peace and quiet.
DO leave the scented products at home. Yep, this one’s worth saying twice.
If someone is _______[fill-in-the-blank]
[talking loudly; talking quietly; flapping their hands; rocking, making unusual noises; not making enough eye contact; making too much eye contact; moving, eating, drinking, laughing, crying, or playing differently than you would] and this person is not trying to engage with you or get your attention,
….DO leave them alone.
If you're feeling annoyed, see tip above about public transportation, sleep shades and ear plugs. Rolling your eyes, sighing, giving exasperated looks, and complaining to a manager are off the table too, friends.
DO recognize that many people with disabilities are seasoned travelers with plenty of skills and experience moving through new and familiar communities.
DO remember that disabled people travel to OUR city. Making our city accessible, (including maps, parks, museums, transit, walkways, parking, events, housing, businesses, restaurants, and everything else) means that local and international travelers will enjoy their time in Portland, whether it’s for a few days or a lifetime.
A Wide World of Resources for our Weird City and Beyond
Resources for accessible travel and disability-related travel accommodations are plentiful, and we can find many of them in the same places we make the rest of our travel arrangements. And remember, many of the listed disability services focus on mobility, sight, and hearing access. Yet access related to mental health, autism, chronic health conditions, intellectual, and cognitive disabilities (and more!) is equally important. Read this person's experience traveling with depression to begin thinking about what access and accommodations might make your travel experience even more amazing. If the access you need isn’t reflected in one of the listed services, ask for it!
Check out perspectives on Portland’s pedestrian access in Rolling with Myra and Traveling with Larry. (VIDEO)
A google search for accessible car rentals near the city you are traveling to will bring up a range of lift-equipped vehicle rental services. With advanced notice, you can also request hand-controlled cars and other adaptive controls from car rental agencies. Pro Tip: Confirm this request in writing—email is good—and have a plan B for local travel.
Disability Parking in Portland includes placard rules, meter options, and a map of accessible parking spaces.
Bus and Max Travel
TriMet Access on TriMet buses and Trains
Greyhound Travel info for Customers with Disabilities
Pro tip: All Greyhound buses have wheelchair lifts.
Amtrak Accessible Travel Services
How do I get up there? Video of Boarding an Amtrak train in a wheelchair (VIDEO)
Pro tip: you do not need to use a wheelchair to board with the wheelchair lift. You can ride it standing to bypass the steps—access for all!
Questions and tips to get the access you need at the airport
Want to experience access in action? Pop over to this Air Travel with a Spinal Cord Injury (VIDEO).
Pro Tip: If you’re receiving assistance getting through the airport, it is perfectly okay to ask for stops (at the restroom, to pick up some food, etc.) before going to your gate.
Civil Rights by land and in the sky
The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination against all people with disabilities in air travel.
Having access trouble at the airport? Contact your airline, then try the DOT Aviation Consumer Protection Division’s Disability Hotline at 1-800-778-4838.
Need support navigating security procedures or to explain a disability-related need to the agents? Contact the TSA Cares Hotline at (855) 787-2227. Passenger support specialists can offer on-the-spot live assistance at the airport, too.
Headed on an international jaunt? Check out this Know Before You Go from the U.S. Department of State for some excellent considerations and resources for your world travels.
Connect with Oregon’s very own Mobility International USA for a wealth of resources on international exchange (student, volunteer, and professional) and global disability rights.
Want someone to do the planning for you?
A google search forwill turn up a host of options for planning your next trip, including autistic-centered travel agencies, excursions for blind adventurers, agencies who cater to travelers on wheels, trips exclusively for Deaf globetrotters, and more. This article from New Mobility interviews a few disability-focused travel agents.
We have gone around the world and back in this month’s access tip! Here are a few souvenirs to remember our journey:
- Planning is key for an accessible trip and flexibility is the name of the game.
- Making spaces and places accessible for people with all kinds of disabilities is the single most important thing we can do to support travelers with disabilities.
- There are many (so many!) resources for accessible travel. Seek and ye shall find.